Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Rise of the Hydra? Couple Profiles on Facebook

In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a dangerous water serpent with many heads. Its breath was allegedly poisonous, and for every head you cut off two more would grow in its place. In the last two weeks, three separate couples on Facebook in my network, who don't know each other, have merged their profiles—they've become Hydras in their own way: a single entity, posting under a hybrid name, generating all sorts of confusion as to who is really behind the content (though language is sometimes a giveaway). Networks emphasize the individual's connection to the collective. What are the implications of these dual identity profiles to the larger social group?

Bridget Carey of the Miami Herald discussed the rise of the couple profile as a return to the single point of contact for family units, similar to a shared email address or a joint bank account, but there may be darker issues at hand as well:
Some couples like to share one page because one or both of them are not active on Facebook, I learned, and having a single account makes it easier for the family to update friends. Other couples may do this because they want to share everything with each other and prove they have nothing to hide (or perhaps discourage unfaithful online flirting).
It forces the network to accept the couple, and it may ultimately reduce the points of contact for the pair within the network. For example, what if you're only friends—and just acquaintances at that (e.g., you sat next to each other during biology class)—with one member of the couple? Suddenly, you're forced to share information with both parties. Can you send private messages? Does it matter if her husband is viewing your vacation photos? Does it matter if his girlfriend is browsing your friend list?

The argument in favor of the couple profile may be that members of couples should know each other's friends anyway, and that there shouldn't be any secrets. To a certain degree that may be true, but the online social network is not designed for this sort of limitation: we can't possibly know everyone that our significant other has ever known. Nor were we really meant to. After all, we were individuals before creating a partnership, we have individual networks, and while there will be overlap as we merge lives, we never really abandon our own networks. We still have relationships outside of this category, and as we go about the business of work, commuting, and other daily life activities, we're going to continue to develop networks outside of the couple's connection.

Facebook allows us to hold on to connections we made in kindergarten. Or at the bookstore. Or at your cousin's bestfriend's daughter's mother's fiftieth birthday party. It's designed so we never have to "lose" people. Sure, we can create lists and categorize them and set privacy settings, but we're online to maintain ties to those people. At least that's why you accept the friend request from the guy reading Tolstoy on the subway who managed to track you down. (Not really—I hope!) The couple profile attempts to cull these connections, and that may not be a bad thing, but runs counter to the natural flow of the online network.

We celebrate individuality in the real world. Is this a movement away from that online?

Photo: Hercules slays the Lernaean Hydra.


  1. I noticed the rise of couple-emails when I got involved with a church for C's preschool. Inevitably, it's the woman of the couple who signs the email, but the To: line and the email address itself both announce couplehood. I did very little research into this, but most people suggested it was a religious movement, particularly among born-again Christians. I'd never considered subsuming my own personhood for couplehood (including rebelling against the notion that I'd change my last name when I married), so the couple-email came as a real surprise to me.

    We do celebrate individuality as a culture, but there are clearly subcultures that don't see it the way we do. So I don't think that the couplehood-Facebook trend is one of real versus virtual world: it's just a growing(?) trend that's gaining our attention because of the increase in use of social media by all demographics in American culture.

  2. Very interesting. I've had a similar situation with my pre-Facebook-generation parents: they insist on using a joint e-mail account. This isn't a big deal most of the time, but it means that if, e.g., I want to coordinate Christmas gift-giving for Mom with Dad, I can't e-mail him. I'd always assumed it was because they view e-mail as analogous to a phone line or the mailbox out front of their house—why would every person in the household have a separate mailbox?

  3. KK, that's interesting. I did a bit of Googling and it from what I can see, the camp that's largely in favor of couple Facebook accounts (and shared email accounts) is Christian-oriented. I agree that the heightened use of social media may be what's drawing attention to the behavior, but I'm having trouble reconciling the behavior to the tool. What happens if there's a divorce or a disagreement? How do you talk about things like interests, to say nothing of employment or education—both partners don't necessarily share that particular history, so whose information do you share, or not, and why? These are the sorts of questions that these profiles cause me to think about.

    Jeremy, I came across that point in the "reasons why it makes sense" discussions I found. And the single mailbox makes sense as you describe, but letters are individually addressed so there's still a sense of individual interaction, no? For older folks, it might just be easier to manage a single account, but when this occurs in the 20 and 30 year-old subset, it seems a bit odd. Though as KK points out above, subcultures do have their own rules.

  4. The phenomenon of joint Facebook accounts doesn't seem all that odd to me. Facebook is quite public, and if you want to be known publicly as a couple or as a family, having a joint account is a good way of doing that. Perhaps the couple lists common interests and doesn't use the messaging or chat functions, which rely on the shared understanding that those are one-to-one communication rather than the one-to-many communication of a wall post or a status post.

    But I definitely don't understand the phenomenon of having one email address. Email is inherently personal and individual, like a phone call. Sure, we sometimes put people on speaker phone, but most of our communication is one-to-one, and we have an expectation that when we call another person we will only be talking to that person.

    So the problem with joint email accounts and joint Facebook accounts is that those of us not in the know don't know how to approach these people. Do we approach them as individuals, as we would with a phone call, or do we approach them as a couple/family, as we might in a large group situation? It does someone a disservice to conflate personal interaction with presentation of an identity - they're not the same thing, and I think these people may be missing out on a major, fundamentally human social relationship.

  5. Again, really good points, KK. Conflating personal interaction with the presentation of an identity may not be fair, but it is the basis for most of our interactions. Our identity and the role we play within our network determines how we interact with others—at least if we consider Fortes' definition of personhood. So you're right: the couple entity on Facebook complicates the relationship that the individual may have with that couple. The vagueness of the interaction troubles me—unless the person signs that post, how do I know who is attempting to interact with me?

    I think part of the issue may be a sense of exposure that comes with being forced to interact with two people at once. For example, I can have a relationship with you and post things on your wall fully understanding that your partner may read what I've written, but I don't feel like I'm interacting with your partner specifically. The joint account forces that interaction—and I think you're right, we're not quite sure how to deal with it. It's sort of like my mom telling me I can go out to play only if I take my kid sister, and then I have to make my friends like my kid sister—does that make sense?

    Great food for thought so far!

  6. I guess my girlfriend and I had a joint Facebook account for about a year -- but that was because she was on Facebook while I was staunchly against it.

    Despite my opposition to FB, I found myself checking in to her account (we have never hidden passwords from each other, it's just easier that way) and keeping up with our mutual friends that way.

    This was no secret among our friend group, but we realized that it had to stop when people who were "my" friends started requesting to be friends with her. And I really had little interest in what was going on with "her" friends that weren't "our" friends, too.

    Eventually, I gave in and joined Facebook myself. But there were definitely advantages to a joint couples account.

    It's very like a bank account -- we each have individual accounts as well as a joint account, and I wish there were some way to mange Facebook in that way, too.

    I have friends, she has friends and we have friends. Those are fairly discrete groups, and Facebook doesn't really allow for combining ourselves into a unit.

  7. This may also be related to a division within the couple itself - one person doesn't want to take the time for things like Facebook, perhaps. My husband recently took down his Facebook profile (I was irrationally annoyed to find that I was just suddenly "married" instead of "married to hisname"). Yet, my husband requests that I message joint friends and/or leave specific messages on peoples' walls.

    The responsibility for social conduct strikes me as kind of a traditionally feminine thing (he works, she organizes dinner parties and maintains contacts with the neighbors). I wonder how many of these couples' pages (if representing a heterosexual, cisgendered couple), are maintained by the women? Particularly ones associated with Christian groups?

  8. Grant presents the case of a couple who start out jointly on Facebook and ultimately split the profile because the network gets cumbersome. In the cases in the post, the individuals start out as individuals and create couple profiles, vetting who they then want to be connected to. It might be a privilege in that case to be invited by the couple to connect—but it's still weird if you only know half the couple.

    BTW, FB recommends that couples create a Fan Page (really!) to share joint updates as sharing an account actually violates the TOS, and can result in the account being deleted and all connections lost. But Fan Pages seriously lack privacy, so there is little impetus to follow this course of action.

    Also, there is something to be said about making someone participate in Facebook as a member of a joint account if they have little to no interest in doing so in the first place. Why the need to announce that you are Jack Jones-Jill Smith if Jack isn't on FB? Doesn't the "Relationship Status" cover this?

    But perhaps there's a need to show a connection to a "real" person in that case, which could help us understand Anna's note that she was annoyed at "just" being married as opposed to "married to X" when her husband took down his profile. (For the record, I might be annoyed as well.) I do wonder who takes charge on the join FB profiles—good question! Can anyone speak from experience?

  9. From my experience with seeing other people's couple profiles (always young people I went to high school with who are now married, interestingly), it seems that the wife is usually more active than the husband.

    The one exception I can think of are my grandparents. They don't have a couple profile per se-- the account only has my grandpa's name on it. However, my grandma will log in to his account to read up on what the family is doing, and will occasionally leave comments on my wall with his account, but she'll always "sign off" using her name so I know it came from her.

  10. I'm amused, because I've yet to see a couple with a joint facebook account. What I see is the exact opposite - an individual with multiple accounts. Yes, this is a violation of the TOS*. Many people I know maintain a Facebook account for their "public" face, which might include co-workers, business acquaintances, relatives, etc., and then a "private" one which will include close friends, spouses, and other more trusted people. This is because the different networks don't know each other, and probably shouldn't. While "Paralegal" and "Leather-clad dominatrix" are both valid aspects of one's personality, they... don't work so well together. But according to Zuckerberg, they shouldn't ever be kept separate.

    * It should be noted that officially, FB's TOS is very limiting and doesn't allow much of the utility of having an online identity.

  11. @Michelle: Thanks for the info! First, kudos to your grandparents for joining FB, and double kudos to your grandmother for making it clear that she's the one doing the talking.

    @H: I do know several people with separate accounts for personal and professional contacts—though I'm not quite clear why folks are trying to present a professional persona on FB. Isn't that what LinkedIn is for? The idea that sometimes networks should not mix is fundamental to social survival. (And I am now wondering if any paralegals I know are leather-clad dominatrixes.)

  12. Thanks for this post. I can't say that I've paid much attention to the phenomenon, but I have noticed it. I think it says something about our way of interacting at large, not just on the internet. While I support couples who often interact with the world as a unit and the closeness they share, I do regret the loss of individuality and the closeness that I share with one of them.

  13. @Krystal: in my experience, the creation of the "public" account is usually due to outside pressure - people at work, relatives, etc. - wanting to friend you on FB, and the subsequent realization that while sure these are nice people, you don't want them to know what you do on weekends. Also, from a privacy perspective, I've considered (haven't yet, but likely shall) creating a "public" profile so that prospective employers, when they search for me, find *something* and thus stop rather than making it into an issue.
    While LinkedIn can be useful, it simply doesn't have the penetration of Facebook and one isn't considered aberrant for not having a LinkedIn account.

  14. My boyfriend and I are currently adding him to my account, even tho he has his own also. It is family and business contacts, and he has to keep it very conservative to try and avoid anybody getting offended or just plain being over informed. My page in the other hand has everything, crude humor kid pictures jokes, bitches and rants and basically real people problems and since we do t hide anything from each other anyway, I suggested adding him to mine, since he sits with me and laughs at funny posts or videos my wall, so he can have access to it to post or comment at will, without making me seam bipolar lol My only question is what to do with the names, do I put my whole name and then his? Or do first names and a cute combo of our last names or just have a clever replacement that's cute/funny?