When college student Valerie Wang meets a cute guy, she goes right to her dorm and calls up a Web site called Facebook. She looks at what...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — When college student Valerie Wang meets a cute guy, she goes right to her dorm and calls up a Web site called Facebook.

She looks at what fraternity he belongs to. She finds out if he plays sports, if he’s in a relationship and, if so, if his girlfriend is pretty.

“It’s an easy way to figure out information about someone without talking to them,” said Wang, 18, of Palo Alto, Calif., a sophomore at the University of Michigan.

Facebook, based in Palo Alto, is one of a handful of Silicon Valley startups that have tried to crack the hyped but elusive world of online “social networking.” While some others are either foundering or still working toward success, Facebook is seeing steady — even surprising — growth.

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It has become so addictive that some students find themselves browsing it for hours.

“I wake up and check my e-mail, then I go to Facebook,” said Tiffany Chang, 17, also of Palo Alto, who goes to the University of California, Davis. “At night, I do the same thing. … Facebook is like an ice-cream sundae because you can do anything with it, and no matter what, it’s still fun.”

It’s too early to tell whether Facebook, founded in February 2004, is here to stay or is more like the flavor of the year. For now, it’s on a roll.

Facebook has 3.65 million users. In March, while school was still in session, it had about four times as many visitors as Friendster, another social-networking site, according to comScore.

And these are loyal users: Even during the slow days of summer, more than half signed in every 24 hours. Facebook is now the top-ranking Web site for the hard-to-reach college demographic: the 18- to 24-year-old future — and in some cases current — spenders.

Not surprisingly, Facebook’s attractive audience has itself attracted advertisers. Victoria’s Secret, Apple Computer, Electronic Arts and other companies have formed sponsored groups where students can discuss their products.

Between 75,000 and 100,000 users have participated in each of these groups, according to Matt Cohler, 28, who runs daily operations.

And they’re paying enough money so that Facebook became profitable earlier this year, according to Cohler.

That was before the venture capitalists arrived. In May, Palo Alto’s Accel Partners pumped $13 million into Facebook, and encouraged the company to focus on further expansion before stressing too much about profits.

Rooted in offline lives

The magic recipe: Facebook has firmly rooted itself in the offline lives of its members. Facebook fans go to the site for daily activities like planning parties, finding the room numbers of classmates and just eyeballing the lives of others.

Here’s how: You fill out a profile, listing your favorite music, books and hobbies, for example. You can form or join groups, which may represent real clubs or may simply bear cheeky names such as “Ridiculously good-looking people.”

Each person’s page has a “wall” where friends — and enemies — get to write what they think of you. And Facebook lets students know which of their colleagues is up for “dating,” or maybe even “random play.”

Facebook works partly because its community is focused, said Dave Edwards, Internet analyst at American Technology Research in San Francisco. It’s also an Internet-savvy community.

“It’s catering to a demographic which is much more used to online interaction,” Edwards said.

One limiting factor to Facebook’s growth is the requirement that users have a university (.edu) e-mail address. That helps provide some shelter from the outside world, and it’s part of why people open up, said Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, 21.

“More information is available to less people,” he said.

Potential downside

When 21-year-old Sushu Xia of Palo Alto, a senior at the University of Chicago, desperately needed a book, she asked the university’s librarian who had borrowed it, then looked his room number up on Facebook. Minutes later, she was knocking on his dorm room door.

But she is also aware that this information could be used in the wrong way.

“Facebook is helpful for stalking,” Xia said. “You think that only friends care enough to look you up, but sometimes creepy people do.”

Some say Facebook can offer valuable clues about a person.

“The Facebook is better for red flags than for reasons to be somebody’s friend,” said 18 year-old Becca Tisdale, a freshman at Stanford University, adding that she is wary of people who have lewd Facebook photos.

Of course, not everybody sees the point of Facebook. Tali Manber, a 21-year-old senior at Stanford University, said she rarely logs in.

“If I was spending that much time online, I’d rather use that time to actually see people in person,” she said.

Visionary founder

The company’s visionary is its founder, Harvard student Zuckerberg. He launched the site with two of his roommates, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. It now has 40 employees, though that includes some outside contractors.

It wasn’t Zuckerberg’s first foray into the online world. In late 2003, as a prank, he created facemash.com, a site that popped up two student photos and asked people to choose who was more attractive. For that, Harvard’s administration put him on probation.

And it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. A competitor, ConnectU, sued Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing code. Zuckerberg denies the accusation. He has counterclaimed.

The management structure is “still relatively fast and loose,” admitted Cohler, who at 28 was until recently the company’s oldest employee.

Napster co-founder and former Plaxo Chief Executive Sean Parker, 25, is heading the business side. Parker introduced Zuckerberg to Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, who invested seed money into Facebook.

Meanwhile, the company continues to expand. It hopes to reach 6 million college students by the end of the year, and make Facebook available at every four-year college in the United States by fall.