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I have only once declared a relationship on Facebook: I was single at the time, but in the name of research for something I was writing, I changed my status to ‘in a relationship’ in the dead of night and changed it back to ‘single’ in the morning, to make that cracked-in-half heart manifest itself in my newsfeed. That little icon, I suspected, would fan the flames of sympathy for the demise of a relationship that never existed. Lo and behold, the messages of sympathy came pouring in: first and foremost from a friend who lived in the flat beneath mine, with whom I shared near-daily cups of tea and chats about my then-torpid love life. Such was the intense power of that little icon that it made my friend think that he’d missed something, as if it was more real or more true than our actual conversations.
This little moment came back to mind last week when I heard about the new Facebook ‘couples’ pages, a little tweak to the social network that generates timelines of romance for people who have marked themselves as being in relationships on the site. Notably, I think, this made the news not because people found it charming, or even because Facebook was spinning it as a positive story, but because the blogosphere seemed to find it disgusting: what horror to have the entire course of one’s relationship packaged into a neat succession of photographs and event invitations and sweet nothings written on Facebook walls. As we have knitted the narratives of our relationships into Facebook to the extent that the platform makes them realer than, well, real relationships, it would seem that we’ve simultaneously come to resent the significance that it holds over the ways that we express our love.
While my own www.facebook.com/us comes up empty -- or, to be more specific, with the page that shows my general ‘About’ details, like where I went to university (Facebook as a well-meaning aunt, reassuring me that it’s cool that I’m not declaring a relationship, because I totally have an interesting career) -- I think that I can kind of understand why loved-up people don’t appreciate having the course of their relationship aggregated for easy consumption. It’s just harder to justify one’s participation in the relationship rituals that Facebook has created for us (the performative photos, the squicky public declarations of love, the use of nicknames that should never be known outside the bounds of the relationship, and indeed be taken to the grave) when you’re confronted by them all at once. It has forever been the case that relationships are intrinsically tedious to everyone who’s not involved in them. But the Facebook couples page makes that impossible to avoid, turning a mirror on the couple who have been advertising the narrative of their love to their friends and ‘friends’ and people who they don’t like at all but stay in touch with to keep tabs on.
And regarding it all in one fell swoop isn’t just hopelessly unromantic; it’s awkward and a bit banal. Of course, the joy of being in love is that nothing seems banal; every detail feels fascinating. But only to you. The sadness of using a social network to document it is that seeing it through a public digital filter somehow undermines the sweetness. It makes it seem cheap, or at least a commodity not unlike the other millions of relationships that are being played out in status updates and profile photos that adhere to Facebook norms. Which is why perhaps what this whole little episode has proven is that the most loving thing that anyone can do is to break up with their partner, albeit only in the Facebook sense; to have a relationship that is freeform, rather than fitting in to some check boxes. Even in spite of the fact that it will require a great deal of explaining to your neighbours.