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Facebook official: the rise and fall of the relationship status

In the Noughties, it was a relationship milestone. Now, it's just another dead feature. What happened? 

In the 1950s, couples on US campuses took out ads in college newspapers to announce that their relationship was getting serious. 

In the Noughties, we had Facebook official. One of the social media site's first features, rolled out while the network was still primarily used by students at US universities, was the "relationship status". And at first, it was a successful one: a way for users to broadcast their personal lives to friends and ex-lovers, and another way to show off online.

It was so successful, in fact, that it began to invade very culture and lexicon of dating. "It's Complicated" was first entered onto Urban Dictionary in 2007, and fast became an iconic phrase to describe the rocky dating lives of teens and twentysomethings. (Whether anyone actually used it on their profile without a hint of irony is another question.)

The press treated Facebook and its investment in your relationships much as it's treating dating apps now: with suspicion. News and comment pieces were littered with first-person horror stories of "likes" and passive aggressive comments on break-up statuses, or people mercilessly dumping their partners by declaring themselves "single". 

But these criticisms actually show how influential the statuses were - enough to be seen as a threat to the social fabric. As Samuel Axon wrote for Mashable in 2010 in an article titled "5 Ways Facebook Changed Dating (For the Worse)": 

"Changing Facebook relationship status has, for better or worse, joined first date, first kiss, first night together, exclusivity talk, and first "I love you" on the list of important relationship milestones."

Breaking up  

In 2016, we can pretty much declare the relationship status dead - at least among the twenty-something generation who grew up on Facebook. In November, BuzzFeed ran a reader poll and concluded: “No One Wants To Admit They’re In A Relationship On Facebook Anymore”. Forty per cent of polled twenty-somethings said they wouldn’t put a relationship status on Facebok. 

Among twentysomethings I spoke to anecdotally, the percentage was even higher: I couldn't find a single person who would list themselves as "in a relationship" with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The situation changed a little when it came to engagements or marriage: these are worth listing alongside other big milestones like graduations so friends know what you're up to. But what turned us off listing our squeezes in real-time?

One obvious answer is that everyone tries it once, in the first flush of romance, then never forgets the crushing social embarrassment of living out your break-up online. Izzy, 23, tells me that she once saw "Facebook official" as a necessary stage in relationships, but now, "I'd probably only change it now for something big like an engagement or marriage", since watching break-up become "public property" on Facebook. 

In “Why I will never (again) put my relationship status on Facebook” at XO Jane, Sofia Barrett-Ibarria recounts that colleagues and friends would approach her following a a break-up and subsequent status change: “Thanks to Facebook, everyone I knew knew about the breakup. This was my nightmare.” 

In the essay, and among those I talk to, there's a real sense that a social media airing of a break-up actually makes it worse. It's no wonder we're keen to avoid repeating the experience. 

Instead, it's far more common among my generation to list a joke partner online - as much to protect yourself from the risky business of online relationship declarations as to make fun of the feature itself. Amy, 24, says her Facebook relationship with a friend “became quite useful as a means to avoid putting other relationships on here”. It's a joke, but it's also a signal that you won't be game for a po-faced "in a relationship" further down the line. 

Even the phrase "relationship status" has become a meme to mock your own singledom, rather than a serious phrase about your commitment to someone:

It's not you, it's me 

Marking the slow decline of the relationship statuses are various desperate attempts by Facebook to bring it back to life. In May 2014, it introduced an option to "ask" your friends about their relationship status, or other details like Hometown or School. Show me a single person who actually did this, and I'll show you a person with one less Facebook friend.

In November 2015, Facebook US introduced tools which would make a social media break-up less painful. If you break up (and change your relationship status), the site now allows you to "take a break" from an ex-partner, untag them from pictures, and generally stop them haunting your page without unfriending or blocking them. 

The move is a sensible one, especially as Facebook has come under fire for "On This Day", another feature which throws up old pictures and posts and has been depressing users the world over with pictures of their now-dead relatives or relics of past relationships. In the press release for the new relationship tools, the company says:

“This work is part of our ongoing effort to develop resources for people who may be going through difficult moments in their lives. We hope these tools will help people end relationships on Facebook with greater ease, comfort and sense of control.”

Never, ever getting back together 

Somehow, I don't think any of this will convince users to once again share the minutiae of our dating lives on social media. You could argue that my generation's rejection of relationship statuses is to do with a fear of commitment - after all, none of us have pensions or can afford houses. Research has shown that social media interaction, like a shared relationship status or photos taken together, are an indicator of "greater relationship commitment". Perhaps twenty-somethings just aren't keen to stamp Facebook-endorsed "commitment" all over their dating lives.

But it could also be that we're moving away from relationship statuses because we've realised there's a type of online sharing that can be damaging in its honesty. It's increasingly clear that even bloggers and Instagrammers who post online constantly keep their personal lives locked carefully away from their smoothie and interior decor feeds, sometimes to the detriment of their alleged "authenticity". 

We want social media to be privy to our highs, not our lows. Research has also suggested that while relationship statuses indicate commitment, they were reflective of this commitment, not participating in it. While asking someone to be your boyfriend and girlfriend is an action that actually changes the fabric of a relationship, going Facebook official isn't - unless you're a 13-year-old who still thinks this is a good way to ask. 

As such, relationship statuses are a communication of status, not a creation of one. They were never meant as a milestone for the couples themselves: they're to satisfy the sort of people who bark "BUT IS SHE ACTUALLY YOUR GIRLFRIEND?" at you, in the pub, while she's two feet away. Maybe we've just decided that our online presence should benefit us, not those who want a two-click rundown of our personal lives. 

And since you ask, I've been in a Facebook-only civil partnership with a university friend for four years now. It isn't complicated at all. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times