relationship performance in networked publics

My research is part of the Digital Youth Research project (funded by the MacArthur Foundation). To highlight our findings, some of my teammates put together a digikids research blog where we post findings from the field and link to interesting things concerning digital youth. It’s a *fantastic* blog for anyone who is interested in this topic (read it!).

This week, i posted a field snippet based on my research. I’ve re-posted it below for those who don’t like clicking links.


Crushes, flirting, and dating are a key aspect of teens’ lives. While these nascent relationships often end almost as quickly as they begin, they play a significant role in how teens see themselves and others. Because MySpace is a hangout space for teenagers, aspects of their flirtation with and dismissal of potential partners takes place on the site. Given the public nature of these expressions, we can get a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of teen love. Furthermore, we can examine how technology supports pre-existing practices while complicating other aspects of relationship management. Not all of what takes place is pretty – the language, norms, and attitudes of teens can be shocking to adults, but they are a very real component of teen communication. In this fieldnote, i document one example of how love and breakups appear online.

When I met Michael (17) and Amy (16), they were together. Their relationship was also visible on both of their profiles. Amy wrote about how Michael “has my heart” and Michael’s profile photo was of the couple embracing. His About Me section began with “I love my girlfriend AMY.” They were in each other’s Top 8 and they performed their love throughout the comments. A week later, Michael’s profile proclaimed “I hate my stupid bitch ex girlfriend.” His headline had also been changed to: “Michael is no longer fucking with stupid bitches.” The photos were gone, the friendship deleted, and the comments erased. Amy had also obliterated the relationship thoughout her profile. He was removed from her friend list and the list of guys she called heroes. What appeared in the place of his name was “boyfriend” with a link to a new boy: Scott.

While Michael had written Amy into his bio, Scott proclaimed his love for Amy even louder. He had changed his name on his profile: “Scott + Amy” and his profile photo depicted the happy couple smooching. He had written two blogs: “I have fallen in love with Amy” and “Rawr! Amy is Awesome” Upon inspection, one contained a love poem written about Amy and the other contained a prose version of his feelings; Amy responded to these blogs with comments professing her love and other friends added approving words. Loving messages from the new couple peppered each other’s profile. Scott wrote “I Love You” 200 times on Amy’s profile, followed by “here is the translation… i love you too baby..”

Interestingly, the next few comments on Amy’s page came from friends, asking “what happened with you and Michael?” She responded to these by posting to each friend’s comment section with some variation of “alotta bullshit.” Third party references to Michael littered Amy’s comments section but Michael himself was no longer present. Amy’s new love had usurped him.

While relationship drama is not restricted to teenagers, the performative nature of teens’ relationships tends to make this drama quite visible. One advantage of having a girlfriend/boyfriend is that it is personally validating. In a relationship, many people feel as though they are desirable and attractive; the rush of a new relationship can be invigorating. This feeling of self-worth offers people an incentive to seek out partners.

Relationships are often discussed as intimate affairs, but society also encourages people to make the fact of their relationship public. Western rituals around weddings – the public ceremony, the visible ring, the newspaper announcement – showcase how serious relationships become public expressions. Yet, even before a relationship reaches that level of seriousness, people make their relationships publicly visible. This practices has numerous advantages. First off, by making a relationship public, people can signal to other single individuals that they are taken (and so is their partner). This wards off potential suitors but it also encourages outsiders to validate their worthiness. More importantly, as Hannah Arendt notes, “the presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves” (1). Through the public performance of a relationship, the individuals in the relationship can gain security and confidence in the significance of their togetherness.

Western society regularly pushes people to couple up and make their relationships public. Consider Valentine’s Day. For many, this is an extremely stressful holiday because it’s an institutionalized way of saying that single people are less worthy than those who have paired up. During this day above all others, the streets are filled with couples arm-in-arm engaged in public displays of affection (“PDA”). While the wine and fancy dinners are primarily an adult activity, Valentine’s Day is just as salient in high schools as it is on the streets. Mr. C, a young math teacher in Oakland, California was shocked to find that the ratio of balloons to students exceeded one (2). Candy, presents, stuffed animals, cards, and the like pervaded the school, making it utterly impossible to teach. Who had received what gifts from whom mattered far more than geometry.

For teenagers, the performance of a relationship has an additional axis. Many teens have little mobility or freedom to actually go on dates. Quite often, teenage relationships consist entirely of mediated conversations (phone, IM, MySpace), school interactions, and the discussion of the relationship amidst one’s peers in both public and private settings. The rare opportunity to meet up with one’s girlfriend/boyfriend is treasured and for many teens, it is worth risking getting into trouble just to be able to connect with that person in meatspace. While physical interactions are deeply desired, they are typically quite rare. Likewise, while the 1950s Hollywood image of teen dating involves soda shops, drive-in movie theaters, and other public encounters, this is not available to many teens. Although the mall and move theater are still desired outtings for teen couples, many have far greater access to networked publics like MySpace than they do to unmediated publics. Thus, it’s natural that the primary plumage display takes place in these forums.

The properties of networked publics – primarily persistence – extend the reach of relationship performances. If posted on a MySpace profile, verbalized adoration can be read by all of that person’s friends. Perhaps this perceived magnification of audience increases the “realness” of the relationship? Or perhaps it simply increases the likelihood of being validated for being with an attractive partner. Relationships are filled with public commentary about love and adoration. While adults often mark “in a relationship” and leave it at that, teens are far more likely to fill their profiles with odes to the one that they adore.

Teens are aware of how these expressions are witnessed by those around them. Consider, for example, the comments section. Teens recognize that what they write in a comment is visible to all of that person’s friends. This prompts loving significant others to publicly display their affection in a digital form, full of candy-coated words. On the flip side, because teens have the ability to voice their perspective to the broader peer group, there is a great incentive to make certain that one’s view is understood without the he said/she said dynamics. By breaking up through MySpace comments, the heartbreaker is attempting to assert their view for everyone else to see so that they cannot be accused of saying something else in private, different from what they believe that they did say.

Of course, while digital expressions are persistent, they can be obliterated in a matter of clicks by a heartbroken lover. By deleting a significant other from one’s friend list, all of the comments evaporate. Every loving message disappears off of the page of both partners, along with every negative comment. Is the goal of deletion to remove the memory of the now ex? Is it effective? The traces of these relationships remain, often because of the comments of third parties who reference the now ex.

When relationships end, it is customary to avoid the now ex for at least a period of time. Co-presence in school is to be ignored, phone calls are not to be returned, and events where the other one is likely to appear are to be avoided. The networked nature of social network sites makes it difficult to uphold this separation. While it is easy to block the ex from one’s own page, they are likely to appear in the comments section of mutual friends. Mutual friends are often the complicating factor during a breakup, prompting an all-too-problematic view that these friends must choose sides. Such a choice can easily be viewed on MySpace because the mutual friend cannot actually maintain both connections if a nasty breakup requires that s/he choose sides.

Relationships are a regular part of teen life. The activities around flirting, dating, and breaking up take place wherever teens spend time and teens adapt these practices for the technologies and environments in which they spend the bulk of their time. Because networked publics provide a space for teens to gather and share their lives, it is not surprising that the intimate acts that must be made visible take place here. While the online publicness of teen relationships horrifies many adults, it is central to most teens.

(1) Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2nd Edition).
(2) Mr. C. “St. Valentine’s Radio.” Understanding (blog). February 14, 2007.

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7 thoughts on “relationship performance in networked publics

  1. Ingo

    You have mentioned before that teens lack other avenues for free expression, being on their own and so on, and thus turn to MySpace and the like. I find that scary — not that they use online media to express themselves, but that they lack other possibilities.

    Have you done any studies on how this affects teens, how they cope, whether there are any intra-individual differences and so on?

  2. orcmid

    Nice one. Very helpful to someone who can barely remember being a teen-ager at a time when none of this was very prominent, at least personally.

  3. Sam Jackson

    Very fascinating, and all the more interesting as I pine for more contact electronic or otherwise with my LDR gf. That kind of research is the stuff I feel weird about for thinking about in normal life, so it’s always nice to see that these questions are being asked in legitimate academic venues as well as my own pseudoscholarly hypotheses.

    How’d the conference go, by the way? Office culture is so slackerly here (um, I’m at work now…) that I’m sure I would have been allowed to just skip the days anyways, probably. And now Congress is out of session–wonderfully convenient, right? If you ever need something hand-delivered here on the hill while I’m here, let me know.

  4. Hailey

    I think that there are other alternatives than Myspace. It is a bit scary to think that they do things like turn away from expressing themselves truly. They really need to get a grip on life and express themselves more! Girls and teenagers can really benefit from expressing themselves!

    -Much Love,

    Teen Girl Relationships

  5. Jessica Margolin

    Huh. Interesting!

    I compare this to older adult (>30) online dating behavior, and it seems anecdotally that because older ppl have varying expectations of the percentage of their community that’s online, they actually use online dating as an avoidance technique for RL relationships. This is particularly true in situations where RL relationship involves living together.

    They *aren’t* constrained by a lack of ability to hook up, so the boundary management behavior flips. At least this is my completely anecdotal POV.

    Assuming there’s some truth to it — big assumption — do you see any migrations between teens and say college kids from using online forums to act out RL relationships to using them to avoid them? Do college kids push the same behavior from HS into their collegiate relationships? (And what if they don’t go away to college… will that further “class divide”?) What about after college? What about between those who marry young (“buy in”) vs. those who aren’t rushing to pair up? What about those who prefer alternate dating styles?

    Just curious… !

  6. Scott Gun

    It doesn’t just happen to teenagers. I dated a 21 year-old last year and she totally sucked me into MySpace. Like with Mike and Amy, she altered her online persona a great deal, to reflect our relationship; using a picture of the two of us for her profile portrait, multiple blog entries and of course the status indicator.

    But as quickly as our relationship had ended, her persona changed again. The offending pictures and blog entries were gone and I had been…disappeared? She used her blog to put a positive spin on the whole affair, not realizing that because I had subscribed to the RSS feed of her blog, I could still read and comment on her posts.

    She wrote a few things that were less than flattering about me and I felt obliged to respond. The offending message and all the comments were also quickly disappeared…as if it all never happened.

    As far as I know, MySpace has since “fixed” the described security flaw.

  7. Mara

    it’s struck me as strange how much importance my “status” on facebook and myspace takes on. in the last couple years, i ended a serious relationship and began a new one, and at both points, changing our statuses was the defining mark that it was “really over,” and that we were “really together,” respectively.

    the idea that Western culture puts coupledom on a pedestal really rings true to me – i recently picked up a book by social psychologist Bella DePaulo called “Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After” that offers a good discussion of the implications.

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