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Romance (and Break-Ups) in the Digital Age

Ilana Gershon, Asst Prof,  Dept of Communication and Culture at Indiana University-Bloomington; author, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media
Casey Corcoran, Dir, Boston Public Health Commission's Start Strong Initiative (host of Break-Up Summit 2.0)
Heidi Swank, Asst Prof of Anthropology, UNLV
"It's Over"

It hurts, whether someone says those words to your face or, maybe worse, via a text message.

"This relationship isn’t working. We need to talk. We’re done dating, and I want all my romantic CDs and photos back."

But sometimes the medium—texting, Twitter, Facebook, in person— does matter. In the modern world, where social media, email and texting are useful tools for communication, what’s the etiquette for transmitting personal information?

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On Tuesday, December 6, 7:30pm, social scientist Ilana Gershon gives her presentation: "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover: New Media and Breaking Up”, at UNLV's Barrick Museum.

“I was interested in why a medium would matter so much,” says Ilana Gershon, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication & Culture at Indiana University-Bloomington and the author of Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media. “They would be upset about the fact that someone used a blackberry. They may have been terribly hurt that the relationship was over, but what they talked about was the blackberry.”

New Media Etiquette – There’s Nothing New About It

All of us, old and young, are struggling with manners and norms on new social media platforms, she says. But disagreement about media etiquette is nothing new, she says.

Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison disagreed about how best to answer the telephone when it was first invented, Gershon says. Bell said “Ahoy!” was the best way. Edison wanted people to say “Hello!” (We know who won that debate.)

Ultimately, Gershon says, corporations, who used phones on a wide scale, decided what was best for everyone in American society.

But, these days, communication is much more complicated. It’s not even just the breakup that creates issues on social media, Gershon says. It’s also the intertwining of lives that occurs on social media that’s so difficult to undo.

“What do you do with the photographs? What do you do with the [Facebook] wall posts that remind you of your former lover?” she asks. “Do you de-friend them, do you keep them?” There are so many new problems, she says, in trying to disconnect.

The Age Gap: High Bandwidth vs. Low Bandwidth Interaction

Heidi Swank, an assistant anthropology professor at UNLV, says that among her students, she sees a big difference even between undergrad and graduate students. Undergrads, she says, are far more likely to think that breaking up via Facebook is fine. Older students, she says, tend to think face-to-face interaction is best.

“It was rather remarkable that there as a strong consensus among the graduate students and a different consensus among the undergraduates in the class,” she says.

Breaking up in person, Gershon says, is the “highest bandwidth” way of ending the relationship. Conversations mean that there’s a give-and-take. There’s closure.

“It also becomes clear that the text message was the moment of the breakup, but breakups happen over time,” she says. “How you manage the break up happens over multiple media.”

Casey Corcoran, Director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Start Strong Initiative and one of the hosts of Break-Up Summit 2.0, which teaches teens healthy ways of ending relationships, says that media does matter. So much so that grown-ups and their children have entirely different ways of communicating throughout a relationship—and especially at the end. Texting, for example is the most popular way for teens to break up. For many adults, he says, this idea makes their skin crawl.

“We just think generally that young people don’t have a solid skill set around breakups,” he says. “We haven’t done a good enough job in giving them the tools to do it in a healthy way.”

Corcoran breaks down ways of breaking up by bars, like a cell phone’s reception. Five bars is face to face, he says, while social media is one bar.

 “Face to face, if you’re looking to end the relationship, it’s by far the most effective way,” he says.

- Erin Dostal
Wednesday, December 7, 2011

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