My big sister warned me that this time would come. The time when you’re afraid to log in to Facebook on Sunday morning for fear that all of your Facebook friends got engaged on Saturday night. Every no-longer-single one of them.
I’m almost four years out of college, and around me, the dominoes are starting to fall. Of course, they aren’t all going to get engaged, and certainly not all at once. But it can feel that way thanks to Facebook’s relationship updates, and to an in-your-face trend those updates enable: the stand-alone engagement ring photo op. Because, as daunting as seeing my acquaintances getting hitched left and right can be (this adulthood thing is not really going away!), I’m thrilled, delighted, tickled pink, and other adjectives, for all of them. But the subset for whom I’m slightly less tickled are those who insist on posting pictures of their newly bedazzled left hands — just the hands — on Facebook to announce the changes in their relationship statuses. Call it the context-free diamond; even if the stones are ethically sourced, the status update is irksome.
In the past, engagement ring photos were the visual equivalent of a humble brag, snuck in sideways and with a blushing face: The radiant couple posed with the bride's conspicuously sparkling left hand on the groom's upper arm, or the bride-to-be excitedly holding up her hand next to her smiling face. But in the age of the context-free diamond, the ring flaunt is unabashed: a close-up of the hand and ring, perhaps with a caption like, “He asked … ” or “I said yes!”
It’s hardly news that, as a culture, when we discuss becoming man and wife, we talk far more about weddings than we do about marriages. Whether it’s reality TV, Pinterest, or the "happily ever after" of romantic comedies and fairy tales, the focus is on the Big Day, not on the decades of married life that will hopefully follow. More than that, the wedding is her big day: In our most grotesque consumerist visions of the American wedding day, the wedding is not about the couple, it’s about the bride and her adornments. How else to explain the existence of a show like Say Yes to the Dress? And now the pre-wedding fantasy has narrowed even further: Engagement isn’t even about her, it’s about just one of her digits, and the giant, symbolic geological product that sits on it.
One of my Facebook friends, Fawn, 26, posted one such photo to announce her engagement after her now-fiancé popped the question last month. (On 12/12/12, no less.) She didn’t want to call or e-mail everyone she knew to tell them the news — this way, she reasoned, they wouldn’t be put on the spot to congratulate her. As for the ring shot, she says, “a lot of my friends do not live near me and I wouldn't get to show them in real life (and I think the ring is one of the first things people ask about) so it seemed convenient to post on Facebook.” Another picture-poster, Rachel, 26, gives the same reasons — convenience, a pass if she forgot to personally notify anyone — and admits that it’s really just about the ring. “From a completely personal and maybe somewhat vain perspective,” she says, “I was happy and proud, and I think my ring is something my friends and family should see, since I absolutely love it.”
While Pinterest has emerged as the new social media mecca for those planning their weddings, Facebook remains the place to loudly announce your engagement. And with Facebook’s new relationship pages, introduced in November, that seems unlikely to change. A relationship page allows you to see your whole Facebook history with your betrothed, from that first playful poke to popping the question. The two of you can see it but, more important in the social media era, so can everyone else.
Perhaps, as Fawn suggests, the ring shot is a natural consequence of a culture that relies on social media, and that asks newly engaged women to “show me the ring!” Carley Roney, editor-in-chief of wedding-planning website The Knot, agrees. “It may look like you’re showing off, but let’s face it: Your friends will want to see pictures of your ring!” she counsels readers in her advice column. (She recommends “chang[ing] your privacy settings so only your inner circle” see the ring.)
Deanna Zandt, author of Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking, argues that social media didn't create ring-flaunting impulse, but merely gave it a new outlet: “Facebook represents, for better or worse, many of our social rituals regularly,” Zandt says. That includes “political banter, bullying, vacation/baby/pet photo sharing,” as well as the “disembodied hand with a giant conflict rock.”
As an unmarried woman, I realize I run the risk of sounding bitter in this critique. But I’m not the only one uneasy with the practice; some brides find it unnerving, too. "The engagement to the love of my life is more important to me than the ring,” says Erica, 27, who is getting married next summer and chose not to post a photo of just her left hand. “So I wanted my wider circle of friends to focus on that, not just the ring.” Apart from that, Erica had privacy and security concerns about announcing that she'd just acquired a very valuable piece of jewelry. "It wouldn't be that hard to figure out where I live. It's practically begging someone to come and rob me."
So is showing off the ring a good thing or a bad thing — or a bad thing we’re allowed to do, anyway? If wedding preparation is the time an adult woman is allowed to indulge, then perhaps her engagement marks the beginning of a phase of socially acceptable material-driven self-centeredness. If that's the case, the context-free diamond is a loud, irksome way to announce that beginning.
Of course, the engagement ring is symbolic of more than just wealth. Once, it was virginity insurance; now, most couples would say, it’s a mark of commitment and a metaphor for the happy brilliance of love. Symbols are powerful things; the average American couple spends $5200 on the bride's engagement ring, and then another $1126 for her wedding band. On one (expensively adorned) hand, that’s an investment you might want to flaunt. On the other hand, it’s probably plenty potent even without its own Facebook photo album.
On the spectrum of Facebook sharing and oversharing, a context-free diamond is hardly the worst sin; personally, I reserve that title for the passive-aggressive status update. Still, the focus on the ring — not the couple, not even the bride — is approaching fetish-levels of fixation, and Facebook is only fueling the fire. This particular social media trend seems here to stay. As long as it does, I’ll be staying off Facebook on Sunday mornings.