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"The Breakup 2.0" looks at how people use
New Media to end relationships
Newswise, July 2010 — Leslie checked her Facebook
profile late one day and discovered that she
was suddenly single. Her now ex-boyfriend
had met someone new and she learned this
through the ubiquitous news feed that
presented her personal rejection like a
breaking news story…(click here to read rest
When he changed his Facebook profile, he
also changed her's as well -- they were no
longer announced as a couple. Their friends
received the news before she had.
There are now many more ways to break up --
both in public and in private -- and many of
them are virtual.
Leslie was one of 72 people that Ilana
Gershon, an assistant professor in the
Department of Communication and Culture at
Indiana University Bloomington, interviewed
at length for her new book, The Breakup 2.0:
Disconnecting Over New Media (Cornell
"I was interested in the ways in which
people were using new media to break up with
each other and also the ways in which new
media -- which is designed to create
connections -- creates all sorts of problems
when you're using it to disconnect," Gershon
"Almost everyone still thinks that people
should breakup face-to-face," Gershon said.
"The only people I interviewed who thought
that face-to-face was less than ideal would
imagine that they were the ones doing the
breaking up, not that they were being
"But the thing that surprised me is that
breaking up by talking on the phone is now
much more acceptable than it was 15 or 20
years ago," she added. "Because you have all
these different options for ending
relationships -- texting, instant messaging,
Facebook, e-mail, Twitter -- having an
actual spoken conversation, even if it isn't
face-to-face, is now widely seen as
Of the people she interviewed, 67 were
people who communicate frequently with new
technologies, undergraduate college
students. "I'm surrounded by a group of
people that are breaking up fast and
furiously and they were the ones ready to
talk to me," she quipped.
But the stories Gershon heard were much more
sophisticated than simply, "he texted me" or
"she sent me an e-mail." People she spoke to
did a lot of "media switching" and made use
of many forms of new media in order to look
for reasons behind the breakup and even
continue to follow former lovers' lives
online. She said there are various things
that can be learned from each form of
For example, a 30-something man she
interviewed learned that his wife wanted a
divorce through a two-sentence e-mail while
he was away on a business trip. In the
meantime, she had emptied their joint bank
accounts and he had no place to stay upon
his return. Afterwards, she kept e-mailing
his work account rather than having direct
conversation. She ignored all of his notes
he sent to her personal e-mail account.
"He began to pay a lot of attention to where
the e-mail account the messages were coming
from," Gershon recalled. "He began to try
and figure out what was going on. He learned
that she had been experiencing with trying
to have different personalities online. She
had practiced being a different person on
her Facebook profile," she added. "He also
figured out through the technology, in part,
that this other person (with whom she was
having an affair) was at her workplace."
The boundaries were clear: he was no longer
allowed to contact her personal account or
interact with her during her personal time.
"People really are using all the ways in
which these technologies give them access to
different kinds of information about what's
going on, to try and figure out what's going
on," Gershon said. "What I find really
interesting about the break-up stories is
that they were really detective stories."
Some people told Gershon they figured out
who their former lovers were seeing by
checking their Netflix queues and matching
them against the movies that their suspected
new lover listed as their favorites on
Facebook. She also found a great deal of "Facebook
Stalking" and Google searching -- by people
on both sides of the failed relationship --
to discern how "their exes were feeling
about what happened and the aftermath."
"I think that a lot of what I recorded were
people who were doing the stalking
themselves, in ways that they would not be
noticed. If they knew that someone could
tell that they were doing that kind of
stalking, they'd be very uncomfortable ...
People talked a lot about constantly getting
information and doing a lot of monitoring in
Gershon also talked to people about
decisions they had to make after a breakup,
such as what to do with online traces of the
relationship -- pictures of the couple and
their wall posts on Facebook, the cell phone
number and special ringtones.
"People used to have to make similar
decisions -- do you burn the letters or not?
But now they are making decisions about
traces that they might encounter on a daily
basis whenever they contact other people,
not just the ones they can stick in a box
somewhere and decide about later," she said.
She dedicated a chapter to what it means to
speak in public today and sees differences
developing in the way these new technologies
are seen and accessed. For example, this
argument recently has been played out
through public discussion of Facebook and
the privacy of its users.
"There's this real divide between people who
are imagining an anonymous audience and
people who imagine an audience over which
they control access," she said.
Since beginning her research, which also
appeared earlier in Anthropology Today,
people have asked Gershon whether her
research provides conclusions about whether
using social media and other new forms of
communication is healthy for relationships.
"What they're looking for are rules and my
research did not produce rules," she said.
"There's only one rule that I really feel
comfortable with after all of my interviews,
which is don't share passwords. If you're
sharing passwords, change them the minute
you think a breakup is about to happen. I
know that now."