Love in the time of iPhones | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Dynamic Range

An anthropologist on breakups in the digital age

When anthropologist Illana Gershon interviewed her Indiana University students as part of her research on social media and relationships, she posed this question to one of her classes: If you and your sweetie are “Facebook official,” what happens when the relationship ends? Whose job is it to change the relationship status: the person who got dumped or the person who did the dumping?

An attractive blonde replied with great confidence, “I know the answer to this one! My entire sorority knows the answer to this one!”

“It’s always the one who’s dumped,” she explained.

She then paused for a moment, “But not everyone on campus knows this.”

It was quips like this, Gershon says, that made her realize we are still in the early, Wild West days of digital etiquette, especially when it comes to using these technologies to navigate our romantic relationships. What is ok to us and our group of friends might be unacceptable elsewhere, because nothing has been standardized or codified.

When doing anthropological surveys, Gershon says that by the 20th or 30th interview a pattern will usually emerge, a kind of predictability. But not in this case.

As she interviewed her students, she found their habits and values to be wildly unpredictable. “In every interview I’d have a moment where I’d want to say, you do what?!” she says. The results of her interviews ended up in her book, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media.

In the early days of the telephone Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell fought over what one should say when one picked up the ringer. (Edison argued for “Hello,” while Bell argued for the sprightly “Ahoy!”)

In the early ‘80s, the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg wondered aloud “how do you say I’m lonely/to an answering machine”.

We’re all trying to find our way through each new technology, and apparently, some of us are like Berger in Sex and the City, in that we think it’s ok to break up with Carrie via a Post-it note. (Or over IM, if you’re one of Gershon’s students.)

Listen to the audio above for more of Gershon’s eyebrow raising examples of her students internet breakup habits, or leave your own examples in the comments.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Illana Gershon was interviewed by Time Out Chicago’s Madeline Nusser at an event presented by the Chicago Humanities Festival in November of 2011. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.