A few years ago, when such a thing still seemed unusual, I found out through Facebook that a friend was pregnant. As soon as I’d fired off a message of congratulation, however, I wondered if I’d overinterpreted what she’d said. Perhaps ‘is eating jaffa cakes for two’ simply meant she was eating a lot of Jaffa Cakes. So I sent another message apologising for the previous one, if she wasn’t in fact pregnant, merely hungry and out of decent snacks. I was right the first time, as it happens, but I often find it hard to judge how serious people are being on sites like Facebook and Twitter, generally assuming (or hoping) that they’re being less serious than they in fact are. So it’s a relief to learn, from Ilana Gershon’s The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media (Cornell, £14.95), that I’m not the only one.
Gershon, who teaches communication and culture at Indiana University, used to begin one of her classes by asking the students to write down, without talking to one another, all the ‘rules’ they could think of for how to behave on a first date. The purpose of this was to demonstrate to them that ‘they are part of a community with shared and often unspoken expectations.’ But one day she couldn’t face going through the same old exercise yet again, so asked them instead: ‘What counts as a bad break-up?’ Expecting answers along the lines of ‘finding your girlfriend in bed with someone else,’ she was surprised when they all talked about the wrongness of dumping someone by text message, on Facebook or, in one case, by sending a friend to do the dirty work. Gershon had proved her point about them belonging to a community with shared assumptions (either that, or they’d all been reading Marshall McLuhan over the holidays); she’d also stumbled on the subject of her next research project.
One of the reasons breaking up with someone by text message or on Facebook may not be a good idea is the difficulty of judging tone. Take the sad case of Halle and Doug (‘Halle’ is the pseudonym of one of Gershon’s interviewees). While they were going out, they had a running joke, conducted largely by text message, based on the apparently laughable notion that Doug secretly fancied Rianna, one of their classmates whom Halle, for no very clear reason, especially disliked (it perhaps wouldn’t have been hard for anyone apart from Halle, and possibly Doug at first, to see where this was going). So when Doug texted Halle to say that he wanted to break up with her because he was in love in Rianna, she assumed he was joking. It took several more texts to convince her he wasn’t. Once she was convinced, however, ‘That was it. I haven’t talked to him since.’ It was the texting as much as the fancying of Rianna that she couldn’t forgive him.
By sending a serious message using a medium they’d always previously used for joking around, Doug was breaking his and Halle’s personal set of unspoken rules – transgressing their shared ‘media ideology’. Even where such rules haven’t been established, new media are fertile ground for misunderstandings, partly because the general terms of behaviour are still being thrashed out, so the second-order information (‘not what is actually said but rather the background knowledge of a situation and expectations of communication that allows one to interpret the words’) is often ambiguous at best. While many older media have a certain amount of stable second-order information embedded in them (gilt-edged invitation cards, for example), with newer forms of communication, it’s all a lot less clear. Facebook and Twitter don’t lend themselves to irony.
Gershon’s book made me feel old, or at least on the older side of a generation gap: mine (1995-98) must have been one of the last cohorts of students among whom users of mobile phones and email were in a minority – we had pigeonholes for leaving each other handwritten messages and a payphone in the laundry. Gershon’s interviewees are permanently plugged in to any number of virtual communication networks. They also seem comfortable with astonishingly low levels of privacy. Or rather, like a group of teenagers on a bus, they behave in public as if they were in private. One of the insidious things about Facebook is that it encourages a false sense of privacy, the idea that you’re among friends, when in fact it’s a very public place. If one of my friends, for example, makes a comment on a photo of one of their friends that’s been posted by one of their friends’ friends, it gives me access to all of that person’s photographs. Pictures you think you’re sharing only with your friends are, potentially, viewable by half a million strangers. So privacy on Facebook, such as it is, largely depends on the assumption that your personal information isn’t of any interest to people who don’t know you. Most of the time this is true; but then lack of privacy only becomes a problem when it isn’t.
You never know where the information you post on Facebook is going to end up: who’s going to see it, what uses they’re going to put it to. Then again, I may simply be too paranoid, rather than ‘too old for Facebook’ (as I’ve been accused of being): contemporaries of mine seem oddly unabashed about all sorts of things, from posting images of their wives’ medical records (no doubts about those pregnancies) to giving blow-by-blow accounts of their every movement across town – anyone who wants to break into my flat, now would be a good time.
Gershon is careful to withhold moral judgments. If someone thinks a text message is the best way to say ‘it’s over,’ who (apart from their soon-to-be ex) is anyone else to disagree? ‘I usually just go on instant messenger,’ one girl tells Gershon, ‘and I make it as clear and straightforward as possible.’ That ‘usually’ might give a clue as to why instant messaging isn’t always inappropriate. But Gershon spoke to a few older people in longer-term relationships, too, including a man whose wife told him she wanted a divorce by sending an email to him at work and then refusing to communicate with him by any other means. Still, newer isn’t necessarily harsher: a few years ago Daniel Day-Lewis was rumoured to have given his pregnant girlfriend the push by fax – or so she said, according to the Daily Mail. And however mortifying it may be to be dumped by text message, there’s still nothing to compare with being left standing at the altar.