Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Facebook Breakup

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.

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. (...)

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.

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’?”

by Penelope Green, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: NY Times screenshots