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Indiana University researcher explores Internet breakups

For most of us, social networking is all about making connections -- meeting a mate on or finding that long-lost friend through Facebook. But Ilana Gershon takes a different view -- she looks at how people use new technologies to break up.

Gershon is among a growing group of "ethnographers of the Internet." She is also an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Culture in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. For a study recently published in Anthropology Today, Gershon interviewed 70 undergraduate students, "people who break up often and who will often use a variety of media for both breaking up and discussing breakups," she says. Gershon is currently expanding that study into a book called The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media.

Gershon describes her book as "laying out a map for understanding how the newness of new media is socially constructed." Online breakups are an emerging social media phenomenon, she explains, and the appropriate and accepted online etiquette has yet to be determined for the kinds of social dilemmas online breakups present. By exploring the new and still undefined disconnections made using social media such as cell phones, e-mail, texting, instant messaging and Facebook, Gershon is studying the varying ways in which people negotiate "the newness " of a medium.

When it comes to ways to leave your lover, there's little consensus. Only one shared belief emerged in Gershon's interviews -- face to face breakups are still considered best.

"It allows for the broadest bandwidth of information," she says. Whether in person or online, the medium is part of the message, according to Gershon, and says something about the user's intentions and actions.

College students today consider e-mail a formal and professional medium, because of its resemblance to an actual letter. Telephone, or rather, cell phone, breakups are considered almost equivalent to a breakup in person, because of the possibility for conversational exchange. As for text messages, "some people dislike text breakups more because there only 160 characters available. Others prefer text message breakups because they don't regularly check their e-mail," Gershon says.

Online Breakup

An IU researcher looks at how people use new technologies to break up.

Print-Quality Photo

And then there's the Facebook newsfeed, which announces your profile status change to the world. One of the problems Gershon has faced in conducting her research is "how rapidly and unpredictably the technologies that people use to break up are changing" she says. In 2007 and 2008, college students interviewed "kept mentioning the Facebook newsfeed and how much it affected the ways Facebook contributed to their experiences of breaking up," Gershon says. "The newsfeed is very recent, it was installed on Sept. 5, 2006, but breaking up on Facebook before the newsfeed was a very different experience than breaking up after the newsfeed."

The various approaches to using social media to breakup are examples of "remediation," meaning, the ways we evaluate, define, and use technologies in terms of other media options, old and new, that are available to us.

"Recently introduced media change people's ideologies and uses of old media as much as previous media influence new media," Gershon says.

Overall, Gershon found that the students interviewed preferred breakups over a medium that allowed for the best exchange and circulation of knowledge, "in particular, knowledge about that perennial unknowable, how another thinks and feels."