Facebook’s New Relationship Status Options Reflect Modern Family Realities
Popular social networking site Facebook has been as much an engine of social change as a high-tech manner of documenting the lives of individuals and communities. Like-minded people can, and do, flock to the site to "Like" businesses, public figures, movies, and more--or to express their displeasure with any of those things.
But perhaps the most sticky, and fascinating, aspect of Facebook is how it lets its members disclose their romantic status. Curious about someone you met at a party? A quick click over to his Facebook page can tell you whether he’s "single," "married," "in a relationship"--open or otherwise--or whether "it’s complicated."
In the past, Facebook allowed its users to put it out there and declare what it was they wanted from the site’s ability to hook them up. Users were able to describe themselves as "looking for" a number of things: "networking," "friendship," or (optimistically enough) "a relationship." To help things along, Facebook members could also specify whether they were interested in men or women (or both). After all, as the movie version of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) tells another character, one of the burning questions any young person might have in just about any situation--including logging on to Facebook--is, "Am I going to get laid?"
But the hapless could also unwittingly spark alarm with slip of the keyboard: a few years ago, this EDGE correspondent noticed a friend’s profile update included both the items "in a relationship" and "looking for a relationship." A concerned email was dispatched, because this person was in a long-term, stable domestic partnership. The individual in question replied sheepishly that he had not realized, while updating his profile, that he had listed himself as looking for a relationship. He promptly amended his profile information.
Facebook has changed its look and some of those options with a recent upgrade, so that the "looking for" data no longer appears on member profiles. But relationship status is still part of the profile information that users may elect to specify, and when two Facebook members are in a relationship they can name one another (and link to each others’ pages). That all sounds sweet and romantic, but can carry pitfalls of its own.
The ability of Facebook users to name others with whom they are in relationships was cited in a May 8, 2009, TIME Magazine article. TIME reckoned that the ability to name another person on the relationship question might create friction. For one thing, when should a person change their relationship status from "single" to "in a relationship" or vice versa? One twenty-something gave the magazine her view: "You change your Facebook status when it’s official," said Liz Vennum of Chattanooga. "When you’re okay with calling the person your girlfriend or boyfriend." As for the switch from paired up to single, "Proper breakup etiquette is not to change the status until after you’ve had the ’we need to talk’ talk. Then you race each other home (or back to the iPhone) to be the first to change your status to single."
At the time, there were only six ways available to describe a relationship, reported the article: "single, in a relationship, engaged, married, it’s complicated, and in an open relationship." Another person, whether named or implied (at least, to those who know the user and can surmise whom the other party might be), might--or might not--take kindly to the relationship being declared online for all to see.
Moreover, the choice of how to describe that relationship could also lead to sparks: what if one person considers himself "engaged" whereas the other does not? What if a fellow with a roving eye wants to acknowledge his significant other but indicate a willingness to play with third parties by declaring the relationship to be "open"--while the significant other in question doesn’t see it that way?
TIME reported on how much larger than "just us two" such matters can become when they are placed on public display, citing the cautionary tale of a couple who became engaged just before Thanksgiving. They held off telling family members, thinking of the happy announcement they would make at the holiday feast--but didn’t realize that the news would get back home faster than they would when one of them listed the new relationship status at Facebook. "It caused a huge fight," was how one of them described the familial fallout.
And how much more complicated will it become, now that it’s 2011 and Facebook has nearly doubled the number of options, increasing the possible relationship categories from six to eleven?
As complicated, one suspects, as is modern life itself. And as varied: for better or for worse, in all but a handful of states and locales, same-sex couples are not given the same legal status options as heterosexual couples are. The levels of acknowledgement, rights, and protections that gay and lesbian couples might receive legally range from zero to domestic partnerships to civil unions to state-level marriage equality. What is a 21st-century guy (or gal) to do?
Facebook’s answer has been to recognize these different degrees of legal relationships and add them into the mix along with a host of other new options, all of them acknowledging the hard truths about relationships in this (and probably any other) age: They are not black and white, either/or, neither in the legal realm nor that of the heart.
The full palette of relationship status options Facebook users can choose from now include widowed, separated, divorced, in a civil union, and in a domestic partnership. Back in 2009, the TIME article noted that, "Users can decline to list a status, but Facebook estimates that roughly 60% of its users do, with ’single’ and ’married’ the most common statuses." The fact that the new options are there doesn’t automatically mean that they will be widely used; many gay and lesbian families living in places where they are denied marriage parity may simply go ahead and declare themselves "married" anyway, even if their legal relationship is limited to civil unions or is not legally recognized in any fashion.
But the fact that those choices exist in Facebook’s cyber-world is a closer reflection of--and perhaps a concession to--the realities that hold sway in the real world--or at least some of it.
"The option for civil unions or domestic partnerships is only available to Facebook users in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France and Australia, said the nonprofit Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which has been among the groups working with Facebook to add the options," a Feb. 17 Associated Press article noted. "Facebook said it is rolling out the feature in countries where users asked for it."
"We will monitor user reaction and requests, and assess how to move forward with the rollout based on how this is going, and respond," Andrew Noyes, a spokesperson for the social networking site, told the AP.
The Huffington Post reported on Feb. 17 that a number of GLBT advocacy organizations had input into the change. "As LGBT people face a patchwork of relationship recognition laws, this gives people more tools to adequately describe their relationship," the HRC’s Michael Cole-Schwartz told the Huffington Post. "Facebook has been a company that has tried to be inclusive of the LGBT community and this just one sign of it."
Just as with everything else, however, Facebook users now need to use the same restraint and caution they have been encouraged to use in the past. GLBTs living in hostile parts of the country--where being gay or lesbian can get a worker fired or a family evicted--might want to consider not availing themselves of those additional choices. Not quite yet.