Facebook took a big step this week in their decision to allow people to identify as being “in a civil union” or “in a domestic partnership.” ZDNet offers their take in “The country of Facebook recognizes civil unions” as well as a note on the limitations of the new feature:
Functionally the change is minor to unimportant, from a societal standpoint it moves Facebook alongside some 35 plus countries in recognizing, in some form, non-traditional relationships.
Is it appropriate to talk about Facebook in country scale terms of influence? With 600,000,000 users, its population is only behind those of the physical populations of China and India, and is nearly twice that of the United States. That said, the two new options are reported to be limited to users in the U.S., U.K., Canada, France and Australia, before we rush to name Facebook a vanguard of social change. The country list actually makes little sense, it does not align neatly to the list of countries that actually legally recognize such unions.
And of course following that, the 15,000,000 Facebook users in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where homosexuality is largely a crime with penalties ranging from jail time to the death penalty, will not be seeing this option.
I am glad that this news story is a reminder of the inequality LGBT folks face world-wide and how one’s geographic location can influence their ability to engage with social media. Despite the limitations of the new feature, I am excited about it. When I think of Facebook, I can’t help but think about the possibilities that exist for quantifying information about a variety of different populations. While the recent Census took a major step in counting gay couples, I expect that Facebook will increasingly be a source of information on how romantic relationships are formed and sustained in the modern era. I, for one, will be keeping my eyes peeled for journal articles on sex and relationships that discuss trends that occur from this new option in the relationship status drop box.