Breaking up in a digital fishbowl, revisited. (Or: How the New York Times filleted me on the front page of the Style section)
Ending a relationship sucks, no matter which side of the break-up you’re on. A piece in the New York Times today explores how the Internet makes things even worse. It suggests you ask someone experienced in the suckiness of digital dissolutions: me.
NYT journalist Laura Holson called me last week as a privacy expert for the piece; during our interview, I went into some personal experiences, and went from being an expert source to being an anecdote.
In 2006, I ended a three-year relationship. It sucked. We had a shared bank account that we used for joint expenses. As we went through the break-up process and debated whether we really wanted to end things, we let it dwindle to a piddling amount. After months of indecision, I finally called Bank of America. The representative asked me why I had decided to close the account, and I broke into tears.
It was devastating at the time. But now I think it’s a laughable moment (which I told the journalist). But I don’t look amused in the photo accompanying the piece, since the photographer insisted I not smile.
Holson sums up the break-up here:
Ask Kashmir Hill, who was stung one day when she logged into a former boyfriend’s e-mail account — they had agreed to share passwords — and read a note he sent his mother explaining why he was no longer in love. The couple shared an online bank account and, for months after the breakup, Ms. Hill pored over the balance as it dwindled to $10. She cried when she finally closed the account.
There’s a little melodrama there that’s not entirely accurate. I was wary of talking to Holson about my personal life, but thought it would be hypocritical for a journalist to abstain from being a source for another journalist. After seeing these quotes though, I wish I’d been a hypocrite:
“It’s enough to get rejected in real life,” said Ms. Hill, 28, who blogs about legal issues and lives in New York. “But does it have to happen so often in my online world too? It makes me want to keep my digital life separate in future relationships, whomever they are with.”
Those are not words I can imagine coming out of my mouth, or anyone’s mouth really, except for an actor in a teen sitcom. It’s not like something I would say or something that’s reflective of my own experiences. I was baffled to see those words in quotation marks followed by my name. I sent Holson a Facebook message asking whether these came from a digital tape recorder or from her notes. They came from her notes, she replied. I’d say, “Let’s go to the tape.” But apparently I can’t do that.*
My embarrassing appearance in the NYT aside, the article raises an interesting question: do our digital entanglements make breaking up harder?
It’s not a new question. There has been much written about the dreaded status change on Facebook. It’s embarrassing for us all to watch our friends go from “single,” to “in a relationship,” to “it’s complicated,” to “single” again.
That’s not really new. It’s an age-old process. Letting friends know your relationship has failed always sucked. But Facebook has streamlined the process and exposed it to many eyes. And having a digital trail can make the heartache last longer:
As a result, the idea of what it means to break up is also being redefined. Where once a spurned lover could use scissors (literally) to cut an ex out of the picture, digital images of the smiling couple in happier days abound on the Web and are difficult to delete. Status updates and tweets have a way of wending their way back to scorned exes, thanks to the interconnectedness of social media. And breakups, awkward and drawn-out in person, are even more so online as details are parsed by the curious, their faces pressed against the digital glass.
The digital age makes it harder for us to really get away from our exes. When my parents tell me about old flames, those people are truly gone from their lives. They severed ties years ago, and they have no idea where they are now or what is happening with their lives.
But I can fairly easily Google all my exes and figure out what they’re up to. I’m Facebook friends with all but one of them. We Internet-savvy folks are faced with the irresistible temptation to Facebook stalk exes (recently made easier thanks to the Facebook privacy setting changes.) I don’t know if it’s emotionally healthy to go trawling through their pages. But I do it anyway, because my curiosity is stronger than my ability to become emotionally detached.
(I’m not sure if men do this, but I have to assume the Y chromosome harbors some crazy stalking tendencies too. Holson notes in the piece that all the men she contacted refused to talk to her about their personal lives. If any male voices want to weigh in, I welcome your comments or you can e-mail me. I promise to quote you anonymously, and accurately.)
And what about your ex Face-stalking you? Some put their exes on limited profile or defriend them entirely. I’ve done both.
Two lessons I’ve learned from all this: (1) No ring, no passwords. (Hattip: ATL Commenter.) And (2) Don’t talk to NYT journalists about your personal life. If you do, bring your own digital tape recorder.
* Holson insists the quotes are accurate though she did admit the comments that inspired them came during a part of the interview where we spoke more generally about relationships in the digital age. I have certainly been dumped before but not “so often.” In talking about rejection, I was relating a story about being de-friended by the ex-boyfriend of a close friend of mine, who was cutting all of his ties to my friend. As to the last sentence, I remember Holson asking me: “Does this make you want to keep your digital life separate in future relationships, whomever they are with?” To which I responded, “I suppose so.”