Unpacking “it’s complicated”

A friend recently sent me an update email with the line:

She is my “it’s complicated” on Facebook.

[updated to add: the friend in question cites xkcd as his inspiration]

I think this quote is wonderfully transcendent in capturing the zeitgeist, so much so that I’m going to spend a blog post unpacking it. Grant McCracken introduced me to the anthropological concept of unpacking in this essay contest from last year (the winners are here), where he asks his readers to supply the “underlying cultural notions” that help to explain what has been observed. So let’s take a look at what’s going on in this quote.

Let’s start with the mention of Facebook. Most people are at least aware of Facebook at this point – it’s a social networking site where one can share one’s life with one’s friends and acquaintances. In particular, one can describe one’s status in a variety of ways, write notes about one’s life, put up pictures from one’s life, etc.

One way in which Facebook is changing the culture is that there is an increased awareness of the public performance aspect of our actions. The Facebook generation is aware that they are always on stage and are comfortable with it in a way that writers like Daniel Solove certainly wouldn’t be. In fact, they use Facebook as a platform to communicate with their friends and update them more efficiently than could be done by communicating with them individually using SMS or phone calls. So it becomes a big deal when they change their relationship status on Facebook or when somebody edits their Top 8 friends on MySpace. Using such platforms to manage one’s social life becomes a reflexive performance with an explicit awareness of one’s audience; the platform is used to deliver public messages to one’s community about shifting social relationships.

The next concept I want to unpack is “it’s complicated”. In Facebook, you can describe your relationship status as one of: single, in a relationship, engaged, married, in an open relationship, or it’s complicated. The first four are the straightforward ones that everybody expects, but the last two are decidedly non-traditional. “It’s complicated” is a nice catch-all term for relationships that don’t fit into the normative bounds of society, where it takes time (and possibly a whiteboard) to explain what’s going on.

It seems like such relationships are becoming more common, and possibly even more accepted. My friend who lives with his two boyfriends is often disappointed when he gleefully explains his living situation and people say “Oh, that’s cool” rather than being shocked or dismayed. Conservatives might rail against such non-traditional relationships, but American society is slowly moving in the direction of “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad” (to quote Sheryl Crow).

I also wonder if Facebook including “it’s complicated” as a first-order option for relationship status will hasten the acceptance of such non-traditional relationships. Can the widespread use of Facebook redefine social norms? On Facebook there is no stigma associated with such relationships, as they are just another option in the dropdown box for relationship status (unlike other forms where one has to choose the dreaded “Other”). As people use Facebook to represent themselves, will the implicit acceptance of such relationships by the software influence how people think of those relationships?

I love how this one sentence indicates the direction our society is taking as we explore relationships that do not fit into the traditional nuclear family and how it affects us when our previously private social lives are a matter of public discourse. I don’t know if I have done justice to either the statement or the idea of unpacking, but hopefully this exercise gets you thinking about how even simple statements can tell us much about the state of our culture.


possibly a whiteboard: My friend Brad had a special category at his Love Sux dinner for Valentine’s Day, where he said that even though the event was for single people, “if you’re in a complex kind of relationship where you really can’t tell if you’re single or not, you qualify. Just come by and complain to us how he’s really sweet but he’s with his wife and her girlfriend the circus-trainer for Valentine’s Day… White-boards not provided, you’ll have to draw on the placemats.”

2 thoughts on “Unpacking “it’s complicated”

  1. One way in which Facebook is changing the culture is that there is an increased awareness of the public performance aspect of our actions. The Facebook generation is aware that they are always on stage and are comfortable with it in a way that writers like Daniel Solove certainly wouldn’t be.

    Reminds me of a quote I saved from the New York Times:

    Jeremy Fletcher and Alejandra Lillo, designers at Graft, an architecture and design firm based in Berlin, Beijing and Los Angeles, were working out a dialogue between voyeurism and exhibitionism, they said, when they designed the swooping, shiny white interiors of the W Downtown, a glass-walled condominium tower to be built in 2009 in Manhattan’s financial district.

    …

    Graft’s peekaboo interiors are a sly commentary on a culture that continues to find new ways to display ever more intimate, and mundane, details of domestic life. In a YouTube world, one’s home is no longer one’s private retreat: it’s just a container for the webcam.

    Penelope Green
    “Yours for the Peeping”
    The New York Times, November 4, 2007

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