Last semester, Bill Gostic, a junior at Johns Hopkins, started hanging out with "this one girl. It was sort of romantic," he said, "but I told her I didn't want anything serious, just to have fun. And she said, 'Yeah, just for fun.'"
Gostic smiled ruefully.
One night not long ago, he was clicking around Facebook.com, a social networking Web site popular with college students, and noticed that the girl's profile had changed. The box indicating her relationship status, which used to be checked "single," was suddenly, chillingly blank. He asked her about it; she said that she'd like both of them to switch their profiles to "in a relationship," and, if he didn't feel the same -- well, they wouldn't be having so much fun anymore.
"Then it just became this slow struggle," Gostic said. He's still seeing her and has erased his single status, though he hasn't filled in the fateful "in a relationship" bubble.
"I haven't caved completely," he said. Yet.
Young love, never easy, is now more tortured than ever thanks to social Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster that ask users to define their dating status. Those in the first throes of passion agonize over the right moment to check the "in a relationship" option; others who feel the fire dying debate the protocol of switching back to "single" -- or even, on MySpace, to "swinger."
Partners often disagree on their mutual situation, and the resulting drama pervades college campuses and twentysomething enclaves across the country.
The predicament is particularly vexing for a youthful dating culture accustomed to super-casual, label-free relationships.
"It sounds really juvenile, but there's a lot of pressure involved in this," said Edyta Sitko, 24, who works for a nonprofit environmental organization in Charles Village.
Recently, Sitko and a woman she'd been getting serious with had "the talk." Only, instead of "Will you be my girlfriend?" the bigger question was "Can I say you're my girlfriend on Facebook?" When the woman said yes, go ahead and switch your box, Sitko rejoiced.
The formal term for this is "Facebook Official." Becoming Facebook Official is a huge step for young couples, even though frequently the change occurs without a real-world conversation -- just with the click of a mouse, as in the case of Britney Johnson and an overeager flame.
When the guy Johnson was seeing altered his profile, "I really wasn't ready," the Johns Hopkins junior said. Their relationship was Facebook Official, but it never recovered.
The profile portions of social networking Web sites are electronic questionnaires designed to keep a person's friends and acquaintances up to date. Along with relationship status, it can list, for instance, favorite songs, employment information or personal ambitions.
The profiles are constantly in flux; Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, estimates that 20 percent of the 8 million profiles change every few days, and some evolve daily.
Changing the relationship status option is the most stressful edit, said Hughes, who just graduated from college himself and is an avid online networker.
"Choosing at what point to switch the status is something that we've all dealt with personally," he said. "It is a universal problem."
The trouble is that the stakes are so high, particularly when weighing the "single" against "in a relationship" options. (Categories such as "married," "divorced" and "engaged" are more clear cut, one would hope.)
"If you change your relationship status to 'in a relationship,' all of a sudden ... you're in a relationship," Hughes said.
Apparently, this prospect is daunting enough that, about six months ago, it prompted the young Facebook entrepreneurs to add another option to the profile: Now, the confused can click "it's complicated" and leave it at that. But users say this choice has done little to lessen the tension.
Advertising romantic relationships is nothing new in American culture. In the 1950s, a girl wearing a beau's varsity letterman's jacket or fraternity pin was clearly spoken for.
In the 1990s, though, dating became much less formal, and more young couples kept their status under wraps, said James Houran, a psychologist and columnist for Online Dating Magazine.
"It was the whole Friends atmosphere, everyone drinking coffee together on the couch," he said.
The commitment-free emphasis was a result of increasingly urbanized communities, where it was easier to juggle multiple partners, as well as the skyrocketing divorce rate, which made singles wary, said Ty Tashiro, an assistant professor of psychology of the University of Maryland, College Park.
Against this backdrop, relationship labels became "much more subtle," Houran said, and tokens of love were either private or nonexistent. "The class ring and the necklace with two hearts had gone the way of the dodo," he said.
But now, couples accustomed to this casual, highly ambiguous atmosphere must contend with their relationship's cyber dimensions, where profiles make it tough to skirt the issue. For a generation more comfortable with "hooking up" than "going steady," defining a love affair online seems terribly formal and frightening.
Also, this expression of love is far easier to manipulate than a traditional token of affection, like a class ring -- it can be taken back with a few keystrokes, without so much as a phone call.
"These little boxes have become like emotional blackmail," Houran said. "They drive paranoia and complicate relationships as you're in them. You can do it instantly, act on your feelings, positive and negative."
Some relationship experts think that the pressure to pin down the nature of a union is good for young suitors used to dilly-dallying.
"I think Facebook and MySpace are fantastic," said John Gray, author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, who now runs a relationship advice Web site.
In romance "there's always pressure and confusion, and now its online," he said. But the profile options help reduce doubts and sidestep uncomfortable conversations, he said.
"If you want to be in a committed relationship, there is an awkwardness in bringing that up with the other person, because there is a fear of rejection," Gray said. "Now you can do it at a distance, and there's more of a tendency to let your partner know where you stand. That's a great thing."
Online vs. in person
Yet others, such as Tashiro, who teaches a class on interpersonal relationships, warn about the danger of replacing important conversations with online machinations.
"They break up over Facebook," he said. "They don't even break up over the phone -- you log onto you partner's Facebook and find out they're single. It is an impoverished way to communicate."
He said that human beings have evolved to express feelings, particularly romantic ones, face to face, through all five senses, and that important cues are lost online -- particularly when all that's involved is clicking a box.
Steven Yang, 19, wanted his meaning to come across loud and clear. The Hopkins sophomore and his girlfriend had argued Thursday night, but Friday morning, rather than mope around on his computer, he charged through the 90-degree heat with an armload of wilting roses.
Facebook is all well and good, Yang said on the way to her apartment; just like everyone else, the couple had the standard discussion about the right time to become Official. But now he wanted to stay that way, and "some things are best done in person."