Everybody agrees that communication outlets like Facebook, instant messaging, and texting are creating new rules for dating. But people can’t seem to reach a consensus on exactly what the new rules are, says Ilana Gershon, an assistant professor of communication and culture at Indiana University at Bloomington who studied student dating for her new book, “The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media.”
For example, should the dumper or the dumpee be the first to break the news on Facebook that it’s over? One of Ms. Gershon’s students insisted the latter, and that’s what all her sorority sisters thought, too. But the “dumpee first” rule clearly isn’t universal: Another student discovered her boyfriend had not only broken up with her but was in a new relationship—all through her Facebook news feed.
“I was interested in seeing how people used technology designed for connection” in ways for which it wasn’t designed, such as breaking up a relationship, Ms. Gershon said. “It can be very problematic.”
In her book, Ms. Gershon interviews 72 people, mostly Indiana University undergraduates, about modern dating. Below are a few of her stories illustrating when messages sent through new technologies can be lost in translation:
The Text-Message Breakup: Halle first thought a text message from her boyfriend Doug saying he was in love with someone else was sarcastic, since she had always used texting to joke around. Much to her surprise, she found out not only that Doug was completely serious, but that he texts only important messages. She hasn’t spoken to him since.
Facebook Defriending: Rosie noticed she had more than 700 friends on Facebook, and defriended nearly all but 56 as a means to remove clutter from her news feed. In contrast, Sadie would never defriend anyone. When she noticed she had been defriended, Sadie believed the former friend had a vendetta against her.
When Texts/Blogs Get in the Wrong Hands: Rose’s boyfriend may think the texts he’s sending are secret, but Rose admits to showing pieces to her friends—especially when seeking relationship advice. When Frank discovered his parents were avid readers of his blog, he said it was like their “finding condoms in his wallet.”
Ms. Gershon found that technologies create more questions. If you don’t want to be dumped by text message, should you just turn off the phone to stop the conversation? Is it OK to click the “defriend” button after being dumped? If I’m angry with my ex, is it OK to show my friends the proof?
Ms. Gershon argues the biggest problem of all may be that developers of new media are not explaining to their audiences the etiquette on how to use them. She cites the example of famed inventor Thomas Edison, credited with introducing “Hello” as the proper telephone greeting.
If we had gone Alexander Graham Bell’s way of answering—"Ahoy,” Ms. Gershon said, she could only imagine how different the nature of phone calls would be today.
“A lot of the educational work on new media is focused on intellectual property rights or privacy instead of netiquette,” she said. “There’s no forces pushing people to standardize, and it definitely makes breaking up more confusing.”