In Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network,” one of Mark Zuckerberg’s friends asks him if a girl in his art history class is single.
“Dustin, people don’t walk around with a sign on them that says…” Mr. Zuckerberg trails off, then sprints out of the classroom to add the final touch before Facebook goes live: the relationship status.
Part of Facebook’s initial allure certainly is the ability to connect with people you may not have otherwise. However, with social media use exploding over the past several years, many are starting to shy away from sharing some of the more intimate details of their lives. A Pew Research poll released in February found that 24 percent of Facebook users dislike the temptation or pressure to share too much about themselves.
That being said, Facebook is rolling out a new feature that allows users to “Ask” a friend about his or her relationship status, along with a short note explaining why. As with any social media site, the question of motivation remains: is the Ask feature a way for people to connect without being creepy or another way for Facebook to nudge people into sharing more ad-targeting data?
Here’s how it works. Next to the “Relationship Status” widget on the left side of a Facebook profile, there is a little button called “Ask.” If you would like to ask someone about his or her relationship status, click on the button and a small text box will pop up, prompting: “Let [your friend] know why you’re asking for [his/her] relationship status.” You can then type in a short inquiry or comment.
The friend then has a few options: they can either respond and privately show you their relationship status or publicly reveal it at that time. Or they can ignore you, leaving you in the literal and digital “friend” zone.
The Ask function is also available for phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other information that people may want to keep private, but divulge to certain people.
How is Facebook using data that people previously weren’t prompted to include? In a statement to BuzzFeed, Facebook says: “While certain information like relationship statuses can be used for targeting purposes, the goal of this particular feature is to provide an easy way for friends to ask you for information…Things you share with Facebook can be used to improve our targeting and show you better ads; however, none of that information is shared with advertisers.”
That being said, Facebook has been making small, but steady pushes toward getting people to share more than just photo albums and "listicle" links on their timelines in recent months. Last month, Facebook released an optional feature for mobile devices called “Nearby Friends,” which lets people see where their friends are located based on GPS.
Also on Tuesday, Facebook announced it is rolling out an “I’m a Voter” button worldwide. The feature, which was trialed in the US during the 2012 election, is a sort of digital “I Voted” sticker: the badge will be shared with networks and show up on user profiles. Facebook released the feature in India during the last few weeks of elections, and more than 4 million people participated. It estimates that more than 400 million people will see the button over the next year, as elections go forward in South Korea, Indonesia, Sweden, Scotland, New Zealand, and Brazil, among others.
Reuters points out a 2012 study in the scientific journal "Nature" that found 340,000 additional citizens voted in the US midterm elections in 2012 once they saw a Facebook friend had clicked the voting button.
Will the peer pressure work? It’s up to the Facebook user to decide whether sharing a relationship or voting status is worth feeding more data into the Facebook algorithm.