Facebook Relationships and Information Architecture

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

It is an age-old story. Boy/girl/* meets boy/girl/*, they go on a few dates, and all seems well. Then one of the two (or three?) brings up a daunting topic: the Facebook Relationship status. This was the case for a man I met during a recent visit to NYC. He had just begun a serious relationship, and everything seemed great from the outside, but he confessed some worry. It seems that the Facebook-based DTR (new window) had been less than successful. Thier Facebook statuses defiantly remained "Single" as trouble brewed in paradise.

Why is the Facebook status so important? The DTRs of the past (those between the individuals actually involved) have been replaced with relationship statuses on social networking sites, a virtual equivalent of wearing your beau’s team jacket. But where the relationships of our youths could be discarded as easily as the physical emblems that ambiguously represented them, social networking sites eliminate any notion of ambiguity. Even Facebook’s status of "it’s complicated" seems to cover an ever narrowing range of experience.


If Facebook has a state diagram for relationships, they certainly don’t do a good job of handling transitions from one state to another. De-statusing is the worst. Ashley Parker (new window) represents the situation nicely in her article published online in The Huffington Post (new window). Here is a taste:

Sam and I broke up this past fall — amicably and mutually — and I was more or less doing fine. Then Sam sent me an email that said: "Just wanted to let you know that I changed my Facebook profile to incorporate our current status."

Removing a relationship status, inevitable as it is, has always seemed the equivalent of breaking up with someone, and then proceeding to contact everyone you know to let them know how intolerable the relationship was. Moreover, that person, whose status changed based on your actions alone, must now endure a plague of unrequested sympathy. This all because there is not a Facebook status for "No longer in a relationship but I was over him anyway, so no flowers, thank you."

And what about the budding relationship? What is the relationship status for "I really like him and am no longer actively looking, but don’t want to jinx it"? This is certainly what was happening with our NYC couple. All the same, the importance of identifying the correct relationship status online caught me off gaurd. It seemed so compulsory that to not identify a relationship was to not be in a relationship at all. (Foucault’s deployment of sexuality, anyone?)

Database design is the simple explanation for these limited relationship options. Relational databases are based on, well, the relationships between data. Custom or flexible relationships create a diverse set of complicated data that is, well, complicated. "Single" is a convenient database value if Facebook is going to start a dating service. "Engaged" is also incredibly instructive for advertisers in the wedding industry. Gone are the Facebook relationships that Alice Mathias (new window) memorializes when she writes of "one friend [who] announced her status as In a Relationship with Chinese Food." The profile of Chinese Food apparently featured a carry-out box and personal information that personified the cuisine of China.

Our NYC couple has since changed their statuses, but this seemingly momentous milestone is, at its roots, a construct of software.
As the web becomes increasingly socialized, saturated with our personal information, now might be a good time to stop and remember that we define our relationships, not any website’s limited information architecture. If statuses were to truely represent the real world, then the only honest status would be "it’s complicated."

Jed Brubaker is a graduate student at CCT researching identity and technology. Read more at www.whatknows.com/blog