In this excerpt from her book The Breakup 2.0, media studies professor Ilana Gershon explains the rituals around breakups on social networks. To defriend or not defriend? What about creating a warning ringtone for your ex?
After a break-up, people will remove all traces of their ex from their Facebook profile, deleting photos and wallposts. They will defriend the ex on their Facebook or Myspace, remove them from their IM list of contacts and delete their ex's phone number from their cell phones. All of these actions are, of course, loaded. To defriend an ex is often interpreted as a hurtful slight, an indication that the person wants to cut off all contact entirely. Anne told me how offended she was when her current boyfriend defriended her after they had broken up (and before they got back together).
Ilana: Have you been defriended?
Anne: Yes, my current boyfriend defriended me.
Yeah! To fill you in, I have to make you a tree chart, this is ridiculous. Chronologically, there is my freshman year boyfriend. Then I dated the boy from New York. And Kyle, my current boyfriend, that has always been all over the place. So I was with the boy from New York . . . and so I added Facebook pictures. And Kyle, I guess, still had feelings or whatever, and deleted me.
Ilana: And how did you know that he deleted you?
Because my roommate and I were both friends with him, and I was on her profile for something, and I saw him in the box of people she is friends with, but it wasn't "friends in common." And I thought: "What the hell, that's weird." So I clicked on it, and I couldn't see his profile. And I was like: "Are you serious? Did you delete me? You deleted me on Facebook?!?" I hadn't talked to him in six months, maybe nine months.
And so I sent him a message on Facebook, and an invite saying "did you seriously delete me? Like what the hell?"
I called him and I was like "Dude, did you delete me on Facebook?" And he just started laughing.
And I was like "no, seriously, did you delete me on Facebook?"
And he's like "no, it must be something wrong, I don't know what happened. Sometimes it does that."
"Well, then add me. That's stupid, you should add me. I sent you a request." And then he texted me after we got off the phone and he said: "Okay, you caught me. I deleted you."
And I was like: "What the hell? Why?!? Why would you do that? I haven't done anything to you. I haven't spoken to you or hurt you. What's your problem?"
He's like: "I couldn't see your profile anymore. I just couldn't do it."
In Anne's example, it was clear that defriending from her perspective was meant to severe all ties, and was only justified if she had done something cruel. As she explained: "That's a big step, you know it's like saying I don't care about you, I don't want updates on your life, I don't want to see you anymore, like, you don't do that, that's like cutting somebody out of your life completely." This was Anne's media ideology about what defriending an ex indicates. As I have discussed earlier, not everyone who defriends on Facebook is also trying to send the additional information that they no longer want to be in any contact with the person they have defriended.
Defriending after a break up is a very different move for people than removing someone's cell phone number from their phone. People typically talk about defriending as a way to express their hurt and anger. Defriending revolves around preventing someone from having access to your information and having contact with you. By contrast, deleting a cell phone number is all about preventing you from having access to them. College students describe removing someone's cell phone number as a way to keep themselves from calling or texting the person.
Ilana: So have you taken anyone's number out of your phone?
Yes, but I have a lot of saved text messages. They will be there. So if I am really really desperate to call them or text them, I know that I can go look at my saved text messages and they are right there. Or sometimes I — actually, this is so weird, I don't delete them, I just change the name really quickly. And then I won't know what name it is, so I can't look for it. Unless I really really want to take the time to look for it, but there are a lot of numbers so I don't. And then I don't know where the number is, so I can't text them because it is in there, I just don't know where. It works for the most part until I get really desperate, and then I look for it. . . .
In Trill's case, deleting phone numbers is not enough, she knows a bit too well that she has access through the traces on messages she tends to keep. So she has to change the information that accompanies the messages as a deterrent, changing someone's name in her cellphone. This is not always enough; when she really wants to know a number, sometimes she will ask her friends who happen to have the phone number saved on their phones.
While deleting the cell phone number is about controlling one's own impulses to contact one's ex, keeping the cell phone, or changing ringtones can be using the cell phone's potential to alert people to exactly who is calling. Maria told me that she would never remove someone's cell phone number.
Ilana: Have you ever deleted someone's phone number?
No, and I will tell you why: so you know if they call back, you won't pick it up. Although at the same time, I don't pick it up if I don't recognize the number. Even so, if a person who I don't want to talk to calls, I can see "oh, it is that person" and I am definitely not going to pick it up.
Maria here immediately thought about deleting a cell phone number in terms of screening other people, not in terms of managing her own impulses to call. At other moments in the interview, she talked about how she consciously controlled her own impulses to contact people when it would be unwise, and did not want to use her technology as this type of aid.
Other people use their cellphones' signals, and in particular their ringtones, as a reminder that they weren't all that interested in talking to someone, or that they are convinced the person is untrustworthy. Audrey explained the ways she and her roommates use ringtones to indicate how they feel about those they date.
Your boyfriend or girlfriend has their own ringtone. . . . You usually delete their number if you broke up. And then their ringtone is gone. Brad's was some song, and then I deleted it. Luckily I didn't give him a good song. I gave him a song that was popular at the time, but it isn't popular anymore. So it wasn't like a classic that I would hate to have to give up. You know, at least it wasn't something really good or something like James Taylor or something like a really romantic song. It was like some stupid top top of the chart little love ditty that they had on. . . . I wasn't about to give him a real romantic mushy song. . . . You can tell by the ringtone who it is, so you are like [as though from a roommate] "Brad is calling." [mimes answering the phone] "Brad, she's coming." . . . And then my other roommate's ringtone is "Shot Through the Heart, You Give Love a Bad Name," that's her exes' ringtone. So when her exes call, "Shot Through the Heart, You Give Love a Bad Name" will go off and everyone knows what's next. And we're like "Ian, Scott, or Patrick, which is it?" And she's like, "oh, its Scott." It's funny, she and Scott have dated off and on, but he had the ex's ringtone because he kind of screwed up in the past.
Ringtones are particularly good examples of how second-order information functions, because people can use ringtones to indicate a particular person, or a particular category of people without individualizing (all family members could be given the same ringtone). Debra told me that for awhile she had trouble because she hadn't realized that she could be using ringtones as warning. She assigned her boyfriend a ringtone, and then after they broke up, she assigned her next boyfriend the same ringtone. At first, when the phone began to ring, she couldn't tell whether it was her ex or her new boyfriend. When I asked her why she had done this, she shrugged.
She said that she thought of that ringtone as the ringtone designated for a boyfriend, and hadn't realized how complicated it could be to keep using the same ringtone for multiple people (especially an ex and a current boyfriend). The ringtone was supposed to indicate to Debra who was calling, but because she used it to signal a role (person who is or had been a boyfriend) instead of a person (Tom or Bill), for awhile she stopped being able to use ringtones to code what turned out to be necessary second-order information.
You can buy a copy of The Breakup 2.0 at Cornell University Press.
Photo by Pavzyuk Svitlana, via Shutterstock.