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Till Facebook breakup do us part

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Aashish Goswami and Jenny Jorvig have dated since early 2005. They became "engaged" on Facebook, as a joke, and subsequently received dozens of congratulatory Facebook posts, messages and phone calls. (Courtesy of Jenny Jorvig)

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Aashish Goswami and Jenny Jorvig have been dating for almost two years. They had originally listed their relationship on Facebook, but took it off after their mock engagement on the Web site got out of hand. (Courtesy of Jenny Jorvig)

Dara Hornik and her boyfriend, Eric Mickschl, have spent nearly one-third of their lives together.

The 23-year-olds from the Milwaukee suburbs dated through most of high school and all of college. They know almost everything about each other. By all accounts, they’re in a serious, committed relationship.

So when they joined Facebook.com, the popular social-networking Web site, it was a no-brainer to list themselves as “in a relationship.” Hornik joined Facebook in 2004, and Mickschl a year later.

Increasingly, Facebook has become the modern arbiter of who is and isn’t an item. The days of varsity jackets, pledge pins and commitment rings as signs of an exclusive relationship have faded.

These customs do still exist in certain communities, but, as membership on online social networks has ballooned (as of February Facebook had 18 million registered users and 30 billion page views a month), so has the incidence of “Facebook relationships,” the public acknowledgment in cyberspace that one is in a committed relationship.

For many young people, a relationship only achieves recognition as being “serious” if it has been acknowledged on Facebook.

Under the relationship status field, members disclose whether they are “in a relationship,” “single,” “in an open relationship,” “engaged” or “married.” Users can also choose an “it’s complicated” option or leave the field blank.

With any of these, members can also say who their partners are and link their two pages.

A person's Facebook page is an online autobiography that offers a blank slate for self-expression. People reveal their favorite hobbies and activities as well as where they go to school. They post pictures of themselves and their friends and they can message one another.

From the looks of her Facebook profile, Eileen Morrison is an attractive blonde who enjoys running and studies business administration at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She is “very liberal,” likes good music and reads Kurt Vonnegut.

And, it seems, she is available.

But, hold on, men, there’s a catch. Even though Morrison’s relationship status field is blank, she’s actually in a serious relationship. She just chooses not to acknowledge it on Facebook, as millions of her contemporaries do.

“Somehow proclaiming our love on Facebook just isn't an important issue for us,” said Morrison, who has been seeing her boyfriend, Mark Capansky, a sophomore at the Naval Academy, on and off for more than a year.

For other couples, a Facebook relationship is too significant a leap. Some hold out because they don’t yet want friends, classmates or family to know, or they are uncomfortable with the idea of making intimate details so public.

Mike Pepi, a junior at Wesleyan University, is in a “serious” relationship with his girlfriend, Ari, a recent graduate of the school who now lives in New York City. They’ve dated for almost 18 months.

Around the time the couple became exclusive, Ari "brought it up and said, ‘Why do you still have "single" on Facebook. I don’t want girls thinking you’re single on Facebook,’” Pepi said.

The process made him ask himself what a Facebook relationship meant.

“Are we really ready to define relationships through this ubiquitous college student Web site,” Pepi said. “We’ve begun to trust Facebook as an authoritative reference for who is single and who isn’t. If a friend asks me if a girl is single, I’d say, ‘Check Facebook.’”

Eventually, the couple compromised; Pepi left the field blank “so girls wouldn’t think I was single,” he said.

Pepi calls the Facebook relationship “the new standard to express exclusivity.” But he said he was uneasy with the implications of placing an electronic label on a human experience.

“I don’t know if you can say a relationship can be reduced to such an online, nonemotional thing,” he said. (Pepi has since deactivated his account because he feels the entire site has become “too decadent and voyeuristic.”)

Kathleene Derrig-Palumbo, a therapist in the Los Angeles area specializing in relationships, said the techy shift in relationships makes perfect sense.

“Technology is there,” she said. “For adolescents and young adults, it is completely ingrained in their life. Online relationships can become a status thing.”

Derrig-Palumbo, who is also the CEO of Mytherapynet.com, an online therapy organization, said putting a relationship on Facebook could be seen as a new-age symbol of commitment, but with larger implications.

“People can see a ring or a varsity jacket, but it’s really just on that campus,” she said. “Even though they’re committed, they may only be committed to that location. It’s very limited.

“When you put anything into the tech world, and it’s an honest submission to what’s going on," she added, “that is really serious because that’s not just in your immediate group of people. People have access to it and it takes commitment to another level.”

In a 2006 interview with a University of Florida school newspaper, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg said he intended for the site to be “a social utility where you rebuild the real-life social networks that you already have.”

Now, member pages are very nearly an electronic embodiment of the members themselves. And the impact of the relationship status function is enormous.

A few months ago, Aashish Goswami, 22, and Jenny Jorvig, 23, decided it would be funny to post that they were engaged, “just to see what other people would do,” Jorvig said.

After meeting while studying abroad in Australia, Jorvig and Goswami dated for nearly two years. Following their mock engagement, “both of us received tons of congratulatory Facebook posts, messages and phone calls,” Jorvig said. “It pretty much got way out of hand really, really quickly.

“I think people definitely hold back from posting ‘in a relationship’ because it makes the relationship official,” Jorvig said.

The public display of a breakup presents another reason some members are reluctant to share their romantic details. A recently added Facebook feature called the “newsfeed,” notifies a member’s friends of that person’s profile changes, including new relationships or breakups.

“It makes breaking up to be officially broadcasted to everyone you know, which can be a bit overwhelming,” Jorvig said.

Ultimately, Facebook can expose the strengths and insecurities inherent in each relationship and in every unique member.

“You have to look at each relationship individually,” Derrig-Palumbo said. “Couples may be on Facebook because they want to and others may not. Maybe they’re just not ready.”

So while one wouldn’t realize, from looking at her Facebook profile, that Morrison, the Carnegie Mellon student, was taken, maybe she wants it that way.

“I guess that people say that you're not official until you're Facebook official,” she said. “And Mark and I certainly are official, we just don't care about Facebook. So, I guess I meant that some people have decided not to let Facebook define who they are, and others have.”

E-mail: abe2109@columbia.edu