Life in the social-media panopticon is hard enough as it is, what with everyone on the planet knowing that you’ve recently gained 20 lbs or just failed your driving test. Yet it becomes harder when a break-up leaves you helplessly open to exposure to your ex, to photos of your erstwhile paramour living it up with a new flame or jetting off to sunnier climes while you languish in some dead-end job in your greying hometown. Thankfully, the demigods at Facebook are now providing insurance against such a horror, having just released new functionality that will allow the heartbroken to escape posts from their former lovers without having to take the revealing step of deleting or blocking them. While this new feature is still in its trial stages, the press have already jumped ahead and dubbed it a ‘break-up’ tool, for the understandable reason that it’s intended to “help people manage how they interact with their former partners on Facebook after a relationship has ended.”
As out-of-step with the rest of Facebook as such a tool might initially seem, it opens an interesting window into how social media functions in general. In enabling people to cut themselves off from each other without officially de-friending or blocking anyone, it reminds us that one of the main draws of Facebook, Twitter, et al. is that they enable people to maintain ‘friendships’ without actually being friends. That is, they permit us to maintain the merest semblance and simulation of friendship without actually having to subject ourselves to even the occasional poorly written sentence of another sweaty, needy and irritable human being.
The new Facebook tool is a perfect encapsulation of this. Even if it was conceived for the purposes of stealthily keeping unwanted posts out of your News Feed or untagging you from obsolete photos, it sets a worrying precedent when it comes to limiting our exposure to people we simply don’t like that much, but are too sheepish to block or delete outright. At the moment it can’t be used like this, to ‘fade out’ all and sundry, since before users can receive the prompt inviting them to silence their ex, they have to set their status to “In a relationship,” specify with whom they’re having relationship (which obviously sends a notification to the beloved), and then change their status to “Single.” However, if the American trial is a success, and the ‘break-up’ app is delivered globally, then there would be little reason not to make its technology generally available to all Facebook users, including those who have not just parted ways with a part-ner. It would seem almost discriminatory not to allow ex-friends, ex-acquaintances and people who simply don’t get along that much to enjoy the same means for secretly avoiding unpleasant reminders of their past. A pressure therefore would build for the tool to be rolled out universally, and with it Facebook might very well reach the point where it ends up allowing people to engage in the hollowest charade of being “friends.”
Admittedly, Facebook already allows this to a significant extent. The site enables its users to “Unfollow” friends without having to unfriend them, meaning that posts from certain undesirables won’t infiltrate their News Feeds. It also endows them with the corresponding ability to restrict who exactly can view their status updates, with the “Privacy Shortcuts” tab granting them the power to choose who can see their photos, random musings and “Life Events.” With these two features, Facebook denizens can essentially be ‘friends’ with each other without ever mutually sharing anything of their lives, despite not quite having access to the full range of features provided by the ‘break-up’ tool.
As such, the new tool is, at bottom, a logical conclusion of the principles underlying Facebook’s usefulness. It will empower ex-lovers to ‘save face’ and perpetuate the illusion of being impeccably civilized people who harbor no ‘hard feelings’ for their fellow men and women, but at the same time it will furnish them with the space and detachment needed to forget about another human being’s existence.
Having Your Cake and Eating It Too
It’s precisely this capacity for presenting a facade of amicability and sociability, for ‘having your cake and eating it too,’ that represents one of the biggest sources of Facebook’s era-defining success. On the one hand, the site does indeed supply genuine friends with a platform through which they can remain close even when geographical distance separates them. However, on the other, it furnishes people with a platform through which they can maximize the sheer size of their contacts and social network, while minimizing the amount of time they invest in such contacts and networks. It’s in this affordance for economizing and efficiency-optimizing that a big part of the social media giant’s ascendance resides, since people have arguably always wanted to have as a big a pool of potential buddies and allies as possible, yet in the past they’d lacked the time and resources to maintain a large network in a pre-digital, person-to-person way. Luckily, Zuckerberg and Friends stepped into the breach, equipping them with technology that greatly enhanced and extended their ability to form gigantic matrices of contacts and connections.
The ‘break-up’ tool is just the next step in this provision, and it’s worth noting that other social media sites already provide similar functions. Twitter, for example, allows its users to “mute” anyone they follow, thereby blocking their tweets without actually unfollowing them or letting them know they’ve been muted. This silencing of tweets would appear at first glance to defeat the purpose of the site, yet as stated above, the ability to sustain a network and a social image, without being troubled or bothered too much, is one of the biggest attractions of ‘social’ media. It’s therefore little surprise that Twitter indulges its client base in this way, permitting them to rationalize their social lives to such an extent that they won’t even have to spend a few seconds reading someone else’s 140 characters.
Given this streamlining, it would be appropriate to regard Twitter and also Facebook more as labor-saving devices than as virtual spaces where close relationships actually unfold. They’re the social equivalent of the washing-machine or the microwave, devices which liberate people to do more of the what they’ve already been doing for years, but with less effort and inconvenience. In the case of the ‘break-up’ tool, they confer onto Internauts the freedom to be ‘social,’ ‘civilized’ and ‘mature’ without any disagreeable heartache or distress, and in the case of Facebook in general, it confers onto people the freedom to enjoy a huge reserve of friends without having to put up with the hassle of paying such friends any real attention. So long as we still devote enough time to our closest social circles, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, since an ever-widening store of back-up chums may open doors that would’ve remained closed otherwise. And who knows, one of these doors might just be a new girlfriend or boyfriend, someone who — one day even further into the future — you end up filtering out using Facebook’s new ‘break-up’ tool.