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Facebook: Scourge of the Onelers, Part 1 May 4, 2011

Posted by Onely in Food for Thought, Just Saying., Singled Out.
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In March 2011, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg posted his relationship status on Facebook for the first time. He is now officially “in a relationship.”

From this, we understand that he is in an exclusive, romantic relationship with one person. We don’t take it to mean that before he was “in a relationship,” this billionaire social networking mogul previously lived a life without any relationships – that is, without any significant social interactions.

That’s because the rhetoric of “relationship” has been hijacked by our obsession with so-called “soulmates.” Nowhere is this more obvious than on Facebook, where the “relationship status” menu contains pre-set choices that all have to do with coupling or sex.

Intrigued and also a little irritated, Lisa and I – both moderate Facebook users – decided to conduct a couple experiments. Lisa changed her relationship status to “in a relationship” out of the blue, and I started a petition on Change.org calling for Facebook to make “relationship status” a write-in field. In this post and the next, we describe what happened:

Several months ago, Lisa suspected that changing her relationship status on Facebook would “garner more attention than anything else I’d ever posted.” And it did. In her post describing the experiment on Onely, she explains:

Not only did my relationship-status-change draw three unqualified “likes” and eleven comments, but I also received three inquiries via text message, five private messages from friends wanting to know the “scoop,” and even one question about it at the end of an otherwise-serious phone call with my little brother. Considering I only have 130 “friends” on Facebook, that’s a pretty decent amount of attention — certainly much more than I’ve ever managed to solicit from anything else I’ve done on Facebook.

What’s more, two of the private messages were sent from friends who I haven’t seen or spoken to in the last six months, and although I replied graciously and honestly to their inquiries (I told them both it was a joke, sorry to disappoint (!!), told them a little bit about my current life and asked them about theirs), I haven’t heard from either of them since. The message I’m getting from this silence? A relationship-status change is everyone’s business.

The problem is, my experiment is flawed because my Facebook friend base is biased (my real-life FB friends know about and appreciate my pro-single status), and some of them even knew I was thinking about the experiment in advance.

To collect a bigger dataset, Lisa asked readers of Onely to do the experiment and report back their results. The results varied. Some readers reported that the relationship-status change didn’t garner any significant response because, as one reader put it: “either my friends know me well enough that my [relationship-status] change was some sort of play/experiment. Or they’re not the frenzy kind.” And others, such as the following reader, reported that breakups garner the most attention: “When i split up from my girlfriend … I … actually found some friends … that’s when I got [the] most comment[s]…. nearly 60 people joined in the conversation – you know what they say, ‘there’s no news like bad news.’”

But most of the readers who participated in the experimented reported impressive results:

So six hours in, I’m already wanting to renig. But I’m staying strong. Here are the results: 6 likes, 8 comments (2 comments also liked), 3 comments are congrats, 5 are wanting details.

“Kim is in a relationship with a hurdy gurdy player ;)” and 24 hours later: 11 likes, 4 comments (4 comments also liked), 4 comments are congrats and who???, 1 text, 2 phone calls.

My FB status was changed to “in a relationship” for about 28 hours or so. During that time I received 2 texts, 2 phone calls, 1 FB message, 11 “likes” and 9 comments.

What’s more, many of our readers noted that the experiment had made them reflective about the attention drawn by the change in status. One wrote, after hiding her relationship status after 24 hours of “being in a relationship,” that “I think that I’ll just tell everyone I am in a relationship with myself, because really I am. I’m in the middle of doing a lot of hard internal work and dating is out of the question during this time.” And another commented that “I felt uncomfortable with all the commentary and deleted the post.”

Given the importance people place on Facebook’s relationship status, and given the influence of the corporation in our culture, Lisa and I were bothered by the fact that “relationship status” focuses only on sexual couplings (or uncouplings). Why, we wondered, can people write anything they want for their “religion” status, but not for relationship status?

*** To Be Continued! ***

— Christina (and Lisa)

[cartoon credit: Geek and Poke]

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