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, 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.

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  • Twanna A. Hines

    John, it appears my original line "an anthropologist on Harvard's campus when Facebook launched" was shortened to "an anthropologist on Harvard's campus" after submission. I've brought this to the editors' attention, and I'm sure it will be corrected as soon as humanly possible. Thanks for your patience!

  • John Norvell

    One little correction: I left Harvard four years ago and am currently teaching (and still observing Facebook) at Scripps College, Claremont, CA.

  • Charlene Ng

    Facebook, like everything else, obviously has its pros/cons. People that thrive in gossip are inherently attracted to it b/c you are constantly provided with updates on others' statuses, without even having to ask for it. On the other hand, even though you can heavily restrict parts of your profile, your personal info is basically just floating around on the internet just waiting to be discovered. Relationships are hard enough, and to add another medium on top of that could definitely do more harm than good. Sure, you can run with the idea that what you don't post can't harm you. But, as we all know from this article, that idea renders inefficient on Facebook as well. It's basically similar to having access to your partner's email accts or cell phone 24/7; the information just sitting there makes it sooo tempting to look. Personally, I think Facebook is a great tool for networking and keeping in touch with people that would be hard to do otherwise (i.e. living in diff. countries). However, for relationships and other personal info, if you really want to know something, it's better just to ask.

  • Thomas Crampton

    UPDATE: I now see that Fast Company has linked to the posting from my blog that they originally quoted. Great to see they reacted to comments on the story. That is more than would happen at most publications!

  • Thomas Crampton

    @Mark: I think the article by Twanna is great, raising a lot of relevant issues around the new etiquette of social networks.

    The point I made in the blog posting you links to is that publishers are disappointingly "out of it" when it comes to the Internet - even Fast Company. As mentioned in the post, Businessweek is even worse, blocking deep links. Hope that clears it up, Mark!

  • Shawn Graham

    Sometimes knowing the relationship status of a friend can come in handy. I ran into a guy I went to college with who was standing next to the woman he had been dating for years. But, little did I know they were no longer together. And, to make things even more tricky, the woman he was currently dating was also standing near him. As dumb luck would have it, I didn't ask about the relationship. That was definitely a case when Facebook would have come in handy.

  • Thomas Crampton

    Thanks for the mention, Twanna! The next question of social etiquette came at our wedding when several people started putting up photos on Flickr and Facebook. We said: No! No! No!
    Cheers, Thomas Crampton

  • Kevin Milden

    Facebook is the best social network ever created. That being said is it still overly complicated, the advertising methods seem scary, and the applications are of very low quality and deliver little value. I think Facebook knows this and will work toward a simpler "only what's relevant" experience. It will not ruin your life but it will probably waste your time. Either something better will emerge or Facebook will get better. Both will most likely happen. Either way you should spend some time using it. It isn't for everyone but those who enjoy it really seem to spend a lot of time using it.