Allison Torres squealed loudly, staring down at her phone in openmouthed delight. Splashed across the bright, pixilated screen were the words “So I have a question. Can we be Facebook official?”
Torres, a 21-year-old New York University student from Queens, had been dating Bryan King since May, and their relationship has been exclusive for the past month. But even after he officially asked her out, his Facebook read that he was still single.
“It worried me a little,” she confided, playing with the streak of purple in her dark brown hair. “He’s in a band, so he has an image to uphold, or whatever. But staying actively single online sends a whole different message. But then he took it down, so his relationship status has just been blank. I was fine with that. Mine is too.”
Until today. Torres gleefully pulled up the Facebook window on her laptop. “Bryan King wants to be in a relationship with you,” it already read. “Accept or decline?” Torres hit “accept,” and then stopped to stare. Her Facebook timeline was suddenly dominated by a giant box with a heart on one side and a picture of Bryan on the other. “That’s kind of embarrassing,” she said, tilting the screen back for a better view. “I didn’t know it would be so big. Can I make it smaller? This is weird.” Hours later, the box still appeared on the “most viewed” portion of her public newsfeed.
Despite the over-exuberant status update, changing their relationship status made sense for Torres and King. But other young adults are less willing to reveal these details to the online world. Generation Y has largely grown up with the social networking site, which has adapted over the years to display more and more personal information in more and more personal ways. In light of this, many non-single users are choosing to hide their partner’s name, or to hide the status completely. Torres was happy that her page finally confirmed that she and King felt the same way about one another. But this validation is not worth the potential side effects for everyone.
Emily Glenn*, a veterinary student at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, had been dating her boyfriend for three years and even discussed marriage with him. He bought her a “promise ring” signifying his intent to become her husband. But even then, Glenn’s relationship status was hidden: it said that she was “married” to her best female friend. “Being “Facebook official” is so overrated,” she said. “Relationships should be private.”
When complications arose in her relationship over the summer, and she and her boyfriend broke up and got back together several times, Glenn was glad that she didn’t have to deal with the fallout online as well as in real life. She says that hiding her status on Facebook kept people out of her business, a selling point even when things were going well. She didn’t need to publicize their issues, she said. The people who needed to know things, knew.
Ilana Gershon, whose book “The Breakup 2.0” deals with the role of social media in relationships, says that people learn to avoid certain kind of media practices because the social consequences simply aren’t worth it. “For some people posting their relationship status caused so many problems during the break-up that they vowed never to do this again until they were engaged to be married,” she says.
Gershon interviewed 79 people students at Indiana University and found that GenYers who have grown up surrounded by social media have “media ideologies” that shape the ways they think about and use different media. If a piece of information isn’t something you would text to everyone in your phone, it probably isn’t something that should be blasted to everyone on your friends list.
Women’s issues writer Kat Hobza agrees. “When you start dating someone, you tell a few close friends,” she writes. “You don’t broadcast it to every acquaintance you have, just in case things blow up in your face.” Hobza points out that before Facebook, the gauge of the seriousness of a relationship was the number of people the parties told personally. Telling everyone who has access to your Facebook implies a level of commitment that may or may not be true. She likens it to the “tattoo theory:” the idea that as soon as you get your significant other’s name tattooed on your body it dooms the relationship.
But relationship structures change a lot from high school to college and from college to post-grad life. Social media’s role may just be mirroring this natural change. In high school, Torres recalls, dating was much more one-dimensional. Someone said “Do you want to go out with me?” and boom: the two were boyfriend and girlfriend, Facebook-official, and, not being able to drive, had likely met one another’s parents. But college and post-grad life, Torres says, is much more complicated. “There’s dating, but that doesn’t mean you’re exclusive. There’s talking. There’s hanging out. You can go on multiple dates with someone before you even know how they feel about you.” In this second stage of dating life, of which GenYers are now becoming a part, labeling someone a boyfriend or girlfriend and meeting their parents has much different connotations. So shouldn’t being “Facebook official” carry the same implication of commitment?
There are a variety of less dramatic reasons for wanting to keep a relationship hidden, though, and it is not always a conscious thought. Examining a randomly-selected Facebook page revealed that over half of the people on a typical friends list have their relationships hidden. But 120 of these 400 people were actually dating someone. Typical reasons range from wanting to seem more professional, to shying away from prying questions, to avoiding drama, to simply wanting to make sure the relationship is sound. Lila Simmons, a 21-year-old dancer living in Harlem, has been dating Matt for almost three years and says that she’s never really thought about putting the status online. “I’m okay with it,” she says. “I appreciate it because I don’t have people ‘friending’ me just because I’m dating Matt and they’re his far off cousin or something.” Simmons is also pragmatic about Facebook’s role in the couple’s future, saying that if they broke up, the box reading “Lila Simmons is now single” would spark curiosity and questions from people she barely even knew. “I’m not really sure what a pro would be,” she says. “I guess I’m satisfied where I am.”