For months, Cieran Rockwell had fended off the joking entreaties of fellow students to join them in an Internet craze sweeping college campuses nationwide. He was afraid, he said, that Thefacebook.com would take over his life.
But over the recent winter break, the Pomona College senior finally succumbed to the lure of the social networking website.
“I felt like I resisted long enough,” said Rockwell, 21, Pomona’s student body president.
The frenzy is consuming more than a few others too.
Launched by five undergraduates at Harvard University in February, the free website, www.thefacebook.com, has 1.5 million members, nearly all of them students, from more than 300 colleges and universities nationwide. More than half the users have signed up in the last two months, a spokesman said.
Students post photos and information about themselves, including political views, tastes in music and movies, and their relationship status. They connect to members at their own schools or, in a more limited way, at others. They check out date prospects, join serious and silly interest groups, search for old friends and make new ones.
The website’s growing database intrigues sociologists, economists and other researchers, even as it raises privacy concerns among some college officials. Advertisers are eager to reach its lucrative young market. And a rival website has already filed suit.
Yet Thefacebook.com is also a rare, relatively unguarded window into how young people relate to one another and present themselves.
Constantly updated, it has become an online reflection of the personal evolutions that college often entails.
“It’s a way for students to calibrate what they have and who they are with other people out there,” said James E. Katz, a Rutgers University communications professor who studies the Internet’s effects on social relationships.
“It gives them a way to try out different personalities and see which ones resonate, and that is part of what going to college is all about,” he added.
Clever, goofy or profane, the website has a powerful hold on its members, most of whom log on to it almost every day, the founders say.
Nine out of 10 do so at least once a week.
“I feel like I’m admitting an addiction,” joked Kyle Warneck, 21, a Pomona College senior who says he has tried lately to cut his “facebooking” time from an hour or so to 10 minutes a day. “I just obsessively play with it.”
With that cautionary example, Rockwell -- Warneck’s roommate -- had glanced at the site with friends. But otherwise, he had held firm, laughingly refusing to sign on even when student leaders of Pomona’s sister Claremont Colleges passed a resolution urging him to do so.
But over the winter break, with time on his hands and all his pals online, Rockwell gave in. And despite spending long stretches on it at first -- “it’s like you’re infatuated” -- he has no regrets.
Students browse profiles, and send and answer requests to be “facebook friends.” Such offers, if accepted, allow the requesters to add more names -- and photos -- to their official friends lists.
Students debate the merits of “friending” people they barely know. Some accept nearly every such offer, not wanting to give offense. Others are quick to rebuff strangers or opportunists.
“It’s like your coolness is inversely proportional to the friends you have on the facebook,” said Pomona sophomore Brian Hardesty, who lists about 200. Students are likely to tease anyone with more than about 250.
And then there’s dating.
Members can find out online if romantic prospects are gay or straight, liberal or conservative, interested in jazz or alternative rock. They can search for others who play poker, who like the television show “Smallville” or are fans of “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand.
At Pomona and its fellow schools in the Claremont Colleges consortium, for instance, 70 facebook members like the hip-hop band Jurassic 5, and 214 list the comedy “Zoolander” among their favorite movies.
Some find dates through the website. Others use it to learn more about attractive classmates before making a move.
“You don’t want to do something socially stupid,” explained Hardesty, 19, a politics major who lists jogging and aviation among his interests.
At each campus, there are hundreds of online facebook groups. Some are based on real school clubs, including at Pomona the Cheese Club and the Slippery Porcupines, the latter for inner-tube water polo devotees.
But most groups are based on statements, solely online, of distaste or support for practically anything: Bill Clinton Is Still My President; “Family Guy” Lovers; I Really, Really Hate the Yankees. There are groups for people who like and dislike mullet haircuts or popped-up collars. There are even groups for people against groups.
Some students insist that website is useful. By listing their courses, members can arrange study groups or ask for homework reminders.
Others don’t see the appeal.
The site is “a huge time waster,” said Liz Pardue, 22, a Pomona senior majoring in psychology who quotes Buddha and Charles Darwin on her listing. “It’s fun, but it’s about the most superficial contact in the world.”
Nonetheless, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, welcoming new freshmen in the fall, quipped that he already knew them from perusing the website.
The site was created about a year ago by Mark Zuckerberg, then a Harvard sophomore, with late-night suggestions from roommates and friends.
With the ability to jump from one campus to another through online friends, it goes well beyond the basic printed directories -- sometimes called “facebooks” -- that freshmen receive during their official welcome at many colleges. Unlike those directories, it is not sanctioned by the schools.
The online facebook includes elements of similar websites, including www.friendster.com and www.meetup.com, but with a breezy style and a requirement that users have college e-mail addresses. (Some faculty, staff and alumni also join.)
“Younger people are mostly tech-savvy, and everyone uses e-mail and instant messaging, but it’s still hard to meet people. This just tapped into a need,” said Zuckerberg, a double major in computer science and psychology who is on leave from school this year to work full time on the site and other projects.
The website carries advertisements from major companies, including Starbucks, Apple and Crest, and announcements of campus events. But Zuckerberg says it is doing little more than breaking even, with an occasional small profit above its $50,000 monthly costs for servers, rent and about a dozen employees.
For now, the website is run out of a rented house in the San Francisco Peninsula city of Menlo Park, where Zuckerberg and friends are living while on leave.
“We’re making enough to pay our employees, run the site and keep expanding it, but we’re not, like, making tons of money,” said Zuckerberg, 20, of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. He has turned down offers to sell, he said, because he and the other founders are having fun and because its value seems likely to grow.
Some academics see the potential for research gold.
At Harvard, for instance, assistant economics professor Markus Mobius is using the site’s database to examine the economic effects of social networks. At other colleges, researchers are interested in the site for studies on friendship, career paths and vegetarianism, among other topics.
Yet Thefacebook.com is not without controversy.
In September, creators of a smaller, rival website, www.connectu.com, sued Zuckerberg and other facebook officers in federal court in Massachusetts. They allege that he stole their idea and hurried his site onto the Internet first, at their expense.
Zuckerberg, who acknowledges that he worked briefly on the competitors’ site before launching his own, denies the allegations. His attorneys filed counterclaims that ConnectU’s founders, three recent Harvard graduates, had defamed Zuckerberg and hurt his business.
Thefacebook.com’s relative openness worries some college administrators.
Students determine their own privacy settings on the site, with most allowing unrestricted access. Many post cellphone numbers, dorm rooms and dates of birth, raising concerns about security and identity theft.
Listings also seem easy to fake. President Bush, for instance, has nearly 40 profiles on the site, showing him as a professor, staffer and summer student at various schools. Marilyn Monroe and Homer Simpson make appearances too.
At Pomona, a student posted a good-natured but false listing for college President David Oxtoby. “I pretty much run everything,” it said. Oxtoby’s son John, a Harvard sophomore, discovered it and “friended” the student who posted it. The prankster later deleted the profile and even introduced himself to the campus leader.
“It was good-humored, so I took it as that,” David Oxtoby said of the incident. “But it does seem as if someone could do fairly nasty things with it.”
Zuckerberg, however, said the site so far had received few complaints about stalking, identity theft or other problems.
Some of the disputed information is also available elsewhere, he said, including many campus websites.
Thefacebook.com was caught up in controversy soon after it entered the scene at Pomona.
On Halloween night, two Pomona students used removable white paint to scrawl pro-environmental messages on more than 50 sport utility vehicles belonging to staff and students.
The incident caused no permanent damage but sparked outrage on the campus -- and on the website. Angry students used harsh language to denounce the perpetrators and threatened to “bludgeon” anyone who repeated the vandalism.
After complaints, Ann Quinley, the college’s dean of students, signed on to the site and read the postings. Although she found the language offensive, she decided that it was not the college’s role to regulate the website, which is not connected to Pomona.
Beyond that, Quinley acknowledged, she found the site, well, kind of fun, especially after several Pomona students welcomed her with “friends” messages. Still, the dean said, she felt uneasy exploring a website that students considered their own, and she has no plans for regular visits to it.
“But it certainly is a view of students that I wouldn’t normally have,” she said. “You can see what their musical tastes are, who their friends are. And that’s interesting.”
Of course, the possibility of more professors and administrators joining the website may cause students to think twice about their self-descriptions.
“I mean,” asked Hardesty, “do I really want faculty who might write me a recommendation to see that I’m a member of the Beer Appreciation Group?”