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The (Face)Book of Love

On Valentine’s, declare your love — but not on Facebook

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In the video above, students share opinions on how Facebook features in their love lives: stalking, dating, breaking up. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Coming the week of Valentine’s Day, it should have been happy news. But no: a friend was calling to announce that she and her boyfriend of two years were through. He had been cheating — not a forgivable drunk hook-up, but old-fashioned carrying-on with another woman, who finally divined my friend’s existence from Facebook.

That was Tuesday. The “In a Relationship” disappeared from her profile a day later.

To add insult to injury, the ex-boyfriend had tried to play off his “official” relationship status by telling the other girl it was “ironic,” that he didn’t have a real girlfriend. I feel for her, but have to understand his tactic: when it comes to love and Facebook, who among us hasn’t tried to downplay our less admirable behavior with ironic detachment?

Although our generation may be known for airing it all online, with Facebook as our medium of choice, an element of self-preservation keeps us from revealing details that count. The same people who post pictures of themselves half-clothed on a Friday night play their emotions close to the vest. I’m guilty: my profile information contains my birthday and cell phone number, but not that I am in a relationship of three-plus years. Given the choice of posting my Social Security number or linking my profile to my boyfriend’s with those three little words — “In a Relationship” — I would hesitate.

“That’s a strategic move,” Vanessa Rumie (CAS’10) says of sending a relationship request. “With my boyfriend, I waited until he initiated. I didn’t know if he was going to be like, ‘Why do we have to put this on Facebook?’”

“It’s political,” agrees her friend Ahmed Ahmed (CAS’10).

“I prefer for them to come to me,” Rumie says.

Ahmed nods. “It’s a big game of cat and mouse,” he says. “You have to determine whether you’re going to be the stalker or the stalkee.”

Even established couples have to tone down declarations of love for fear it will annoy their friends.

“I always feel like that stuff says, ‘Oh, look at me, I have a boyfriend,’” says Liz Higgins (CGS’10).

“Even if I’m in a relationship, I just hide it, because people stalk,” says Kelsey Lynne Anderson (CGS’10). Both say they’re in fake relationships with a female friend on Facebook.

In Facebook’s original incarnation as an insiders-only university network, the site played up college students’ tendency for self-deprecation. Now, users “looking for” specific types of relationships on Facebook can choose “Networking,” but the jokey-creepy “Whatever I Can Get” is gone. It begs the question of when “It’s Complicated,” the ironic signifier that many gay men and their female friends at BU wear with pride, will meet its demise, too. Facebook the company wants us to represent ourselves truthfully (to attract advertisers), but Facebook the mating ritual demands we cultivate an image.

“When people start to date, do they feel disappointed?” wonders Patrice Oppliger, a College of Communication assistant professor of communication and author of the book Girls Gone Skank. “The persona that a person puts up on Facebook might be a little more interesting.”

The worse a Facebook stalker is, the more calculating he or she becomes in covering online tracks. One of my friends is meticulous about her privacy settings. Her dedication to restricting each of her 40-odd photo albums from former suitors and ex-boyfriends is impressive. But she’s also a grade-A stalker and has even allowed me and a few other friends to access her Facebook account to scope out guys she’s interested in.

“It’s an honor code,” she tells me.

“Way to have a Sisterhood of the Traveling Password,” I respond.

“This conception of public versus private has been distorted,” Oppliger says. “When people do have past significant others as friends, they have the ability to write something on your wall that the person you’re currently in a relationship with can see. It’s one thing if somebody talks about you, but now they can post something for everyone to see.”

You can always adjust your privacy settings, a process roughly akin to using a public restroom: jam the door, fiddle with the lock, and hope it works, although you won’t really know until someone tries to barge in. Many users were surprised to learn in December, after Facebook tinkered with its privacy policy, that their photos and even status updates had become searchable on Google.

“Pictures, for example, don’t go away,” Oppliger says. “Just because you delete them doesn’t mean they’re not still out there.”

So if Mark Zuckerberg wants to piece together the details of my romantic life over the past five years, he can. Yet for all the personal data on display for our future grandchildren — not to mention current employers — I find that I most worry about the information Facebook has taken from me.

When my boyfriend and I first met, as BU undergrads, we exchanged dozens of long, rambling Facebook messages. It was how we got to know each other amid the whirlwind of midterms, part-time jobs, his medical school applications, and my reporting at the student paper. He first asked me out via Facebook, after failing to get my number the day we met. “Invite me over to your place and Netflix the worst movie you can find,” I suggested for our first date. “Impress me.” And he did.

By today’s rapidly evolving standards, this makes us creepy.

“I wouldn’t find someone on Facebook and be like, ‘Yeah, let’s date,’” Anderson says with a laugh.

“That’s more MySpace,” says Abbie Felix (CGS’10).

Our early conversations are gone now, disappeared into the Internet ether. “No messages matched your search,” reads the unapologetic text against a white screen as blank as an amnesiac’s memory. Facebook no doubt needed the server space to accommodate its growing legions, which post 60 million status updates a day and upload 3 billion photos every month.

In a simpler time, I would have held on to handwritten letters as keepsakes, or at least archived sentimental e-mails. Like everyone else, I rush to delete the bad, to minimize my embarrassing behavior. As a trade-off, I’ll have to accept the loss of the good, too.

When it comes to love, Facebook is no good at keeping secrets — or anything else.

Leslie Friday contributed to the video.

Katie Koch can be reached at katieleekoch@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter at @katieleekoch. Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu.

5 Comments

5 Comments on The (Face)Book of Love

  • Anonymous on 02.12.2010 at 2:28 am

    “Forgivable” drunk hookup?

  • marilyn Preston on 02.12.2010 at 5:40 am

    Relationships on Facebook

    How cute! Things sure have changed. In olden times – you know, back before electricity – we didn’t have personal computers, let alone internet or Facebook. But I sure would have had fun sith it.

  • kcornuelle on 02.12.2010 at 10:27 am

    Love the subtle updates when you change your status on Facebook… although with the new FB format I might never know who’s in a relationship, or single, or divorced anymore. It might be a good thing…

  • Anonymous on 02.12.2010 at 12:44 pm

    there is never a forgivable drunk hookup

  • Anonymous on 02.15.2010 at 8:27 pm

    Wow. This is an astoundingly well written piece. Full of bite and insight.

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