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Is Facebook Helping or Hurting Your Love Life?

A look at how social networks are transforming social lives.

Facebook can be a lousy date. Nearly a month after Microsoft slipped Mark Zuckerberg's "social graph" $240 million for a pocket-sized 1.6% stake, the network unleashed an advertising platform that spread users' personal information like a loose-lipped lover. As newly four-year-old Facebook moves into its next stage in development, it awkwardly navigates its status as a third wheel with a penchant for tittle-tattle.

Sometimes, things go wrong. For example, meddling Facebook ended Thomas Crampton's engagement. When the international tech journalist and his fiancé, Thuy-Tien Tran, wanted to make their "personal lives a little more private," the happily engaged couple removed their relationship status from their profiles. Jumping to conclusions, Facebook's News Feed quickly alerted their social network that the engagement was off, and the condolences started pouring in.

Even before social networks were born, says John Michael Norvell, an anthropologist on Harvard's campus, "people had ways of telegraphing their status." While Facebook invented neither unions, nor breakups, nor the gossip that surrounds them, Norvell claims the site makes chatter faster and more public — two aspects that may have an impact on interpersonal relations. In fact, one of Norvell's students recently alerted him that other women's whispers on her boyfriend's Wall were "damaging her relationship." Ultimately, the coed kept her companion and dumped Facebook.

Why would a social networking site track users' relationship statuses? "It's a huge market," says Nicky Grist, executive director of nonprofit The Alternatives to Marriage Project. Due to longer life expectancies, increasing divorce rates, delayed onset of first marriage, as well as laws barring same-sex marriage, the singles population has exploded. With 92 million Americans swinging solo, Grist suggests social networks collecting users' marital status have information companies may potentially consider valuable. Facebook admits it divulges to marketers "insights into people's activity." WooMe, a fast-growing online dating space, is one of the site's bedfellows.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, one out of every three Americans knows someone who found dates via the computer. Additionally, 30 million adults have acquaintances that unearthed long-term partners or spouses by looking for love in all the online places. But Facebook isn't a fix-up spot. Or, is it?

"Find old friends, meet people, date," beckons the advanced search application's tagline. Singles use the tool to scan profiles in their region and keystroke their way to a rendezvous or two. Already hitched? Coupled partners list their significant others online to make it Facebook official. John Norvell hears the starry-eyed adage that "a relationship or a breakup isn't official until you see it on Facebook" quite frequently. If swapped varsity jackets and pins signposted yesteryear's couplings, Facebook is the new romance officiant. Love life buzz is available on the site to anyone with eyeballs that see and fingers that type.

Courting private lives for public consumption is a complex dance. While users may commend Facebook for heeding their networking and dating needs, many desire to keep intimate information private. In a recent 60 Minutes appearance about his companies' innovations, baby-faced Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted, "It might take some work for us to get this exactly right."

As Facebook charts new online terrain, other businesses quickly follow suit. Popular matchmaking sites such as Match.com, JDate and Lavalife capitalize on social networks' success by introducing blogs, webcam video, and instant messaging in addition to the ability to add friends and write testimonials. The innovative functionality increases communication alternatives and personalizes the online experience. Yet, like Facebook, the activity also creates a record of interaction that may be made available for public consumption. This holds true for business-oriented networks as well.

Like an awkward first date inexperienced in courting, Facebook clumsily blunders in on users' private lives documenting online activities in real time with bachelor Mark Zuckerberg at the helm. Whether personal or professional, inserting an unwelcome party in a relationship can have negative effects. While the majority of Facebook's 60 million registered users are happy to continue the affair while the site acquires better dating skills, some — like John Norvell's student — prefer to pull the plug. Luckily, at least one relationship has survived. The alleged break up of Facebook users Thomas Crampton and Thuy-Tien Tran was a false alarm. The online gaffe was resolved, and the pair married last year.