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Matrimony in the Age of Facebook

Weddings 2.0: “I Do” and now give me a moment to update my Facebook status.

My summers are usually dedicated to putting words on paper. I am either in the middle of writing a new book (which I am diligently working on), catching up with submitting journal articles (I am woefully behind in writing up some fascinating research coming out of my lab) or producing thought pieces like those I write for Psychology Today and The National Psychologist. This summer feels different. Yes, I am still deluged by so many writing projects that it takes three post-its on the wall behind my laptop just to list them. That process is also being interrupted three times for weddings, each requiring a lengthy plane ride but a too-short visit to a wonderful location. A week or so ago I was in Kauai for my partner's son's wedding (on Tunnels Beach at the far north end of the island). In a few weeks I get to return to almost the same location for my son's wedding and then in September it is off to New York City for my partner's nephew's wedding. Although she and I are enjoying the wedding march, we have both been noticing how social networking has begun to play an enormous role in the pre-wedding planning, the actual wedding and the post-wedding sharing of photos.

Take the wedding that we just attended in Kauai. We arrived three days before the wedding making up two-fifths of the wedding party. The day we arrived the bride to be had posted a status update on Facebook exclaiming, "About to get married!!!" along with a photo taken from the airplane on the way to the island. For the next few days photos were posted and comments flooded in from friends around the world in multiple languages. On the day of the wedding the bride and the groom posted status updates and proclaimed, "Boda" (wedding in Spanish) and "Honeymoon time!!!" Again, more comments and congratulations. All together I counted more than 40 people expressing their delight at the nuptials over a period of just a few days.

The very next morning the happy couple changed their Facebook statuses from in a relationship to married and the bride changed her Facebook name to include her new surname.

Of course, with a wedding in such a gorgeous spot photographs were taken both by the professional and the wedding attendees. Immediately I uploaded a photo even before the echo of "I DO" had faded away. Again, congrats all around from my friends and family and a request for my son's bride-to-be to scope out good places for all of us to eat when they had their special time in Kauai.

I remember the old days when the photographer would take his photos and then provide you a week or two later with a contact sheet that had tiny images from which you would select those perfect shots for reproductions and assembly into the bridal book. Not in this era of Web 2.0. The next day the photographer posted every single photo that he took on a special website where anyone could watch a slide show of the festivities. For those people who were not part of the wedding party it must have felt as though they were there with the happy couple enjoying the wedding and watching the gorgeous sunset. I know that both of us sent that link to our friends and got immediate responses of love and congratulations.

The second wedding is shaping up differently but just as virtually visible. Six months prior to the wedding the second happy couple posted an online wedding album at where they displayed a ticker indicating how many days to go before the big day, information "about us" which included their individual stories about how they first met; a short description of the "proposal" with the date, time, feelings and everything to let you feel as though you participated in my son asking his girlfriend to marry him; a section about the ceremony and what to expect including a Google map to get you to the exact island location; a description of the pending rehearsal dinner; a registry section which included links to the stores where they had registered (including the exact items that they would love to get as gifts); guest information which directed all of us to housing, the wonders of the island and short blurbs on all the sites to see (including, of course, Google maps); and a virtual guest book with congratulations from all of their friends most of whom would not be able to take the long journey to the island for the wedding. It felt warm and caring and the virtual wedding site felt as though they had taken time to make it special for everyone.

The second wedding also has had its share of Facebook activity including back and forths between the bride-to-be and her family and friends about her daughter's outfit and what flower they should get for her hair (posted as they were shopping), as well as her insomnia as she gets closer to the wedding (which produced quite a few empathic comments from her friends). I am sure that as the time grows closer we will see more Facebook chatter and more Facebook congratulations.

Interestingly, the final wedding, the one in NYC, has had nearly no visible Web 2.0 interaction and the invitation was actually sent by the postal service. Will wonders never cease?

Why am I spending precious words on weddings? Well, a lot of my musing has to do with research that I have done for the new book. In my writing preparation I have spent hundreds of hours reading journal articles, popular press, blogs, and other sources about the evils of social networking and the inability of anyone to have virtual friends and to gain virtual social support from those virtual friends. It seems that the world is somewhat disjointed on how to understand and appreciate the social networking revolution. The immediate knee-jerk reactions to MySpace and then Facebook were that it was a waste of time, frivolous, fraught with mean people saying nasty things, a world populated by people pretending to be someone else, and, most certainly, a place that could never measure up to the friendship needs that we own as living, breathing human beings. Although the media has somewhat tempered those negative images of social networking, the balance is still tipped to the FACEBOOK IS BAD side of the story.

While watching the dramatic rise in MySpace (and also viewing its rapid downfall) followed by the even more amazing climb of Facebook from nothing to nearly 700 million people in a few short years, my colleagues and I have been studying the impact of this new millennium phenomenon. And we are not alone. Many psychologists and national survey organizations such as the Pew Internet & American Life Project have examined various aspects of our new virtual lifestyle. The conclusion? It's too early to tell, but it has been interesting to watch how the media has received the news of various research results. For example, Pew researchers published a study last month where they found Facebook users to be more social and have closer personal relationships in the real world as well as being more trusting and likely to gain social support from others. This brought on gobs of media responses ranging from doubting the validity of the study (which is ludicrous since Pew is the premier organization in providing solid national surveys on issues related to technology and American life) to railing about how this trust in an online, virtual friend network is most definitely dangerous and most likely damaging to personal relationships in the long run.

Another prime example of how the media has painted social networking as not only a waste of time but a dangerous place was seen in, of all places, a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics which alerted the world to a new scourge, "Facebook Depression" which could possibly attack our children. The news organizations rallied to bring this to our attention:

  • "Facebook depression seen as new risk for teens" - CBS News
  • "Doctors warn of Facebook depression" - Boston Globe/MSNBC
  • "Pediatricians should discuss Facebook depression with kids" - Time Magazine

The problem is that while the authors of this important article provided six citations in support of their claim, most were third-party sources misquoting a study that actually had nothing to do with depression and social networking. There is no research that supports a phenomenon called "Facebook Depression."

My own research is taking a more detailed look at how people are interacting with social networks from a variety of viewpoints including how personal values about social networking differ across generations, how people online can provide social support and empathy and even how social networking relates to risky behaviors. The bottom line is that when you look at the research coming out of psychology labs around the world, we are all building up a research-based case that social networking is actually, on balance, positive and is providing heretofore-unseen benefits to people in terms of their social relationships and their functioning in the world.

Now, back to the weddings. There is no doubt in my mind that social networking is and will remain a major part of all of our lives. Whether Facebook survives or is replaced by a new social network (Google + perhaps?), we are social animals and we crave social contact and social validation. We exist on developing our own social capital, which we then can use to feel better or function better in our real world. This is undeniable as I watched the bride and groom create a virtual environment that not only documented their special day (and all the days leading up to it) but also shared their feelings and joy with their friends (both known and virtual). Just watching the chain of Facebook posts confirms that the happy couple received a treasure trove of well wishes and oohs and aahs from their friends around the world.

Is there a right way to do social networking? Not that I can see. The "right way" is to share and connect in ways that make you feel enhanced and supported. Is there a right way to do research about this seminal website of the new millennium? YES! The research needs to focus on both the good and the bad, the benefits and potential harm that social networking has to offer. It should be even handed and apply sound scientific techniques to build a story about social networking. And this is happening all around the world. Just Google Scholar the term "Facebook" and you will find articles with titles like, "The Benefits of Facebook Friends: Social Capital and College Students' Use of Online Social Networks" and "Facebook Profiles Reflect Actual Personality, not Self-Idealization" presented alongside scholarly works such as "All About Me: Disclosure in Online Social Networking Profiles" and "Look at Us: Collective Narcissism in College Student Facebook Photo Galleries." This seems to me as though it is what our field is supposed to do in studying a phenomenon. Provide solid experimental and quasi-experimental work to hone in on the important issues and come to a consensus about potential benefits and harm. The wedding parties most certainly benefited from Facebook as well as other parts of Web 2.0. Now it is time for the research to continue and synthesize the psychological issues that are inherent in our always connected, often virtual worlds.