Just last week, Facebook created a new mandatory feature, which is embedded in its already mandatory Timeline presentation. Its new “couples pages” pull together photos, posts, shared “likes,” and other material that links two people who are supposedly romantically involved. Unlike wedding websites, where couples announce their impending marriage and build a page to celebrate their impending union, Facebook does it for you—so that the architecture of your romance, courtship, or marriage is constructed for you by the social-media company.
It is no surprise, in my view, that the initial reaction in the blogosphere has been negative. Users are understandably offended that Facebook would create a romance page without any buy-in or say from the users who are affected.
In this column, I will explain the new couples pages feature, and the privacy and other implications of creating such pages. I will also discuss why this development leaves users in a privacy gray zone: Facebook relies on its privacy policies, whereas users feel that they have lost control. In the end, this one-size-fits-all approach not only disempowers users, but also creates potential perils.
Facebook’s Couples Pages
Facebook was a bit nonchalant about its launch of the new couples pages feature: It simply described the feature as an add-on to an existing feature: friendship pages. Rather than call attention to the couples pages, Facebook described them as part of its “redesign” of the friendship page feature: “[W]e’re introducing a new layout for friendship pages. Friendship pages combine posts, photos and events that you and another person have shared. Click the gear menu at the top of a friend’s timeline to see a friendship page. If you’ve listed yourself as “in a relationship” with someone, you can also visit facebook.com/us to see the friendship page you share with that person.”
The new Facebook couples feature throws together all of your online interactions with whomever you have designated as your significant other. If you’re “in a relationship,” “engaged,” or “married” to a specified online Facebook friend, you can go to facebook.com/us and see a virtual album of your interactions from comments to mutual friendships.
There have been initial glitches with this new program. For instance, the date on which you listed your significant other as a friend may erroneously become the date on which you and your spouse are listed as getting married.
To those who complain that this is like an automatic curation of one’s romance, Facebook’s response is simple: The site sees this as simply a new aspect of an exciting future: friendship Pages. And, as Facebook notes, couples only have shared pages if they have self-identified on Facebook as being in a romantic relationship with someone else who is also on Facebook.
Why Users Might Be Upset About the Couples Feature
There are many reasons why users may find the couples feature troubling. First, it is one thing to list oneself as being in a relationship, and to have scattered references, tags, or posts on your Facebook page that refer to the other person. But it is quite another thing to find a new Facebook page that aggregates all of your interactions—thus creating a story and visual narrative that is open to new interpretations and that makes all relationships appear to be, to some extent, equal. To assume that people who are newly dating and those who have been married or living together for decades would want to see the same type of page memorializing their relationships makes a lot of assumptions. And to undo the effect of the couples feature on Facebook, you would have to go back and delete or hide posts, adjust privacy settings, and perhaps even delete the reference to your significant other as your love interest.
Moreover, all of this takes time, effort and constant vigilance. You will have to think twice each time you post something, or take a photo, that may involve your loved one. And, you would have to warn friends not to tag you and your partner in photos—because of where the photo will land.
Of course, the other thing that’s upsetting to a lot of Facebook users is that there is no way to deactivate the couples page without opting out of the relationship itself. Many users want to keep their own identities online—and to be their own curators of their posts and photos of their relationships. In other words, many users feel that being a couple does not mean that you have to be an “us,” instead of only a “me,” online. And, in fact, many conversations and posts on a personal page—are aimed at a user’s personal audience, not a shared one that involves a lover’s friends.
And just because your friends and family might see your postings about your relationship, does not mean that you want them seeing everything your main squeeze posts about you. Your boyfriend or girlfriend might post comments about you being “hot” on their page—which is their prerogative—but do you want that on your couples page? Perhaps not.
There are also some more specialized privacy concerns arising from the couples feature. Anyone over 13 can have a Facebook account. Are teens ready for these types of pages, which seem to be designed for adults in potentially long-term relationships? Do we really want mom and dad seeing everything in their child’s relationships presented on one page? Do teens really want their friends to see everything they are doing with their high- school sweethearts? The instant-curation feature of these pages will require everyone to not only self-censor, but also constantly check the page to see what is now posted there.
The couples feature may even, ironically, drive a wedge between couples: What if one person wants the shared page and the other refuses to confirm the relationship given this new level of coziness online. It is one thing to indicate that you are simply dating someone, but it may create a new level of expectations once your relationship becomes a photo album for your friends and family to view—creating a situation where people may become virtual voyeurs, of sorts. You can imagine exes watching your every move when it comes to your relationship or marriage; it is a bit creepy.
The Privacy Gray Area That Facebook Is Entering Into With Couples Pages
Facebook contends that it is acting legally—and well within the confines of its privacy policies—with its couples feature. And it’s true that if you don’t want a couples page, you can simply delist your significant other as your relationship partner online, or edit your postings. But it is the default settings that create the seeming loss of control. Rather than letting us create a page about our relationship from scratch, Facebook constructs our online identity and makes us strip some of it away, to find what we think is the right balance. Requiring us to opt out is not only cumbersome, but also somehow intrusive.
As I have discussed before in a prior column here on Justia’s Verdict about Timeline, there are some organizations, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), that believe that the Timeline feature and other related new services violate Facebook’s recent privacy settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which required the company to seek our affirmative consent before using our data in new ways. Surely, EPIC has a point: As with Timeline, we are once again left in a gray area where Facebook has no accountability for the context in which it uses our data, once we have posted online. It seems that Facebook is continuously coming up with new ways to repurpose our data and present it for consumption.
Facebook is also trying to find new ways to monetize the use of our data. Timeline was an effort to get us to reveal more about major life events and ourselves. If Facebook wants us to reveal still more, it may be foolish to be as forward and public about the data it is collecting as it is with Timeline and couples pages.
As Congress and the European Commission rethink their privacy laws, including a revision to the 1995 European Data Protection Directive, it is time for regulators to question whether there are better models and standards for how our data is used and curated online.