When Beth Messer first heard about thefacebook.com from a friend attending the University of Pennsylvania, she didn’t get it.

A virtual picture directory of college students with information ranging from birthdays to political views?

"I thought it was so creepy," said the Florida State University sophomore from Atlanta. "Why would you look up someone you don’t know?"

Now Messer is a registered member with 215 official friends and 2,904 connections. She uses it for blanket e-mails to her fellow Chi Omega sisters. She’s back in touch with people from high school in Georgia and elementary school in Texas. She gets a kick out of people signing her virtual profile wall with pithy messages.

"Right when I started I was kind of obsessed because I was getting six friends a day," Messer said.

Just a year old, thefacebook.com has quickly become the hottest way nationwide for college students to communicate. A student creates a thorough profile that covers everything from their favorite movie to a list of their clubs and classes. They’re then automatically sorted by the friends they know and their friends’ friends.

"You ask them to be your friend. Or, it shows a profile and you can accept or reject whether to be a friend," said Chris Schoonover, an FSU graduate student in political science. "Whether you’re their friend, you can see all their friends."

Imagine a virtual record of the six degrees of separation between two people, said Jarrett Eady, FSU student body president. Insert your name for Kevin Bacon.

The Web site began as the brainstorm of Harvard University roommates and their friends during a 3 a.m. pizza feast, said Chris Hughes, who has become the spokesman for the group. They were contemplating how the annually distributed facebooks filled with "dumb freshman ID photos" could be so much better if they provided more information than just a person’s hometown.

"We just wanted to put it online and make it fun to use," Hughes said.

Student Mark Zuckerberg created the initial programming. They launched it at Harvard, and soon it was in demand at campuses nationwide.

"We’ve all very much been blown away by it," Hughes said.

Some of the original five took a year off from Harvard to keep the business running. The group spends about $50,000 a month on the Internet business, Hughes said. They make money through advertisements, such as one for an online poker room.

Membership on the site has reached nearly 1.4 million users in 295 schools. About 65 percent of its users log in daily.

Additional schools can be requested on the Web site and are added according to priority demand. Historically black schools such as Howard University and Morgan State University make the list, though Florida A&M University is not in the system yet.

About 50 schools are added each month. The site limits e-mail addresses to those at schools, which typically end in .edu.

It’s a great pastime for the bored, Messer said, or for a quick break from studying.

"For finals, this thing was racking up the time," she said pointing at the screen.

Not only can students sort themselves by school groups, they can create new groups. A sampling of those starting with A produces a group for those addicted to green tea, another for those named Amanda who need a boyfriend "other than creepy Internet guy," one for Americans who love Canada and a group devoted to "anti-nonconformists."

Messer’s group memberships include her Chi Omega sorority, her apartment complex, "‘Noles for Bush!," lacrosse lovers, Southern belles of FSU, fans of the movie Airplane!, and "Adam Brody: the Hottest Boy Alive Club!"

On thefacebook.com profile, it will list how many people a person knows at other schools by campus. It gives a reminder of friends’ birthdays a week in advance. There’s a place to send and receive e-mail.

"There’s one weird thing," Schoonover said. "You can ‘poke’ someone."

It happens, Messer said. A message pops up proclaiming you’re poked.

"If a guy from, like, Michigan saw my profile and thought I was cute, he could poke me," she said.

But for the most part, she doesn’t think people use the system to find a date.

It really depends on the user, Hughes said. About 40 percent of users have checked an option showing they’re interested in a relationship or dating. But most interviewed said they don’t use it to meet new people, just to network with those they already know.

Some college students, however, still find it – well – creepy.

"They stalk one another," said FSU sophomore Molly Sammons from Sarasota. "My roommates will be looking up people they went to elementary school with or guys in their classes ... This guy keeps telling (my friend) her picture is beautiful, and he wants to meet her, that they have similar interests."

And she finds the whole sorting of people downright "cliquey."

Still, Sammons notices "facebooking" has increased, especially over the recent holiday break.

"Apparently when they were bored, they got on facebook," she said.

© 2005, Tallahassee Democrat (Tallahassee, Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.