The 600 million user social networking behemoth made a small change to its 'Relationship Status' drop down box today, and in doing so recognized 'In a civil union' and 'In a domestic partnership' as valid choices in the way one can report their personal relationship on the site.
Functionally the change is minor to unimportant, from a societal standpoint it moves Facebook alongside some 35 plus countries in recognizing, in some form, non-traditional relationships.
Starting in Denmark in 1989 and spreading to some 30 plus countries, the concept of civil unions was created to ensure that same-sex couples received the same rights, benefits, and were subject to the same legal responsibilities as opposite-sex couples. The concept is highly controversial with both supporters and detractors for what is commonly referred to as gay marriage, the former believes it does not grant rights equivalent to marriage and thus holds them at a second lesser status, the latter holds that civil unions legitimize a type of relationship that should not be sanctioned by the state.
Is it appropriate to talk about Facebook in country scale terms of influence? With 600,000,000 users, its population is only behind those of the physical populations of China and India, and is nearly twice that of the United States. That said, the two new options are reported to be limited to users in the U.S., U.K., Canada, France and Australia, before we rush to name Facebook a vanguard of social change. The country list actually makes little sense, it does not align neatly to the list of countries that actually legally recognize such unions.
And of course following that, the 15,000,000 Facebook users in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where homosexuality is largely a crime with penalties ranging from jail time to the death penalty, will not be seeing this option.
Regarding the change, Facebook only released the following statement to the Huffington Post: "This has been a highly requested feature from users. We want to provide options for people to genuinely and authentically reflect their relationships on Facebook."