There’s a (probably fictionalized) scene in The Social Network, David Fincher’s dramatic account of Facebook’s founding, wherein a young Mark Zuckerberg conceives of one of Facebook’s trademark features. He’s in a lab, a friend asks him if a classmate is single, and a light bulb goes off. “This is what drives life at college,” the entrepreneur-to-be exclaims as he finalizes Facebook’s earliest profile page. “Are you having sex or aren’t you?”
It’s what drives life outside of college, too, and so, a decade later, the Relationship Status function—“Single,” “In a Relationship,” “It’s Complicated,” and the like—remains one of Facebook’s key tools. When two partners “consciously uncouple,” that’s where the drama on your newsfeed is concentrated.
But as is true of all social media, the onus is on users to put that information online. Some people don’t want to broadcast their relationship status on Facebook, and what then?
That frustration seems to be the target of Facebook’s unambiguously creepy new “Ask” tool, which does exactly as its name suggests: It lets you ask your digital-shy friends what their deal is. “Are you seeing anyone?” it probes, from screen to screen.
It can be used to obtain other nuggets of personal information as well, though relationship statuses are the juiciest and, perhaps, most useful of those. The Washington Post explains what, precisely, happens when you make that request:
After clicking “Ask,” a pop-up asks you to explain yourself. (I obviously told my friends I was testing the feature for a blog post. I’m not that creepy.) After you send it, your Facebook friend gets a notification that says “[Your Name] requested your relationship status”—or whatever it is you requested. If your friend chooses to share that information with you, you’ll get a notification that says “[Friend’s Name] updated her relationship status on her profile. You requested this info [however many hours or minutes] ago.” If your friend chooses not to share that information with you, you won’t be notified.
Maybe Facebook fears its usefulness as a dating tool has been outdone by the rise of OkCupid, or maybe mass surveillance anxiety has eroded its users’ willingness to share the way they used to.
Either way, the Post reminds you that whether you choose to share your relationship status with just the one nosy friend or your entire feed, it’s still fodder for Facebook’s advertising algorithms.
If you want to opt out, there’s always the method that Mark Zuckerberg and co. used in 2004: Just ask your crush’s friends, maybe even IRL.