Breaking Up, the App

In today’s “modern romance”, breaking up is not only hard, it is a significant engineering problem!

Aimee Lee Ball discusses breaking up in the age of the app. Her headline says, “Let an App Do It for You”, calling attention to the cultural issue of just how to navigate the mating and dating game when everyone in online all the time. As Aziz Ansari documents, social media have had profound effects on “Modern Romance”, some good and some bad [1].

There are whole new kinds of interpersonal transactions, and social are evolving rapidly with communication technology. A few years ago, Ilana Gershon documented The Breakup 2.0 [2], looking at the etiquette, languages, and mores of digitally augmented relationships. Things change fast, and now Ansari, Greenfield [3] and Turkle [3] tell us about Version 3.0 and above.

“It’s complicated.” How long should you wait before replying to a flirty text message? What does a delayed response, or no response at all, mean? What is OK, and what is not? Just how uncool is it to be “shopping” for other hook ups during a date? What should and shouldn’t be said in person, on the phone, in email, in text, on Facebook, on Twitter, etc.?

At the time Gershon wrote, it was generally accepted that breaking up should be done in person or at least on the phone, not by text or email. But that was ages ago. Nowadays, text may be preferred for any difficult conversation. It’s safer and “more efficient”, leaves a clear record of who said what, and since lots of people do it, so it’s not so obnoxious.

The controversy now is just how much of the work you can delegate to online friends or even apps. Do you have your friends help edit the fatal message?

Ball tells us about services that you can hire to dump that loser for you. Evidently providing a menu of options, the service will ghost write an deliver a digital kiss off, for a price.

Sigh. Probably a bad idea.

The good news is, anyone who dumps you that way—you probably don’t want to be with them anyway, IMO.

However, there does seem to be need for some mechanical assistance to “break up” in the age of Facebook. When everything is shared and stored permanently in “the cloud”, just how do you actually change your life? Once upon a time, you could split for the coast, but that will do no good online, will it? Dropping off the network is not really possible, but staying on amidst reminders and updates about the ex is not good either. And what about common friends, coworkers, or even family who are still friends? It’s always been ugly, and technology is making it worse.

Ball reports several services that (for a fee) assist in unwinding and scrubbing social media, to selectively uncouple. Facebook has a new “breakup flow” (as in “workflow”—I told you it was an engineering problem) that lets you selectively hide connections with an ex without dropping off the net entirely. (Note to Facebook—are you out of your mind? Call it something like a “healing process” or “restoring your life” or something, for crying out loud.)

This process is actually a non-trivial process, and I wonder just how well it works. I mean, even decades later there are places, songs, and objects that can bring back memories of someone long, long gone. How would an algorithm know what to do? And how do you edit a social network for someone else? Which friends have to be dumped, and which ones should stay?

Ball also tells us about more irritating services, which help you sell off “stuff”, such as stupid gifts from that bum you just got rid of. Not content to just bin the stuff, these services offer “cathartic” opportunity to annotate them, to tell the world just how much you never liked it in the first place.

While I grant you that cleaning out shared stuff has always been painful and/or cathartic, I’m not sure that broadcasting the process to the Internet advances the cause of human happiness in any way. In any case, the real baggage is psychological, not material, so these services are basically irrelevant.

Dating was never easy, especially the break ups. But I’m not sure that hiding behind a screen is going to improve the situation. There is reason to worry that not practicing the hard stuff means you will not develop important capabilities, to, you know, be a human being (e.g., see [3, 4]).

I’ll also point out just how sick it is to have a business plan that is based on helping people break up. What kind of greedy, blood-sucking bastards would think that this is a reasonable service to sell, profiting from human misery? Of course, we’ll never know the answer to that, because there is no personal contact. They are hiding behind algorithms and screens.


  1. Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance, New York, Penguin Press, 2015.
  2. Ilana Gershon, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2010.
  3. Susan Greenfield, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark On Our Brains, New York, Random House, 2015.
  4. Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin Press, New York, 2015.


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