A digital music downloading service geared toward college students has come under fire for allegedly using the popular social networking site Facebook.com to acquire the eMail addresses of thousands of unsuspecting students and using them to drum up business with universities.

The company–Herndon, Va.-based Ruckus Network–reportedly set up an account on Facebook for an imaginary student. The hugely popular web site, built as an online meeting place for college-age students, enables users to create “groups,” where internet-savvy students can congregate to discuss shared interests and connect with friends. By creating its own group on Facebook, the company’s critics contend, Ruckus was able to obtain the eMail addresses of almost every student who joined this group. Later, the company allegedly used those same addresses to connect with students, encouraging them to sign up for its online music download service and misleading them into thinking the service was affiliated with their respective universities.

On Sept. 5, a person named “Brody Ruckus” activated an account on Facebook by using a Georgia Tech eMail address. Georgia Tech had recently entered into an agreement with Ruckus for students to use its service on campus. Georgia Tech officials declined to comment.

Within minutes of creating this profile, the company had started a group called “If this group reaches 100,000 my girlfriend will have a threesome,” in which it revealed that “Ruckus” and his girlfriend “Holly” would have a sexual encounter with a third person if more than 100,000 people joined a group devoted to it.

In one day, more than 1,000 Facebook users had joined the group. By Sept. 8, just three days after the group was created, more than 100,000 users had joined. Soon after, “Brody Ruckus” promised to post pictures of his sexual encounter to the internet if 300,000 people joined. Finally, after membership in the group had ballooned to more than 400,000, “Brody Ruckus” wrote that if the group were to become the largest on Facebook, a video of his ménage à trois would be broadcast on the web.

The phenomenon soon came to an abrupt halt when Facebook deleted the account of Brody Ruckus, taking along with it the group–as well as the hopes of hundreds of thousands of college students eager to live out their fantasy through Ruckus. Word soon spread, however, that “Brody Ruckus” was not a student at Georgia Tech. Instead, it was discovered that the “red-blooded college student” who had convinced more than 400,000 people to join was, in fact, a fictional internet character invented by Ruckus Network as a means of drumming up support for its Ruckus music program, an online service targeted to college-age students.

Only days after the Facebook profile of Brody Ruckus was deleted, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) began receiving messages from Ruckus via Facebook. The messages read: “Beginning this week, UW has become a partner school with the online music service called Ruckus through our shared connection to the Internet2 network.” The message went on to say that everyone at the school was eligible for free unlimited downloads from Ruckus’ digital music library. Students at the school already had an account, the message said. All they needed to do was activate it.

But, according to UW officials, Ruckus never established any such partnership with the school to provide free music to students. “Students didn’t know that,” says Brian Rust, senior administrative program specialist at UW’s Department of Information Technology. “They assumed it was true without knowing what, if any, arrangement there was.”

Rust said that within 24 hours, 1,100 UW students had signed up with Ruckus and were downloading music. Because the school had no agreement with the company, additional bandwidth was not dedicated to support the spike in network traffic, he said. As a result, the university’s network slowed to a crawl. To resolve the problem, Rust said, UW had to “rate-shape,” or limit the amount of traffic stemming from students’ use of the online music service.

According to Robert Hayden, the school’s IT operations manager for housing, university officials returned to work the following Monday to find eMail messages from students asking them to partner with Ruckus.

Hayden says Ruckus had eMailed UW students who had signed up for the program, telling them, “If you are interested in supporting our cause, please do your part by eMailing the housing departments [and] letting them know that you would like to have Ruckus partnered with UW.” At the bottom of the message–a copy of which was obtained by eSchool News–was the contact information for Hayden.

“They denied sending both of the letters,” said Hayden of Ruckus. “They said they don’t spam anybody.” Ruckus has since admitted sending the eMail messages but claims they were isolated incidents by an overzealous employee.

The practice of using popular web sites and online social networks as a platform for marketing new products or business ventures is nothing new. For example, on the popular social networking web site Myspace.com, users are frequently deluged with friend requests from unfamiliar people seeking to promote their friends’ bands or pornographic web sites. Recently, it was revealed that popular YouTube contributor “Lonelygirl15” was actually an actress hired to star in a series of videos made by a pair of independent filmmakers. The revelation caused an outcry on the internet. Still, critics say, what Ruckus did crosses the line.

“Basically they were blackmailing the university by having all the students advocate on their behalf,” Hayden alleged. “In my opinion, they engaged in sleazy and unethical tactics in an effort to drum up business, and while it may have been very successful in that they got a lot of people subscribed, we’re looking at our traffic patterns, and no one is using it now.” In hindsight, Ruckus–which would not reveal how many universities or students use its online service–admits its unorthodox marketing campaign was ill-advised.

“It was an exercise conducted by one of our marketing teams. It wasn’t something we had any real designs around,” said Ruckus President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Bebel in an interview with eSchool News. “It took on a life of its own. It was a good learning exercise for us, but not something that we would repeat.” After discovering that the Brody Ruckus persona was fake, many of those on Facebook who had joined the group and supported Ruckus responded by creating anti-Brody Ruckus groups.

Bebel said he was surprised by the backlash, but he refused to put the blame on his company.

“This one had a little bit more of an edge to it than I would typically sanction,” he said of the Brody Ruckus campaign, “but it certainly had an impact, and I don’t think any of it negative for us. We are just trying to be effective at communicating directly with students and young people about what we do, and Facebook is certainly a way to do that.”

Where UW is concerned, Bebel described the entire incident as a misunderstanding between university officials and Ruckus, and he attributed it to a pilot program instituted by his company. “Either students have reached out to us directly, or some group within that university has approached us and said we’d like to get Ruckus here,” he explained. “There was a little bit of miscommunication from our side [in] saying that there may have been a partnership. We’re really seeking a partnership with Wisconsin and have had a good dialogue [toward] just that.”

But UW officials say otherwise. “Speaking on behalf of the university, this didn’t really put Ruckus in a good light as far as we are concerned,” said Rust. “Some of the things they did really just set off those who would be making any decision to sign with a music service.”

Links:

Ruckus Network
http://www.ruckus.com

Georgia Tech
http://www.gatech.edu/

University of Wisconsin-Madison
http://www.wisc.edu/