How Facebook Is Kicking Down the Closet Door

Twitter chronicles users' lives in 140-character bursts. Mario Anzuoni / Reuters-Corbis

Several weeks ago, a friend—whom for these purposes we'll call Joe—came to me with a woebegone expression on his face. When I asked him what was wrong, he confessed a digital dilemma. A mutual friend had casually left a comment in Joe's boyfriend's Twitter feed that exposed their relationship. Neither Joe nor his boyfriend is openly gay, and the pair hadn't planned on having that conversation with friends and family any time soon—if at all. The fallout was relatively mild: a friend contacted Joe's boyfriend and asked for confirmation, which he reluctantly gave. The offending tweet was quickly removed, so either no one else saw it, or whoever did chose to ignore it. Joe was upset with our friend for sending the tweet, the content of which was a bit careless but totally benign, and my response to him was a combination of devil's advocacy and good old-fashioned tough love. I told him that he and his boyfriend have the right to keep their relationship and their sexuality a secret, but there's only so much contortion they can expect from others in keeping up appearances. The other bit of my advice was more immediate: if you want to be in the closet, you can't be on Facebook and Twitter.

I don't judge Joe. In fact, I've been effectively out myself only for the last year or so, so I know that staying in the closet is a routine that makes all the sense in the world until, for whatever reason, it doesn't. Joe's reasons for keeping his romantic life to himself are his own, and they're perfectly valid as long as they make sense to him. It irritates me when people come out, then decide that everyone else needs to immediately follow suit. But social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter simply don't allow for compartmentalization. A buddy once told me that his gay friends and his straight friends are like light and dark liquor—ideally, they shouldn't be mixed. But social networking forces you to shuffle your decks; friends, family, drunken hookups, and co-workers all get equal treatment—equal weight in a news feed or stream. Presenting a partial portrait of who you are becomes tricky.

That's not to say staying in the closet on Facebook can't be done. It's possible, as long as you're willing to work it like a full-time job. Keeping an eagle eye on tagged photos, pushing Facebook's customizable privacy options to their capacity, swooping in to delete unapproved comments and wall posts, refraining from posting the new Beyoncé video even though it's so fabulous—all in a day's work. But whereas in the recent past, being in the closet wasn't that much work once you were out of your parents' house, now it requires real effort. Closeted people can't just watch their own behavior anymore: they have to monitor and somehow orchestrate the behavior of others, 24 hours a day, in real time.

In spite of all the painstaking labor that goes into being secretly gay in the age of information sharing, my advice to Joe to get off Facebook was mostly facetious. Clearly, that isn't a feasible option. Facebook is now an integral part of our culture. Its precipitous growth is owed to the fact that it works only if it's massive. The more people participate, the more utility it has, and the more utility it has, the more compulsory participation becomes. Your technophobic aunt is on Facebook not because she wants to be but because she feels she has to be, and she kind of does. Joe is 27; to sit out of Facebook is to be seen as a Luddite or, heaven forbid, the type of pretentious jackass who opts out of anything deemed to be too mainstream. Worse still, he would miss out on my status updates, which, if I do say so, are wryly observant and quite hilarious.

Many gays and lesbians will never get actively involved in the fight for equal rights. They may never take part in a march or a protest, and coming out to their friends and loved ones will be the most daring and progressive act they ever commit. But its impact can't be underestimated. According to a Gallup poll released last week, American support of gay and lesbian relationships crossed the symbolic 50 percent mark; just over half of respondents called them morally acceptable, and those who found them morally wrong dropped to the lowest percentage (43 percent) in a decade. It's not a stretch to assume that this trend is owed, at least in part, to brave men and women coming out and forcing those around them to confront and reconcile their prejudices. A close friend of mine, from whom I kept my sexuality for years, apologizes to this day for having made me feel I couldn't tell her. She credits me with shifting her attitudes about gays and lesbians; when forced to choose between my awesome friendship and her bigotry, she made the obvious choice.

Though I probably couldn't convince Joe, much as no one could have convinced me, I'm confident his friends and family would make the same choice my friends did. But if he had faced the same dilemma prior to the advent of Facebook, there wouldn't be as much reason to take the risk. The 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, argues that people make better choices through optimal "choice architecture," systems that remove the effort from making the choice. For example, people are more likely to opt for healthy cafeteria foods if the offerings are arranged in a way that displays those foods prominently. Social networking radically alters the choice architecture of coming out of the closet. It's not inconceivable to think that Facebook will become a significant part of the gay-rights movement, when people increasingly come out simply because to not do so seems like the bigger hassle. The crisis that added a deep wrinkle to Joe's forehead presented an opportunity that perhaps one day he'll be ready to seize, and when he is, all his audiences will be in one place. When others do the same, resistance to equality for gays and lesbians may suffer death by a thousand tweets.