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Published: Sunday, 2/13/2011

Facebook relationship status: It's complicated

BY NOAM COHEN
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE


BLADE ILLUSTRATION/TOM FISHER Enlarge
Among the many small changes Facebook has wrought on American society is how some of us view, assess and even define what a relationship is.

Facebook is a world unto itself with more than a half-billion residents, each asked to report a "relationship status." By the end of last year, almost 37 million people had changed their status to married, while nearly 44 million changed their status to single, this according to data Facebook released last month.

These statistics bring to the fore a larger question: Why do so many Facebook users agree to announce their romantic entanglements?

"What is a wedding ring, but a status report?" said Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas and the author of Personal Communications in the Digital Age.

But she noted that Facebook had changed the way people report developments in their love lives to the wider community, creating the ability to instantly send out an update, which, she said, "forces you to make things explicit."

"It can force you to have discussions, or arguments, or decision points," she added. "When you start dating somebody, you go through the transition, 'Gee, we are hanging out and having fun,' you don't usually make an announcement."

It was in college, as imagined by the movie The Social Network, that a young Mark Zuckerberg had an epiphany: A friend, Dustin (played by Joseph Mazzello), asks Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) if he knows whether a girl he's interested in is single. "Dustin, people don't walk around with a sign on them that says ..."

Well, thanks to Zuckerberg and the other creators of Facebook, now they can, and do.

Many couples on Facebook have had to ask hard questions and perhaps redefine terms, much the way many on the site now use "friend" to mean someone who has once bumped into someone you also once bumped into.

Facebook users have adopted the term "Facebook official" to mark when they are prepared to go public with a relationship, says Ilana Gershon, an assistant professor at Indiana University and the author of The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media. She interviewed 72 social-media users for her book and found that for some, deciding whether to be "Facebook official" has replaced what she called the traditional "'relationship talk,' uppercase R, uppercase T."

But has the site's constant demand to report a status moved it from reflecting reality to inventing it, Baym asks. "People are 'performing' relationships on Facebook," she said, comparing it to the way the site has also made "friendship" into something less than intimate.

For some, she said, the relationship categories are something to play with. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are some users, particularly in middle school and high school, who will list themselves as "married" to get a rise out of their "friends" or to demonstrate allegiance to those they feel particularly close to.

One might expect truly committed couples to announce this reckoning together. But seemingly they don't.

From the start, men and women treat the experience differently, Facebook statistics show: 53 percent of women report a status, as do 47 percent of men. The differences continue: Among those reporting a status, 9 percent more women than men report they are married; and among those who report a status, 11 percent more men list themselves as single.

From this collection of self-reported data, it is wise not to draw too many conclusions. As Itamar Rosenn, a researcher at Facebook in Palo Alto, Calif., wrote in an e-mail: "Our data is not able to account for differences in honesty and overall disclosure among genders and relationship status types; we can only observe what the user herself provides."

These differences made sense to one Facebook user, who would be identified only as Eddie P., a 37-year-old real estate executive from New York.

''I was seeing someone about two-and-half years ago," he said, "and she noticed on Facebook I had a lot of female friends." She listed herself in a relationship, but he resisted, saying, "Why do I want strangers in my business?" He added, "It led to massive arguments."

That women may be less likely to list themselves as single is not surprising, Baym said. "Women have very good motivations to mark themselves as in a relationship." Among them is the predicament of being "constantly available for being 'hit on.'"

Indeed, single is no longer the most common status, Rosenn said. "Back in the day, when we were primarily a college site, that was more common," he said. Taking its data to heart, a surprising stability would seem to have spread across Facebook's terrain. The most common status, he reports, is married (35 percent of users), with an additional 22 percent in a relationship and 32 percent saying they are single.

Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's founders who left the company in 2007 and now operates Jumo, which uses social networking to connect people with charities and causes, still tends to his Facebook page.

''The relationship status on my profile is 'engaged,' changed from 'in a relationship' that it was previously," he noted in an e-mail addressing his plans to wed Sean Eldridge. "I changed it a couple days after Sean said yes last month."

It must be noted that compliance in updating one's status is spotty at best. Weiss said that although she is now in a relationship, she and her boyfriend have no interest in reporting it on Facebook.

A more serious commitment, however, is something that she and her boyfriend agree is worth putting out there. "We both said if we are married it would make sense to change," Weiss said.

And if things should go the other way?

Weiss said that the idea of sharing a breakup ("with that ridiculous little heartbreak icon") gives her and her friends pause.

''If I get fired from my job, that's one thing," she said. "If you've just been dumped, that's another."

But in this fast-moving arena, there is a smaller group on Facebook that may truly have its fingers on the pulse of modern relationships. In the site's year-end 2010 accounting, 3 million of them listed their relationship status as "it's complicated."



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