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Facebook, Scourge of the Onelers, Part 2 May 8, 2011

Posted by Onely in Food for Thought, Heteronormativity, Just Saying., Pop Culture: Scourge of the Onelys, Singled Out, Take action, Your Responses Requested!.
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Continued from this post

Got your attention?

After Lisa conducted her Facebook experiment, we wondered, why is it that people can write anything they want on Facebook for their “religion” status, but not for relationship status?

It seemed an eminently reasonable question, so I posted an eminently reasonable article and petition on Change.org asking Facebook to tweak their script a tad. I’ve included excerpts from the article and petition here, along with some of the comments they generated. As you’ll see, on the niche topic of singles’ advocacy, what is eminently reasonable to one person may be hellfire-and-damnation to another, even in a community of supposedly progressive thinkers.

From the article: Tell Facebook “Relationships” Comprise More Than Just Sex Partners:

Facebook allows us to write whatever we want in our profile’s “Religion” box — even Peanut Butter Cups. So why, for our “Relationship,” must we choose from a pre-set list of nine choices: single; in a relationship; engaged; married; it’s complicated; in an open relationship; widowed; separated; and divorced?  [Update: in February 2011 Facebook added two more relationship options: “in a civil union” and “in a domestic partnership.]

Facebook needs to make the Relationship status a write-in field. I at least want the option of flaunting of my relationships with my cat or my hairdresser. But there are serious, bigger problems at stake here.

By forcing users to choose one “relationship” from a narrow range of options centering around marital status and sexual habits, Facebook perpetuates our society’s entrenched mate-mania, which over-worships the sexual-couple-unit, and marriage in particular. This bias devalues other important relationships. It devalues platonic friends and non-spousal family members. And it devalues people for whom conventional coupling/marriage is either not appealing or not an option. . .

From the Petition:

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Heiliger,

Please make Relationship Status a write-in field, as you have done with the Religion option. Since 2007, at least six Facebook groups have formed to advocate for broader definitions of relationship on the site, yet Facebook still requires users to choose from a short pre-set list of choices centering around marital status and sexual habits.

Facebook’s current Relationship menu perpetuates our society’s entrenched mate-mania, which over-worships the sexual-couple-unit, and marriage in particular. Mate-mania is more than an irritating cultural quirk. It is actually codified into government policy. In the U.S. legal code over 1000 laws mention marital status, favoring married couples by a wide margin. This bias devalues other important relationships. It devalues platonic friends and non-spousal family members. And it devalues people for whom conventional coupling/marriage is either not appealing or not an option.

That’s not what Facebook is about. Facebook is about facilitating connections–all kinds of connections. . .

A word about Change.org: I wrote for them for a year and really enjoyed the experience. Change.org is a powerful and successful liberal forum advocating for social change on a range of important issues, from women’s rights to gay rights to animal rights to human rights to environmental protection, largely through the use of online petitions. Every day hundreds of thousands of change-minded, open-minded readers browse, comment on, and sign the petitions. The Change.org community prides itself on thinking outside the box and advancing the rights of the disenfranchised.

When I wrote the post, I imagined that Change.org’s progressive readers would appreciate my claim and respond in kind by signing the petition. Instead, the commentary was surprisingly negative, and only 200 readers signed the petition – even though the post and petition received more than 9,000 views. So why did it receive an overwhelmingly hostile response from commenters?  Is it because they were unimaginative faux-progressives who only became liberals to piss off their right-wing parents or because they think they look good in Birkenstocks? Not at all. They cared deeply about other social issues, women’s rights in particular. In fact, they cared so deeply about women’s rights that a prime complaint about the petition was that it wasn’t feminist enough. Take for example the following two comments:

I think the cause of women’s rights needs to be taken seriously, and complaining about this type of stuff is a sure-fire way to lose points in the seriousness column.

I fail to see how that has to do with women’s rights, when that is affecting more than just women.

For people who haven’t yet thought critically about the cultural, governmental, and commercial biases toward couples, complaining about couple-mania is like complaining that the earth revolves around the sun. And why would anyone do that? Lisa commented on the article, explaining why Facebook’s relationship hangups were, in fact, a feminist issue:

The problem … has to do with the normalizing of romantic/sexual relationships as primary to a person’s identity. Because Facebook regulates the categories through which we define our online identities, it appears abnormal — and in the case of “relationship status,” impossible — to want to define one’s own identity according to our own terms, rather than Facebook’s. Thus, calling for a broadening of what “having a relationship” might mean — as Christina does here — appears abnormal to some.

Readers also challenged the article by saying that there are other (separate but seemingly equal) ways in Facebook through which you can link your status to friends/relatives/pets/etc, so they wondered why we needed to be able to do this in the “relationship” field.  In response, Lisa explained why this was so, feeling rather startled that such an explanation would even be required for people who, judging from their participation in Change.org, would already have a basic understanding of the rhetoric of discrimination:

Facebook’s regulation of which relationships are “possible” or “intelligible” participates in unjust systems of thought and action that attempt to regulate one’s ability to be recognized in larger culture as an individual deserving of equal rights…. While one’s online identity on Facebook may not seem to matter all that much in a local/individual context, I’d argue that Facebook’s popularity means that when it regulates particular aspects of a user’s identity as “normal,” that regulation trickles into the thinking/actions of the general public.

As of April 9, 2011, the article had received 9,582 views since its inception in December 2010.  Over 200 of those viewers signed the accompanying petition. And the other 9,000? Well, as we’ve seen, a number of them found the whole concept offensive. As is common with online petitions, a good proportion of the readers may have been too lazy, hurried, or cautious to hit the “sign” button and fill out their personal information (as I have often been). Regardless, almost 10,000 people now may think just a bit more critically when filling out their Facebook profiles.

— CC


1. Annie B - May 9, 2011

The issue, for me at least, wasn’t deeply serious. Facebook allows us to express so many things about oneself, creatively. As is pointed out in this article – you can do that with religion, but not with relationships on facebook. What’s that about?

And as is stated in the change.org article, the answer may just be that facebook never bothered to ask itself that question.

Some readers seem to think the petition is a joke and that anyone who signs it will be laughed at out loud. Others seem to think its a non-issue.

For me, I do wonder why I can’t be creative under Relationship. I want to see what funny things others say, too. Like people do with religion.

Surely, if facebook isn’t afraid that combat will result from people describing their religion themselves, they can’t be concerned about what people will write-in about relationship status:
(Married and cheatin’. Divorced because of facebook. Remarried. Fifth marriage. Shacking up. Living in sin. Breaking up. Dumped. Dumper. Dumpee.)

Myself, I only want to be able to express myself according to my mood and say, under “relationships” stuff like Happily single; single not looking; just not that into you; celibate; twice divorced, thrice shy, none of your business.

Maybe for facebook, it’s too complicated.

Onely - May 9, 2011

HA — well put! I love these lists — and I think you’re totally right — for facebook, it must be too complicated.

— Lisa

Onely - May 13, 2011

Dumper! Dumpee!! HA! You’re right–all sociosexualpolitical dynamics aside, it would just be plain fun to have a write-in option.

2. Ivo - May 11, 2011

I’m both deeply supportive of your cause and deeply involved in examining the evolution of Facebook’s features, so these two articles caught my attention.

It’s worth adding to the discussion that Facebook’s top revenue model, advertising, includes a granular targeting system for advertisers that includes relationship status as a targeting option.

An advertiser, while cleverly insulated from seeing individual profiles, can choose to send ads to women in Atlanta and Boulder who are 25-33, like “yoga” and are not single, for example. Or single. Or either one.

While I haven’t found relationship status to be useful for my advertising, I can see how it might be useful for some. Relationship status can even be a proxy for settling down, such as parenthood, home ownership, etc. Which are useful to advertisers when looking for ways to reduce an audience of a million down to half a million. (It’s not an exact science, it’s a numbers game, so proxies like that are useful.)

In my experience, relationship status is one of the least important things on the advertiser’s list of filter tools, and I wouldn’t care much if it was gone. Still, I’m pretty sure that the ad filter would affect Facebook’s consideration of whether to open up the field to custom editing. A computer system needs multiple choice options so it can categorize the response.

Matt - May 13, 2011

Intersting… perhaps there could be some static choices, as well as an additional other/write-in type choice. Most people would probably choose one of the static ones, which would maintain the granularity needed for advertising… in the meantime, I could change my status to “Hell naw!”

Onely - May 13, 2011

That’s a good idea–a drop-down menu with an “other” write-in option.

3. Ivo - May 11, 2011

I’d also like to have the ability to add multiple partners to be in a relationship with simultaneously.

Facebook doesn’t take that seriously either.

It probably has bigger fish to fry. Which, honestly, I can appreciate, my cause isn’t that popular, and Facebook is an exploding phenomenon with more angles that just about any of us fathom.

Without much doubt, something like 80% of people who would take advantage of a multiple-partner feature wouldn’t use it for its intended purpose. Such as teens choosing to be “in a relationship” with ten of their best pals.

While I would complain that would corrupt its use, I suspect from your writing that you might disagree with me, arguing for the value of all types of relationships. (I think you make a great point.)

So what is the “correct” use of a relationship field? And what happens to its meaning when it’s opened up for serious creative use and likely humorous abuse alike? These are questions Facebook faces, and a conservative popular (couple-centric) solution might just have been the smartest way out.

Onely - May 13, 2011

Ivo, thanks for your thoughtful comments! Regarding the ability to add multiple partners–there are actually about six Facebook groups out there now advocating for that (in various degrees of proactivity). But Facebook doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to that. . .

I definitely agree there would be some logistical/social issues to work out if they did this–such as the ones you mentioned, and also making sure that no one can say they’re “in a relationship” with you if you don’t want them to (maybe you should be able to “unrelate” yourself the same way you can untag a photo of yourself). Anyway, that’s why Zuckerberg gets paid the big bucks, to figure this stuff out. = )

4. vashti760223 - May 18, 2011

One quick addition. It seems that it is still more acceptable for men to be single than women.

5. eleanore - May 18, 2011

I’d like to add my relationship status as “With Mr. Right Now”.

eleanore – The Spinsterlicious Life

6. chrisamies - May 4, 2012

There is the option of not putting in a relationship status at all although it isn’t the same thing as single and not interested.
And I do notice that people make funny responses to ‘Religion’ but not ‘Politics’ so much.

Onely - May 6, 2012

If single people are forced to not put in a relationship status because none of the statuses fit, then that shows the imbalance right there. Moreover, “single and not interested” is only one of many possible statuses a single people might want to put down. The only solution is to make it write-in. The fact that politics and religion are write-ins and relationship is not just shows how we put the idea of “relationship/couplehood” on a pedestal, a v restrictive pedestal.

7. Do Couples Tell Stupider Stories? « Onely: Single and Happy - May 9, 2012

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[…] here at Onely have fumed about how Facebook provides only a narrow range of relationship options (anything beyond the standard choices must be […]

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