The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media

Recently I finished reading Ilana Gershon’s book The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media, and found it endlessly fascinating.

Gershon’s book is a study of how people (mostly college undergraduates at the University of Indiana, but a few post-grads as well) negotiate the ends of romantic relationships in a time when there are more methods of communication available than ever before, each of which have varying degrees of anonymity, accessibility and privacy, and few of which have agreed-upon standards of how they’re meant to be used in our culture: e-mail, text messaging, phone calls, Skype, social networks such as Facebook, and instant messaging. The most valuable thing about the book is its ability to make one aware of this lack of standardization–I tend to think (and so do most others, I suppose) that other people use new media in the same way that I use them, so the way that I shape my messages is generally dictated by that assumption. But that false assumption can lead to communication breakdowns of varying degrees of severity, especially during discussions with high emotional stakes–for instance, when one person thinks that it’s socially permissible to break up with a romantic partner by sending a text message, but the person being dumped doesn’t agree. (And why would you think it’s a good idea to break up with someone via text? But apparently, according to this book, this happens.)

Gershon give a lot of attention to the subjects of Facebook accounts and their relationship statuses. It’s here that her cleverest insight appears, I think–the idea that Facebook is designed to provide “potato chips of information” about people, which are enough to make you want yet more information about them, but never enough to completely satisfy. After all, most problems of human relationships, whether romantic, professional, or platonic, are problems of imperfect information—we don’t know what people are doing when they’re not around us (wishing they were near us; standing in line at the DMV; shoplifting from a department store), and unless we’re telepaths, we can’t know with certainty what they’re thinking when they are near us (I’ve been thinking about you all day; my driver’s license photo looks horrible; the cops may be on their way). Most of the time, most of us deal with imperfect information rather well and don’t even think about it as a problem (because of trust, or at least confidence in a pattern of established behavior). But nonetheless, there are few things more bothersome than being reminded that you don’t know everything there is to know about someone. Paradoxically, while Facebook can indirectly provide more information about a person you’re seeing than that person gives you directly, that information can also make you annoyingly aware of a lack of complete information, and in relationships that awareness can sometimes bloom into suspicion, or paranoia. Gershon relates a story told to her by one of the male undergraduates who participated in her study:

“When the trust is not really there, Facebook is only your enemy. She would go look at my friends’ photos. I can give you a good example. There was a huge fight because I have some good girlfriends who I am just friends with. I have always been just friends with them, nothing more…. I was at the bar and there were some pictures taken of all of us. And I decided to untag the photos. It wasn’t a picture of me kissing a girl. It wasn’t anything like that. Things were going very well, and I wanted to avoid an argument. And you know, maybe two weeks later, she is friends with them on Facebook, she happened to be looking through their pictures, and saw me in four of the pictures. ‘Why is Alan untagged from these pictures?’ And then there is a whole fight.”

Here’s a case where the photo provides some additional information (Alan was at an event at which his girlfriend was not present), but also makes Alan’s girlfriend aware of the incompleteness of that information (what she really wants to know is: What was Alan doing at that event? And with who?). And the additional negative information of the untagging only makes things worse—clearly, Alan has something to hide, but what? Hence, a fight. Irrespective of whether Alan was in the wrong, without a site like Facebook, and without a culture of ubiquitous, cheap, and easy recording and distribution of images, this argument most likely wouldn’t have happened. These are social problems that have only cropped up in this particular fashion in very recent history, and which we as a culture are still figuring out how to negotiate.

The students in Gershon’s study have various methods of circumventing these problems. One is to leave Facebook altogether, or refuse to friend people they’re dating; another is to seed their profiles with false information, obscuring what is true and making all of it seem potentially unreliable to those who don’t know them more intimately in an offline context. So, for instance, students will set their relationship status to “married” even though they’re single, or heterosexuals will say they’re “in a relationship” with one of their best platonic friends of the same sex from high school. Creation of fake and/or alias Facebook accounts for these purposes is also common (though I seem to remember that in the early days of the site, fake accounts could and would be shut down).

In another story related by Gershon, a woman begins to date a man who doesn’t have a Facebook account; since it is important for her that her Facebook profile openly signify that she is in a relationship with him, she creates an account for him without his knowledge, fills it out, friends it with her own account, and links her account’s relationship status to the newly created account, therefore creating the public performance of a presumably private intimacy. (He only finds out about this after he breaks up with her and goes on a date with another woman, who immediately accuses him of not telling her that he had a girlfriend—of course, she looked him up on Facebook before going out with him.)

As an aside, an increasing prevalence of false data on Facebook would seem to undermine the site’s perceived value. My impression is that the draw for joining Facebook during its early years was that the information hosted there was supposedly true and real, and thus would allow you to find out information about strangers without violating social norms that punish unwarranted inquisitiveness. So if you wanted to find out whether that sophomore in your Spanish class is seeing anyone, instead of trying to get her to tell you without asking her point-blank, or trying to get her friends to tell you, or taking your chances and asking her out anyway, you could just friend her on Facebook, and find out that way. (This is gestured toward in a quick scene in The Social Network that ends with Zuckerberg adding relationship status as a feature to the site he’s building.) But people have a habit of using tools in ways that their designers don’t intend, and can’t predict.

If there’s one slight weakness of the book in my opinion, it’s that Gershon has too much resistance to the possibility that intrinsic qualities of certain media can contribute to our perceptions of how those media should be used. She insists that our ideas of what media signify and should be used for are entirely social constructs. (For example: “An e-mail conversation is not, in its essence, more formal than an instant-message conversation—or less honest or spontaneous, or more calculated. But some people believe that e-mail is more formal, more dishonest, and more calculated, and this affects the way they send and receive e-mail messages.”) But that doesn’t seem always to be the case to me. For instance, in a discussion about whether some media are perceived to be more formal than others, Gershon says that her students in general see e-mail as more formal, but text messaging as more informal. This makes sense to me. But surely the limited length of text messages and (for people who don’t have smartphones) the time it takes to key in a message both strongly discourage the use of the usual markers of formality in English, which would in turn lead inevitably to the perception of informality? By comparison, e-mails, which can be as long or as short as you like for all practical purposes, and are easy enough to type with a keyboard, can also be either formal or informal. It’s hard for me to imagine a credible world in which texts and tweets (which must be very short, and are generally very cheap to send) are considered more formal than e-mails simply because everyone decides to see them as such.

That one nitpick doesn’t take the shine off a brilliant, enjoyable piece of research, though, with lots of sharp analyses of colorful anecdotes. I’ve really only skimmed the surface of the book here–I began reading it expecting to find that it would have been better off published as an essay, and ended it wishing it were longer. (Incidentally, it would sit well next to Jaron Lanier’s book You are Not a Gadget, especially considering his observations about how the standardization of social networking sites can serve to limit self-expression.) It’s well worth the time I spent reading it.

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