#Love: Unfollowing Exes

A month ago, I got dumped. It was the third in a series of failed long-term relationships I’ve had over the past five years.

All relationships end differently. Some exes stay friends and some disappear. Some continue hooking up and some cut each other out entirely. Some exes combine any number of those things to form a symphony of chaos. But no matter how it ends, or how it evolves after it’s over, every relationship has an echo.

Today, that echo lives on the Internet. I’ve spoken with numerous people in different phases of the process, and noticed a common dynamic in these situations: Push vs. Pull.

In the past, before the days of Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, the ghost of a relationship could be found on an old record, or at your favorite burger place, or in the Polaroid photos hung up on a cork board in your bedroom. These items, the ones that incessantly conjured up unwanted memories, ended up in a box to be hidden in the closet until you eventually threw them away or looked at them wistfully years later. You kept that box until the memories weren’t so unwanted anymore.

Today, there’s no way to tuck that box under your gym bag in the back of the closet. The echo of your relationship lives in every stroke of the key, in every alert notification noise, and in every single pixel. Exes live in auto-correct, in your Instagram feed, in your Gchat window, and in your very own social media history. Before we became dependent on the Internet for everything, including life management, taking control of the box was easier. Or so I’ve heard. Unfortunately, my life has always happened on the Internet. I was 17 when I got Facebook. For the entirety of my adult life, I have been an online tech reporter. In many ways, I have no control over the box.

It’s not something I can visit two or three times to cry over, and again to threaten destruction, and perhaps again one day to fight over with some new lover. The digital version of the box is on my desk every morning when I get to work. It’s in my bed with me when I wake up, blasting out some awful alarm noise.

That box is on my desk every morning when I get to work. It’s in my bed with me when I wake up, blasting out some awful alarm noise.

So how do we take steps to maintain our digital lives while navigating a breakup, by far the most complicated phase of any significant relationship?

A lot depends on why and how a relationship goes down. When the split is amicable, people seem to do less spring cleaning post-breakup. With acrimonious endings, there are more decisions around unfollowing, blocking, untagging, and downright deleting.

My friend James got out of a serious relationship a few months ago, which ended about as dramatically as an episode of One Tree Hill (back in the Lucas, Brooke, Peyton days).

“I just blocked her from everything, and deleted all the public photos… It was easy because the breakup was pretty dramatic,” he told me in a text.

In past relationships, he would normally just hide their feeds until he was ready, unless it was a particularly gruesome split.

“Then I’d wait a few weeks before deleting them,” James said. “Waiting made it less noticeable for them, and it gave me time to feel better about it if I actually wanted to go through with it.”

A friend of mine, Jenna, found out her six-year relationship was over in an email, just moments before they both were supposed to leave on a trip with her daughter. Both heavy Path users, he blocked her on Path immediately, and she did the same on Instagram, as it was the only other social network she frequently checked.

“I removed my relationship status from my profile that night, and posted something on Path about what happened so I wouldn’t have to tell everyone close to me the same story over and over again,” she told me. “But I didn’t unfriend him on Facebook or stop following him on Twitter. We’re still connected on foursquare and even Couple. It just made it easier not to run into him places.”

She never responded to the email. It’s been a year since the split.

“That’s a conversation you have face-to-face,” she said.

Haley, an SF-based friend, surgically removed her long-term ex from almost every social feed in a way that allowed her to keep an eye on things when she wanted to. Things ended abruptly, and in a way that left her with no desire to remain friends.

“I stopped following him on Twitter and Instagram because I didn’t want to get everything he was putting out there,” she told me. “I kept him on Facebook because I could hide his feed, but I deleted foursquare entirely because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to disconnect from him there.”

My ex and I were together for almost a year before she left me. It wasn’t unexpected — we hadn’t been connecting the same way we used to — but the conversation didn’t go well.

It was a painful ending, but it came soon enough for the memory of our relationship, which was great, to remain intact. Despite how poorly executed the breakup was, we both still decided that we wanted to remain friends, after enough time has passed for that to be possible. If it is possible. That leaves me now going through my computer, smartphone, tablet, Netflix, Google account and anything else to do my own sort of surgery.

In going through this exercise myself, and discussing it with my friends along the way, I’ve realized just how legitimate the term “digital dualism” is. It’s the idea that our lives are real whether they’re happening on the Internet or in person. The emotions you feel confronting an ex on the Internet are not all that different from the ones you’d feel in real life. And if you’ve been together long enough, your ex lies around every corner of the Internet, just waiting to bump into you.

After six years together, Jenna and her ex have more than 500 friends in common. My ex and I, being a tech writer and 25, were just as intertwined on the Internet as we were in real life.

When it comes to exes on the Internet, most of the people I talk to agree that you have to steel yourself against each encounter. This usually means blocking anything that may be unexpected, like a birthday or calendar reminder, a Timehop update, or that little green Gchat bubble that pops up in the middle of an email composition. These are all examples of the push in push vs. pull, the things that come to you when you least expect it.

Some things pushed to you are out of your control. If I type any of the first few letters in my ex’s first or last name in Gmail, she is the first one to come up. We emailed and chatted so much, for so long, that Gmail still hasn’t gotten the hint. If, in a few months, I don’t realize that it’s her birthday, Facebook will remind me.

If, in a few months, I don’t realize that it’s her birthday, Facebook will remind me.

Most people unfriend, unfollow, block, hide, etc. for this very reason. It solves the most obvious problem of seeing that person on a regular basis during a time when healing requires distance. This is distance you have to consciously create, and it protects against the “push.” But it’s different for each of us. Because the more you protect against the push, the less access you have to the pull.

The pull includes anything that you consciously hunt down and look at. When you search for your ex on Twitter or Instagram, or do the usual Facebook stalk (just in case your ex actually uses Facebook), you are pulling in information about them. This also seems to be a pretty standard practice during a breakup.

As time passed after her breakup, Haley checked on her ex’s public-facing social feeds periodically.

“At first, I’d check and see what he was up to on Twitter because it was mainly boring business things,” she said. “Looking at Facebook was hard because it was like he was constantly posting ‘Look how much fun I’m having!'”

Another friend, Quinn, blocked her ex for self-control.

“I blocked him on everything because I was afraid I would look if I didn’t,” she said.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with a little push protection and a little pull. NYMag’s Maureen O’Connor wrote an excellent story on how important social media stalking is to our evolution after a breakup. By following the trajectories of our exes’ lives, we can better see our own actual and potential trajectories in life. But not everyone is so cavalier. Many have prescribed the “scorched earth” approach. Cut all ties. Erase all traces.

Which brings me to another issue: the breakup makeover.

It’s a joke in a million romantic comedies, but there is some grain of truth in the cliché that people try to revamp their look, or their life, when a big relationship ends. The same thing happens on the Internet. After a breakup, you pay much closer attention to what you post publicly. After all, it is the only indicator your ex has of how you’re doing, what you’re up to, etc.  if you’ve cut real-life ties. More than ever, we become players in the “success theater.”


But some people take it a step further than that. Rather than just focus on the future of their social media presence, they go through and touch up their history, deleting public-facing photos of their relationship’s past.

Haley says it’s a standard practice when breaking up.

“I deleted everything public of us from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram,” she said. “But I only did it when I knew we weren’t getting back together. I guess it was kind of wiping the record clean, in some regard.” “Why?” I asked. “Aren’t you worried you’ll want to see them one day?” She responded like a person who was much further along in this awful process than I am.

“I personally don’t like seeing new love interests with past relationships on social feeds, so I give others that courtesy I suppose.” Others do nothing, perhaps because the process is just too emotional, or more often because they have some conviction that deleting a chunk of history from your social media is like deleting it from your life.

Jenna, even after the icy email dumping, didn’t delete anything from her social feeds. “I see those things as a sort of scrapbook of your life,” she said.

She recounted a story of her friend, Cliff, who had been married for a few years. Then one day, she visited his Facebook page, and there was no sign whatsoever that his wife ever existed. After years of being married, there was no indication on any of his social channels that his history included a failed marriage.

In the past, I’ve tried to delete all the photos. Blocked all social channels. I’ve erased all traces. But when you delete everything from that relationship, it’s like leaving out major chapters in the history book of your life.

I’m sure all of this sounds very bleak, but don’t despair, fellow mourners.

Eventually, the algorithms understand.

A few months after her relationship ended, Jenna sat down in front of her computer and logged on to Facebook. The company had just released its “LookBack” tool, which turns your timeline media into a short, nostalgic video.

She was terrified. After six years with a man who eventually broke her heart, she feared watching the relationship play over again before her eyes. But as the video started, she searched for photos of him. There was just one. Facebook knew. Enough months of inactivity and a lack of engagement between the two of them pushed him right out of her past.

You’d think, with social media companies tracking our every move, and customizable privacy controls on those channels, that taking control of the box wouldn’t be so hard. But digital dualism is real.

Just like you can’t control that happenstance meeting with your ex on the street corner, you have little control over what is pushed to you on the Internet. Still, more than a year after the relationship ended, Jenna gets joint email or Facebook invitations to dinners and parties. She has a draft that she copies and pastes in response, politely notifying the inquisitive party of her relationship’s end. Quinn, who has finally started to move past her ex, still gets painful TimeHop updates from their time together.

Despite the meticulous ex-traction I’ve performed on my digital life, I can’t figure out how to unpair my Apple Calendar from my ex’s. I know when she is planning to get a manicure, or about to start her period.

We all approach the box differently. Some burn it. Some try to tape it shut the best they can, preventing anything from slipping out and causing pain. Some of us obsess over it. There are tools all over the Internet to help with this cleansing, from services like Ex-Blocker and KillSwitch and MuteTweet to the customizable privacy controls on big services like Facebook and Gmail, but they are all imperfect.

The artifacts of love online, like in real life, are messy.

Editors Note: I’ve changed the names used in this story to protect the people involved.

#Love is a new column on TechCrunch dealing with digital matters of the heart. It explores our relationships, their relationship with technology, and all the gory details that come with it. I will be leading the charge, and am looking for guest writers to tell their own stories each week. Maybe you found your soul mate on Tinder, or got dumped on Facebook, or have an outrageously interesting sext life. We all have our stories. If you’re interested in contributing, send an email to jordan@beta.techcrunch.com with the subject line #Love for more details.

[IMG via Doug88888]