Performative relationships

<i></i>

Photo: Getty images

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.

61 comments

  • Ugh. Facebook needs more blocking options. An instant block for anyone who posts "omg my bf/gf is the BEST', 'I love my gf soooo much', "lol my bf is snoring he da cutest' etc.

    VOMIT.

    Commenter
    matt
    Location
    syd
    Date and time
    November 19, 2012, 9:17AM
    • Cheers Matt for the laugh...best comment, couldn't agree more especially those couple were in the same room when they posted comment as such on FB.

      Commenter
      Mrs Morris
      Location
      Hills district
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 12:53PM
  • I was aghast when I found this little grubby gem! My other half did not seem to mind at all; he stated that everything on the shared page was available on our individual pages anyway. Granted, he is correct but I still cannot fathom why there was no choice in the matter and more over why Facebook had not told either of us about this. After 5 and a half years of being in a relationship, we are committed but we do not need Facebook make a joint virtual scrapbook of our relationship.
    My initial reaction was to 'Facebook break up' but my boyfriend refused and then came a wave of melancholia crashing over me. How could I Facebook break up with him; it felt more real than a real break up. It would make it almost official. Could we deal with a Facebook break up?
    Alas, we are still Facebook together, sharing a page...

    Commenter
    Mango
    Date and time
    November 19, 2012, 9:35AM
    • Shocking and devastaing Mango.
      I quite rightly ask ( in view of the harrowing story you have just shared), what are the problems that people in places like Mogadishu, Haiti, The Occupied territories or Bangladesh really face.?
      They simply dont appreciate some of the 1st world dilemmas, do they?
      They would ( ignorantly , no doubt) say - just WTF are you whinging about?
      Shows how little they know, doesnt it?

      Commenter
      LeftyRoy
      Location
      Cidnee
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 10:27AM
    • Lefty Roy, I didn't realise this article about Facebook was in fact masking a much deeper message about the plight of those suffering under the plight of extreme political rule, natural devastation or poverty. I quite rightly ask why you're not out there bringing down arbitrary Government, freeing people from oppressors and stopping natural atrocities, instead of sitting here in your comfy home mocking my response to an article clearly not intended to hold any grave seriousness.

      Commenter
      Mango
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 11:30AM
    • Mango, Mango, Mango!

      Great response to snark.

      Commenter
      Money tree
      Location
      NSW
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 11:49AM
    • To quote Kev Kavanagh- 'got yous a bewty"
      my response, like the article - dont take it toooooo seriosly!

      Commenter
      LeftyRoy
      Location
      Cidnee
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 11:54AM
    • Oh LeftyRoy - you card! We so need more criticism and ill-will in this world!

      Commenter
      Deipnosoph
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 12:24PM
    • Mango - love your attitude. What a great response!

      Commenter
      NSG
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 1:14PM
    • Lefty Roy...

      Sorry, I'm awarding the bout to Mango...

      Commenter
      David
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 1:18PM

More comments

Comments are now closed