Sunday, July 13, 2014

Breakups in the digital age - Facebook needs a big breakup button!

"Hanging the divorce papers has been good for my mental health and the wedding photo has improved my aim - it's hanging in my basement where, on occasion, I throw darts at it. (Huffington Post)

Just me, my divorce and everyone on Facebook

Social media sites are happy to lure you past every intricate moment of your relationships, but when things go wrong these social tombs do nothing to help people easily delete those memories.

By Nick Bilton
Thursday, July 10, 2014
James C. best Jr./New York Times

The last thing I remember was the tears running in rivulets down my cheek as I confirmed that, yes, I did want to delete the picture on my Facebook page.

Several hours later, I, grossly hungover, was awoken by a flash flood of the rising sun through my hotel room. My face looked like Bubble Wrap after I fell asleep (likely with a thud) on the carpeted floor. And a bottle of whiskey, now empty, lay stranded amid a ruin of scrunched tissues, dried from my tears and snot, which sat in a makeshift shrine around me.

For a moment, as I started to piece together where I was, how I got there and what had happened the night before, I looked over at my laptop, which was clammed-open on the floor, and I felt sick to my stomach, not from the hangover but, even worse, from what might be waiting to greet me on the Internet.

"Please, God, let them be gone," I thought. "All of them — gone."

This had all begun a few weeks earlier, when my wife at the time and I decided to get a divorce. Saying goodbye was difficult, but removing a life we had both lived online for the better part of a decade proved to be close to impossible.

The web was littered with pictures, videos, check-ins, likes and tweets of our every moment. Now that online reality show that I produced, directed and starred in was there to remind me in an almost demonic tone that I was single and that those images weren't going anywhere.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites are happy to lure you to post every intricate moment of your relationships online. Yet when things go wrong, these social tombs do nothing to help people easily delete those memories.

Anyone who went through a breakup before 2005 knows that it was a lot easier in the olden days. Relationships ended with the framed wedding photos being flipped over on the mantle and the pictures of that Parisian vacation stuffed in a shoe box and exiled under the bed, and couples rarely documented the cappuccinos they drank together — at least not normal couples.

Not anymore. If breaking up is hard to do, breaking up in the age of social media is unfathomable.

My solution to removing these hundreds of pictures was a bottle of whiskey, a box of tissues and a long night of deleting the past, one image at a time. Facebook wouldn't have it any other way. After all was said and done, I contemplated deleting my Facebook account entirely.

My breakup happened three years ago. Since then, you would hope that sites like Facebook and Twitter would have implemented tools to help people fix broken hearts. Maybe offering a big "breakup" button that eradicates, or archives, all of the images and updates from you and an ex.

Alas, they haven't.

Nancy Baym, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that these sites don't offer a solution to remove content because it goes against the companies' goals of having more stuff to put ads next to.

Instead, Baym said, what's left from a breakup is a "lingering aftermath" people are left trying to navigate, alone.

Today, the after-effects fall far beyond deleting photos. There are trails of tweets back and forth, check-ins on Foursquare, comments, LOL, winky faces and that fateful relationship status on Facebook. (I'm convinced that figuring out how to change your relationship status without an embarrassing announcement appearing in your news feed requires a software engineering degree.)

Some sites don't even give people the ability to delete. Last year, Google implemented an algorithm that automatically groups collections of images together, often putting people's significant others in a subsection of an image search result for a person's name, so that if you do a Google Image search of my name, my ex-wife now comes up.

When I tried to decide what to do with the images of me and my ex on the sites I could control, some people suggested I leave the photos alone, embrace the past and allow it to live in perpetuity. But, as I explained, what would happen when I started dating again? Leaving romantic images of me and another woman online would be like inviting a date over to my apartment for dinner and having my old wedding photos framed around the living room.

I doubt that would lead to a second a date.

Numerous research studies have also found that forgetting an ex in a breakup is imperative for healing.

The minefield of breaking up in the digital age doesn't end once you've spent a night alone in a hotel room drunkenly deleting the past. People also face the challenge of whether to unfriend their ex, unfollow his or her mutual friends, and sever digital ties to their family members. And who is going to fire off the first shot.

When my relationship status changed to "single" on Facebook, I remember gasping and letting out a sound akin to a small kitten being tortured.

For teenagers, these issues are even more complicated. Some teenagers will actually use their relationship status, changing it to single, as a way of letting their boyfriend or girlfriend know it's over.

Ilana Gershon, the author of "The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media," told me about a young girl who broke up with her boyfriend and, in retaliation, the boy deleted everything from his Facebook page that did not pertain to their relationship, leaving his wall as an embarrassing shrine of comments and images that she was trying to forget.

"There are no guidelines when a breakup happens online, so we have to come up with strategies in the moment to figure out what to do," Gershon said. "As we get longer and longer histories with these technologies, we will begin to discovery what has worked in the past."

Breaking up in the age of social media sometimes proves too much for people, and for that and other reasons, they delete their accounts altogether.

I'm glad I kept mine active in the end. A year after my breakup, I ended up meeting a woman — on Facebook, of all places — through some mutual friends. We fell in love, and we now live together. After six months of dating, I even changed my relationship status on the site. And I didn't need a bottle of whiskey to do it.


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