Facebook's Antique Courtship Rituals

Traditionally, love matters were public; courtship took place in the eye of the community, and relationships were business arrangements conducted in agreement for the best outcome for all parties involved. (Except the ladies, in most cultures and cases. But I am referring here to familial arrangement, for the "best.")

Then, sometime around the age of chivalry, romantic love — as a private notion and indeed as a notion at all — rooted itself into the human mind. Since that time, courtship has toed the line between public and private, romantic and business-oriented, with a significant modern turn towards the private and romantic in the twentieth century.

Enter Facebook. I am very interested in Facebook's role in this. We add our families, friends, and social networks, give them access to our photo archives and updates, publish our relationship statuses, and post pictures of our new significant others, waiting for the "likes" and comments to roll in. It is approval-seeking and narcissistic, but more than that, if left unfiltered*, it's kind of a return to ancient, public courtship ritual. Here are a few reasons for saying so.

The Facebook profile as a matchmaking profile for friends and family

In times of yore, the family of a marriageable young person would research the family and social strata of a candidate before approving or disapproving. Nothing has changed, except maybe the fact that research is not so heavy focused on the family now as it is on social decorum. In fact, for parents, I imagine this is the best part of Facebook. Let's say you're the savvy parent of a son or daughter of shackin' up age. Of course you're going to check up on the person-of-interest to find out if Offspring Dearest is dating a worthless Four Loko-chugging lout who posts nothing but grammatically incorrect, narcissistic rants aimed at the many petty friends who have slighted him or her, or if the child, in a remarkable moment of clarity, has latched on to a decent human who has a job title you've heard of, and who has managed to not wear a beer hat in any photos. If the former, you'll no doubt bring it up with your kiddo at some awkward point. If the latter, you may sit on in smug satisfaction at having raised a person capable of making great decisions. Or you may choose to make a gesture of goodwill toward the new person in the little one's life. Which brings me to...

The Friend Request as public social acknowledgement by friends and family

In Victorian times, courting took place under the watchful eye of the woman's parents, who had to approve the beau-in-question in an elaborate series of ritualized public calling. Nowadays, the calling card is obsolete, but the Facebook friendship is its contemporary equivalent. Now, friendship doesn't always happen, but once it does, in my experience, it is always the parents (and to an extent the rest of the family) who extends the Facebook friendship request to the daughter/son's romantic partner. My significant other's family members have slowly been adding me as their friends, and I find it a slightly nerve-racking move. In fact, I think I always leave the invites hanging in the inbox for a day or two as I consider the implications. But I always come to the conclusion that above all, the Facebook Friend Request is a public acknowledgement of legitimacy from the family — exactly the thing that the Victorian suitor would have hoped for in the 1800s.

The Wall Post and Photo Comments as "tokens" of love and intention

First of all, the concept of love tokens is hilarious to me, but it fits in here super well. So in the age of chivalry, gentlemen sent gloves to their intendeds. Norwegian girls would wear empty knife sheaths for suitors to fill (ouch! Metaphor!). The Facebook wall post, no matter how banal, is a public token, and with it the writer leaves a trail of intention. This is especially great and evident now with the "Show Friendship" function, which allows any interested party to examine a history of wall posts, common photos, and comments, all taken out of context except for that of linear time.

On this list, I am not even including the obvious: the roster of "Relationship Status" options that the user can choose from (this convenient research tool was one of Facebook's original intentions if The Social Network is to be believed). The public listing of relationship status is masquerading as cool modern openness ("In a Civil Union," "In an Open Relationship") but it's actually as painfully ultra-retro as wearing someone's class ring or letter jacket. Or knife for that matter.

*Yes, there are many ways to filter content for the eyes of specific viewers only. This post is not meant for the people who shrewdly guard their data. ...Also, I am not a person who shrewdly guards her data so don't consider this post paranoid, ha.

This post originally appeared on Hideously, She Said. Republished with permission.

Want to see your work here? Email us!

Image via flashgun/Shutterstock.com