April 24, 2008
Status used to be about social hierarchy -- whether you made a good living or were born into the right family or had achieved prominence in your community. But these days, if you say the word "status" to Generation Single-and-Facebooking, you may be understood very differently.
For the novices, Facebook is a social media utility, commonly called "social networking." This is basically an online community where the youngish and technology-loving assemble, sharing their friend lists, interests and activities with each other toward the creation of a greater social entity -- a network. One of the most popular features of Facebook is a "status feed," a running list of what your friends are up to, updated whenever anyone makes a change to his or her profile. "Tiffany Jewstein joined the 'All Jews on Facebook' group." "Rachel Goldberg is engaged to Shmuley Greenberg." "David Bernowitz is sooo glad finals are over."
For Facebookers in their 20s and 30s, one of the trickiest status areas is the "relationships" line. In your profile, you choose how to identify yourself. Are you "single," "married," "engaged" or "in a relationship," or would you say you're "in an open marriage"? Or are you an "it's complicated"? What are you looking for: "friendship," "dating," "networking," "a relationship" or "whatever I can get"? You can choose multiple identifiers, since this is a generation of multiple identities, but this can refract the message. You might think "whatever I can get" is funny and shows how open and casual you are, but someone who's looking for something special might see you as desperate or not serious.
Once you've started dating, other minefields await. Back in the day, if you met someone on JDate and you started dating each other exclusively, the big conversation was about taking down your online profile -- this meant you were serious and weren't going to be online during off hours, cruising for someone "better." This was commitment.
But on Facebook, relationships are not about the vanishing of profiles, because the function of the community is not supposed to end when couplehood is achieved; relationships mean the public declaration of a change in status. And there are levels of such declaration. You can change your status from single to "in a relationship." You can declare publicly the name of the person with whom you're in the relationship or, if you're afraid of tempting the evil eye, you can leave it anonymous for friends to guess or know.
A friend of mine who recently started dating someone changed his status from "single" to "in a relationship." But his girlfriend hadn't yet changed hers, so he wasn't sure whether the relationship meant more to him than to her. And neither of them was sure that they were ready to declare to the world that they were in a relationship with each other -- that's a huge commitment, to go public, because if, God forbid, the relationship doesn't work out, that failure and loss is also public.
Status is yours to claim, or in the case of one sister-single friend of mine, reclaim. When she first joined Facebook, her status was set to "single." But this week I got a notification that she "is no longer listed as single." I assumed this meant that she had met someone.
No, she told me, she was still single, but had decided to reclaim her status. She didn't like the fact that everyone looking at her page saw her as single, because she was so much more than that. She wasn't announcing a relationship; she was announcing her reclamation of how she presented herself to the online world.
If only we all gave as much time and consideration to how we present ourselves offline -- not in terms of physical appearance, but in how we define ourselves in relation to others, in how we determine our goals professionally and personally and in how we relate to the community at large. Are we conveying that we're open to new relationships? Are we being honest about our availability? Are we publicly declaring our intentions toward others?
While many of us live online, we shouldn't forget that even if we spend days chained to our computers and the online representations of ourselves, life is about human -- and humane -- interaction. Whether online or off, we should learn to present ourselves clearly, identify ourselves truthfully and with an understanding that status is about half in its declaration, and half in how it is perceived by others.
Esther D. Kustanowitz is currently "in an open relationship" with her Facebook Status Feed. Don't ask; "it's complicated." You can reach her at email@example.com. This column originally appeared in The Jewish Week.
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