In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a dangerous water serpent with many heads. Its breath was allegedly poisonous, and for every head you cut off two more would grow in its place. I have a few couples in my Facebook network who have merged their profiles—they've become Hydras in their own way: a single entity, posting under a hybrid name, generating all sorts of confusion as to who is really behind the content (though language is sometimes a giveaway). Networks emphasize the individual's connection to the collective. What are the implications of these dual identity profiles to the larger social group?
The rise of the couple profile can be seen as a return to the single point of contact for family units, similar to a shared email address or a joint bank account. In some ways, it makes it easier for a couple to update friends and family members, and for them to be reached by friends and family members, but there may be darker issues at hand. For example, it may be a means of ensuring that your significant other isn't keeping up with that particularly persistent ex. Or flirting with the barista who happened to send a friend request through.
Couple profiles force the network to accept the couple, and they may ultimately reduce the points of contact for the pair within the network. For example, what if you're only friends—and just acquaintances at that (e.g., you sat next to each other during biology class)—with one member of the couple? Suddenly, you're forced to share information with both parties. Can you send private messages? Does it matter if her husband is viewing your vacation photos? Does it matter if his girlfriend is browsing your friend list?
The argument in favor of the couple profile may be that members of couples should know each other's friends anyway, and that there shouldn't be any secrets. To a certain degree that may be true, but the online social network is not designed for this sort of limitation: we can't possibly know everyone that our significant other has ever known. Nor were we really meant to. After all, we were individuals before creating a partnership, we have individual networks, and while there will be overlap as we merge lives, we never really abandon our own networks. We still have relationships outside of this category, and as we go about the business of work, commuting, and other daily life activities, we're going to continue to develop networks outside of the couple's connection.
Facebook allows us to hold on to connections we made in kindergarten. Or at the bookstore. Or at your cousin's bestfriend's daughter's mother's fiftieth birthday party. It's designed so we never have to "lose" people. Sure, we can create lists and categorize them and set privacy settings, but we're online to maintain ties to those people. At least that's why you accept the friend request from the guy reading Tolstoy on the subway who managed to track you down. (Hey, it could happen!) The couple profile attempts to cull these connections, and that may not be a bad thing, but runs counter to the natural flow of the online network.
We celebrate individuality in the real world. Is this a movement away from that online?
Note: A version of the post appeared on Anthropology in Practice on April 27, 2011.