A budding romance tends to follow a prescribed pattern, with dating leading to an engagement and ultimately marriage. But in further evidence that Facebook is changing the rhythms and rituals of our lives, researchers report that, at least among college students, a new marker has been added on the bumpy road of building relationships:
Updating your social-network status. Or, as it is commonly called, becoming Facebook Official, or FBO.
“This status is a new milestone for couples,” writes a research team led by Jesse Fox of The Ohio State University. Occurring sometime after an exclusive commitment is privately made, but well before any announcement of impending nuptials or cohabitation, it represents “a new tier in the relational hierarchy,” an announcement that two people are in “an exclusive, long-term, and public commitment.”
“In previous generations," the researchers write in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, "such widespread notification would not have occurred unless a public engagement was made in a local newspaper, or wedding invitations were distributed.”
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This new step in the commitment process is one of several phenomena Fox and her colleagues discuss in their paper, which is based in part on the comments of 10 focus groups of contemporary college students. (The researchers don’t claim the insights they gleaned reflect societal trends beyond this population, although they may very well.)
Overall, their research suggests that, for a variety of reasons, Facebook is a positive factor for young people in the dating pool–at least in the initial stages of getting to know a potential partner.
“Typically, participants (in our focus groups) did not view Facebook as an online dating site,” they write. “Instead, pursuers initiated relationships off-line and then … turned to Facebook to continue communication. Participants almost universally cited Facebook as their primary tool for interaction early in the experimenting stage of romantic relationship development.”
This has its advantages.
“Facebook users can avoid the tension of having to directly express relational interest in the first meeting by asking for a phone number,” the researchers note. “Rather, they can retreat to the nearest computer or smart phone and look the person up on Facebook.
“If they wish to pursue further contact, they can send an informal friend request to the target, so that they can access each other’s profiles fully and open the lines of communication.”
In this way, Facebook allows for “slower progression,” Fox and her colleagues write, “as liking could be developed over time before the gamble of asking someone out.” Conversely, if a potential mate is of no interest, turning down their friend request is simple, easy, and much more comfortable—for both parties—than telling someone “I’m not that into you.”
Another plus—at least for cultivating healthy, mature relationships—can be found at the aforementioned step when people change their stated relationship status. The researchers note that, today as in the past, someone who is deeply in love can wrongly assume his or her partner shares the same level of commitment. Deciding to go FBO means laying your emotional cards on the table, face up.
The issue of whether to publicly declare coupledom makes it “difficult for couples of avoid discussions about the status, expectations and progress of their romantic relationship,” Fox and her colleagues write. Tough questions have to be answered in a mutually agreeable way; a commitment must be affirmed, or a relationship rethought.
"For some couples, Facebook may serve as a tool for relationship maintenance," the researchers conclude. "For others, it may be burdensome, particularly if partners' expectations or benefits do not match."
The students in Fox’s focus groups also pointed to other negatives associated with Facebook, complaining that at times, one’s relationship can end up being “shaped by its actual and perceived audience.” And the researchers note they did not address the sticky question of how social-network status impacts breakups.
Still, the majority of participants reported that overall, the benefits of the social network outweighed the costs, its positive role in maintaining friendships outweighing the stress it can add to romantic relationships. The recently married Mark Zuckerberg has assumed a variety of roles in our culture; he can now add the title of computer-age Cupid.