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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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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times