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The Facebook Breakup


Credit Rodrigo Corral

For Kate Sokoloff, a brand strategist in Portland, Ore., the Facebook mirror of her breakup with her boyfriend of three years was like “an emotional sucker punch,” she said. “Not 15 minutes after we broke up four years ago, and probably while he was still parked outside of my house, he changed his status to ‘single.’”

This meant that all of the couple’s Facebook friends, including her teenage sons, were instantly notified. “There was no hiding or time to cry on my own,” said Ms. Sokoloff, now 55.

She did message friends, asking them to remove any photos of herself and her former partner from their own Facebook albums, but she remembers wishing “there was a Facebook vacuum cleaner that could suck every trace of our relationship off the Internet. Photos, in particular. In fact, some just popped up yesterday.”

Since last November, there has been such a tool, part of a kit the social network has designed to manage and curate the digital archive that is growing with each relationship. It’s like cleaning your closet, said Kelly Winters, a product manager on Facebook’s designated “Compassion Team,” a changing squad of product managers and designers, engineers, researchers, social scientists and psychologists. “You don’t want to keep anything around that doesn’t spark joy,” she said, echoing the mantra of Marie Kondo, the Japanese decluttering guru.

Three million users have already deployed some aspect of the breakup flow, as it’s called, by choosing to minimize what they see of an ex going forward, and similarly hide their own postings, settings that can easily be reversed if the future brings a change of heart or a dulling of the ache.


From left, Kelly Winters, Gregory Wells, Emily Albert and Dan Muriello, who work on Facebook’s Compassion Team. “If designers are in charge of surprise and delight,” Ms. Albert said, “what does it mean to design for aspects of life that are painful?” Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Undoing the vacuum tool (to use Ms. Sokoloff’s words for the engineering feat that harnesses what is known as distributed computing to untag hundreds or even thousands of images that no longer spark joy) is more laborious.

It’s not news that the social network, whose roiling environs hold over 1.5 billion people, is a complex and sometimes confounding space. Navigating its evolving rules and byways requires the nuance and skill of a Jane Austen heroine, as well as the thick skin of a politician.

(As an aside, you can only pity any would-be Austens who try to chronicle this behavior poetically. Despite social media’s demonstrable complexity, there’s a narrative poverty to phrases like “And then I unfollowed my lover on all platforms.”)

The Compassion Team is devoted to making Facebook’s interactions more human, and more humane.

Ms. Winters and her colleagues have developed tools to help with social resolution, bullying, online aggression (or perceived aggression), eating disorders and issues particular to high school students, working with the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and other academic partners.

New projects will assist in identifying suicide ideation in a friend’s posts, and offer help connecting to resources for suicide prevention. There is a team working on how Facebook profiles can be managed after someone dies; another group has created safety checks, so friends and family can communicate quickly in a disaster.

One bright, hot Tuesday in February, the sun glinted off the baby-blue cruising bikes that Facebookers ride from one side of their extensive Menlo Park, Calif., campus to the other, looking like healthy undergraduates captured in a college brochure.

Over 6,000 employees work there, shuttling between the New Urbanism “village” that once served as Sun Microsystems’ headquarters (Facebook took it over in 2011) and the 433,000-square-foot open-plan mother ship designed by Frank Gehry on the other side of the Bayfront Expressway.

Inside the Gehry space, plump Mylar balloons shaped like numbers floated gently above the desks, marking each staff member’s “Faceversary,” as one’s anniversary of hiring is called. Vending machines offered keyboards and chargers, not Snickers bars. Pink letterpress posters proclaimed “Be the Nerd,” among other inspirational slogans.

Ms. Winters; Gregory Wells, a clinical psychologist; Dan Muriello, an engineer; and Emily Albert, a product designer, were gathered in a conference room named “Outlook Not Syncing” to explain how the breakup flow came to be.

Conference rooms are titled thematically and idiosyncratically. While one series of rooms was inspired by the “Star Wars” franchise — “Luke I Am Your Cousin,” read one sign — others, like “Olympic Fish,” were more puzzling. This reporter was excited to crack the code of a series of rooms that flummoxed her guide. “Ascending and Descending,” “Drawing Hands” and “Cube with Magic Ribbons,” to name a few, would appear to pay homage to the work of M. C. Escher.

Ms. Albert, an ebullient 25-year-old who had been a classically trained ballet dancer before she attended the Rhode Island School of Design, described struggling with the digital legacy of a former boyfriend from college.


Screen shots of the Facebook breakup tool.

“I was seeing one post after another,” she said, “experiencing this thing that a lot of my friends have, where it’s almost impossible to separate when you’re constantly tied digitally. In one cathartic move toward empowerment, I thought, what if Facebook tried to tackle this?”

On the company shuttle home to San Francisco one evening, she floated an idea she had been working on to minimize that entanglement. How to digitally unmesh without choosing “the nuclear option” of unfriending or blocking someone? There was resounding encouragement, she said. “Heartbreak is a very common ailment here.”

Heartache and Facebook do go hand in hand.

There are studies that have examined the relationship between attachment styles and a tendency toward digital surveillance after a breakup on Facebook. There are studies that show a correlation between that digital surveillance — so-called Facebook stalking — and what’s known as obsessive relational intrusion, or the pursuit of intimacy with someone who doesn’t want to be pursued.

Some studies have found possible links between Facebook use and higher rates of cheating in a relationship, which leads to more studies showing that Facebook may be a predictor of divorce.

There are studies that prove Facebook makes you sad, and studies that show just the opposite. Some researchers aver that Facebook use creates a neural addiction by stimulating what is known as a dopamine feedback loop — a burst of natural opioids when you receive a status update or peruse a friend’s page. There are even studies that suggest a relationship between posting one’s relationship status on Facebook and the health of that relationship.

A breakup has stages of aggressiveness, said Morgan Smith, 18, a freshman at Northwestern University.

“If you block your ex on every platform, that’s like 10 on the scale,” she said. “If I cut my ex off on Facebook, it’s also too much negative energy on my part. I want to extend a polite opening for the future. I don’t want to see what you do every day with your life” — as on Snapchat, for example — “but if you’re accepted to the study-abroad program or become class president, I would like to congratulate you. Facebook is more of a long-term document of your life.”

Matthew Kopfler, a 37-year-old chef in New Orleans, was a bit more bedeviled by his Facebook breakup, though he dutifully untagged any photos he and his ex had appeared in, and unfollowed her on all platforms, not just Facebook. But he forgot to “unlike” her Facebook business page (his ex has a wine store, so their social media presence was a snarl of work and pleasure).

This meant, he said: “the vague passive-aggressive post would filter through my feed, and inject anxiety in whatever circumstance. Time is the only healer, but Facebook sure does throw it in your face sometimes. On the same note, my dog died two months ago, and Facebook wants me to share his picture once a week.”

For Madeline Kaufman, 20, a journalism student at Northwestern, her Facebook breakup was like a game of digital chicken. It took her four months to “break up” with her long-term boyfriend on Facebook, though they had done so in the real world.

“He kept his status ‘in a relationship’ for another two months,” she said. “It was a weird ‘letting go’ concept I had to get over, and was weirdly hard for me to do. But I guess in that respect I may have ‘won’ because I took mine down first.”


Artwork inside the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Alisha Ardiana, 42, a dog trainer “in training,” as she put it, in San Francisco, is still wincing from her first foray into Facebook back in 2008, when she connected with her birth mother, along with her entire birth family, and joined the social network as a way of communicating with her new clan.

The breakup that ensued was traumatizing, she said. When she had a falling out with her mother, the rest of the family unfriended her, too, which meant, Ms. Ardiana said, that she logged on one day and “I had no friends at all. We had been in this virtual room together, and they all left.”

Years later, having overseen her birth father’s illness and death on the social network, she said, “I feel strongly that Facebook is an amazing tool, but it holds such a concentrated amount of emotions and not always on our terms.”

Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, has been studying the effects of social media on young adults since the birth of the technologies that have enabled the networks.

Last week on Ask the Mediatrician, the online forum he runs, Dr. Rich received a typical query from a young woman who was unable to stop cyberstalking her ex on Facebook, though she had unsubscribed from his news feed, a behavior compounded by that of her girlfriends, who she said were all doing the same thing.

“We see someone who would never think of stalking their ex-partner in real life doing it quite easily online,” Dr. Rich said. “We’re seeing a lot of behaviors that have existed since the dawn of time” — jealousy, in other words — “playing out very differently on social media.” Some behaviors are being amplified, but others may be muted.

A few years ago, Dr. Rich’s group, along with Boston’s Public Health Commission, organized a seminar for teenagers that spurred the slogan “Face it, Don’t Facebook It.”

Dr. Rich said: “It was about honoring the quality of the relationship when it was good by facing your partner and saying, ‘It’s not working.’ ‘Face it, Don’t Facebook It’ was about having some emotional skin in the game instead of just changing your status online. I’m concerned that all these tools with the best of intentions will create a socially more-acceptable way of not facing things. These tools are morphing and evolving so rapidly that we have to keep re-educating ourselves as the tools change.”

In a Facebook tradition for birthing new products, Ms. Albert refined her breakup idea at a 24-hour hackathon — like a sleepover for geeks, as she put it — then road-tested it among many survey respondents, had it massaged and amplified by more engineers and researchers, and finally presented it to Mark Zuckerberg in April 2015, in a two-minute pitch in his glass-walled conference room. (A guide pointed out the room and gestured vaguely to a clutch of identical workstations nearby. Which one was Mr. Zuckerberg’s? “I can’t tell you that,” the guide said.)

“I’ve had my fair share of trials to overcome,” Ms. Albert said later. “I was diagnosed with anorexia as a teenager. Working on the eating disorders project, I was able to act as half designer and half advocate. It’s incredibly healing to bring goodness out of things that have caused you pain.”

Finding the right tone was a big part of the design process, Ms. Albert said, language being crucial in creating a tool kit that would be flexible enough to address a 14-year-old breaking up with her boyfriend of four weeks as well as longtime married couples with children.

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It also had to be neutral, not familiar, and not in any way hortatory. “If designers are in charge of surprise and delight,” she said, “what does it mean to design for aspects of life that are painful?”

Facebook language isn’t lyric poetry, by any means, but it does the trick. If you’re able to stumble onto the breakup flow (not an easy task, at this point; it’s only available on mobile and only in the United States), you should discover, as Ms. Winters described, a bento box of options.

“Take a Break. Here are some changes that might be helpful. We won’t notify Taylor of any changes you make. See less of Taylor. See Taylor on Facebook only if you visit his profile.” And so on. Mostly the language is like that of an instruction manual — “Turn on tag approvals for posts and photos you’re tagged in” — though at the end, it veers into self-care: “Reach out to people you trust for support. Stay Active. …”

There were some ideas that were, as Ms. Albert said, “out of scope to build, the idea of locking yourself out, temporarily, from one person’s account, trying to prevent that stalking behavior.” Technologically, she said, it was a bridge too far, and it led to a bigger conversation about what role Facebook wants to play in people’s lives. “It would be like Starbucks not accepting your credit card,” she said.

And just maybe such stalking is productive for some, a step toward resilience that would never accrue from watching baby sloth videos or mash-ups of Donald Trump tweets.

Ms. Sokoloff, the brand strategist who yearned for a digital vacuum cleaner, wondered if there wasn’t some emotional cost in making all traces of a relationship disappear. “Is there something important in the healing process that would be lost if we can essentially have the Facebook equivalent of the dream removers from ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’?”

In her latest book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Sherry Turkle explores, as she puts it, “how technology makes us forget what we know about life.”

Dr. Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a longtime observer of how people interact with their machines, recalled a presentation in the “early days of the Internet of Things,” she said, “for how we might use this new way of animating our worlds.”

It was a phone app that would present you with a path to, say, Starbucks, that was designed to bypass former lovers who may be in the way, or indeed anyone you had tagged as someone to avoid. In this way, Dr. Turkle said, you could enjoy a friction-free walk to pick up your mocha frappuccino.

The notion of “friction-free” still disturbs her. “Maybe you’re not supposed to move on for a year,” she said, while noting the boons of Facebook’s breakup tools. “I was thinking about people compulsively reading old love letters and diaries, poring over old wedding albums and photos, and then writing poetry, short stories, novels.” Making art, in other words, after marinating in the stew of the past.

“It’s not to say that Facebook shouldn’t make it easy to click that button to avoid certain painful memories,” she said. “But the reason we’re looking through those old love letters is we’re trying to work through our past. I think we just have to acknowledge the humanness of that process and be compassionate with ourselves. Life is supposed to be complicated.”

A few weeks ago, Ms. Albert was on vacation in Barcelona with her boyfriend. In the last days of the trip, he surprised her with a private tour of the Gothic Quarter. When they arrived at the Barcelona Cathedral, he proposed, an event captured on film, as he had planned, by the two photographers who were running the tour.

Nonetheless, the couple waited 24 hours before they changed their relationship status on Facebook.


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