You may now update your Facebook status

I went to a wedding last night. It was the first ceremony where I’d seen “you may now update your FaceBook status” as part of the ceremony. Someone mentioned that it has been done before, they’d seen videos on YouTube. Now, one might think this is a bit ironic, a nudge and wink about the omnipresence of social media in our daily social lives. But upon reflection, there’s something fitting about it. A wedding, in a world of diverse relationship choices, is (among other things) making a public statement to one’s friends and community to acknowledge that relationship. Updating Facebook status is a gesture that does exactly that, including people who are not present at the ceremony, and enabling well-wishers to chime in for public view, like the older traditions of toasts and video commentary at the wedding.

It’s when things get less public that things get more complicated in Facebook-land. Standing by the bar, a new acquaintance griped that his new girlfriend was insisting that he update his Facebook status to say he was dating her. In the world before social media, but after the cultures of arranged marriages and chaperones, there was a continuum of disclosure, where the first people to hear about a new beau/belle were one’s closest friends, and one selectively disclosed relationships in small social circles until the desire for acknowledgement and/or the power of gossip disclosed to a broader social circle. Decisions could be made ad hoc – should we go to xyz party together, and when to bring the belle/beau for the family renunion. Of course, slips in people’s desire to shape the informal information flow have long been material for comedy.

But Facebook doesn’t do a good job of that more informal disclosure. Instead of ad hoc, situational decisions, people are forced to make explicit decisions, with clumsy affordances to handle the distinctions. It’s mostly brute force – tell everyone you know about the relationship status. Which is awkward, as my reluctant conversationalist complained. Tools like LiveJournal/Dreamwidth, for example, have done a better job at facilitating selective disclosure, and their users take advantage of this capability.

The relationship between tools, and the customs and social norms people weave using the tools, is always complicated.

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