People don’t do first dates any more–or so says Ilana Gershon of the 2010 book The Breakup 2.0.
This past Saturday, a few of us from the Honors Program glided downtown in a rented Cadillac (an upgrade at Enterprise) to hear Professor Gershon speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival about courtship and dating and, most of all, breaking up online. We spent much of the drive down town trying to figure out how to use the onboard navigation system, despite the fact that we had printed Google maps and smartphones. The onboard system was tantalizing and quite baffling. Our bewilderment, as it turns out, was a good preparation for Professor Gershon’s discussion of the ways we map our social lives today online.
Take, for example, the glory we ascribe to first dates. Gershon claims that they’re something of a chimera. People chat for a while on line. They text each other. They post on each other’s walls. They even do something so risky as to talk to each other by phone. (In fact, the phone is becoming an increasingly important medium for romantic interaction, given its prevalance, of course, but also given the fact that our technology allows us to conduct more relationships long-distance.) But they have a hard time locating the moment when they sat down across the table from each other for the first time. The mythology surrounding the big first date has dissipated a bit with the blurring of clear lines between computer-mediated-communication and face-to-face interaction.
Professor Gershon is a likeable cultural anthropologist from Indiana University who comports herself with a kind of wryly objective, cheerfully amused air. She likes people, which was a useful trait for her as she conducted 72 interviews in order to write this book. She is also shocked by people. Often she found herself saying internally mid-interview, “You do what?”
After hearing her talk, Katelyn, Kathryn, Alicia and I headed to memorable little lunch joint called the Hash Brown and talked things over. Here were some of our take-aways.
1. Everybody thinks there’s One Right Way to Do Things when you’re breaking up. But few can agree on what that is. Often there are “pockets of etiquette” in which a group of people agree that this or that is how things should be handled. But some of the pain and rage associated with breaking up comes down to a breach of etiquette between people who seem to be working from different manners manuals.
2. People do a lot of lurking online, looking at other people’s Facebook pages. But the odd thing is, stalkers don’t believe they’ll be stalked. People who forget that other people are creeping on their page assume, apparently, that only interested people will creep their blog or FB page. Au contraire. Sometimes this surveillance is pretty sophisticated. Groups of twenty or so people will, for instance, for, a group to create a false Facebook page in order to spy on their X-es. This false Facebook persona will “friend” the unsuspecting former girlfriend or boyfriend, thereby giving a disconcerting amount of access to the jilted lover.
3. Some of the most useful status descriptions on Facebook are “It’s complicated” and “In an open relationship.” How people define these signifiers varies very, very widely.
4. One unexpectedly tricky aspect of breakups today is the negotiation of electronic property, such as (say) your boyfriend’s ringtone. All the moral weight of breakups comes not from the moment of saying, “It’s over,” but rather in the actual process of the breakup, not just for your significant other, but for all the people in your network of friends. It’s something of a tortured question. Do you send an email to your friends in advance of your breakup to prepare them for the moment when you post your changed status on Facebook? Or do you post first? Or do you simply change your status?
5. There was one problem with our lunchtime conversation, though. We went on eating and talk too long and so missed the next lecture we’d been planning to attend. But we changed our Facebook status to “It’s complicated” and drove our rental caddy home.