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.