Have you ever been broken up with in an off-handed way that made you angry? Maybe you were on the receiving end of a text message saying, “We’re through.”? Or maybe you found out the same time everyone else did when your former significant other changed their relationship status on Facebook to “single” without discussing it with you first? Breaking up via social media and computer mediated communication (CMC) is becoming more and more common, but why is this? Ilana Gershon (2010) tackles this very question in her book, The BreakUp 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media. Throughout the book, Gershon explains how the incorporation of computer mediated communication channels, and the ways in which people use them, have become prevalent for creating and disconnecting relationships. She details how researching breakups over new media provides an ethnographic approach to understanding how people interpret and use new mediums of communication. Gershon intersperses her theories with interviews and stories from participants in her study because she found that most everyone she interviewed divulged personal stories about the breakups they had experienced; they would share which medium was used to initiate the breakup, why this medium may or may not be acceptable, the second-order information used to interpret another’s actions towards them before, during, and after the breakup, and their personal media ideologies and idioms of practice.
One interesting concept that Gershon talks about in her book is the idea of “Potato chips of information”. Potato chips of information refers to the partial knowledge that computer mediated channels provide us. In this aspect, Gershon (2010) mainly refers to Facebook use and how “Facebook allows for enough information to cause people to wonder, but not enough information to satisfy this curiosity” (p.86). For example, in a previous relationship, I was concerned that my boyfriend was cheating on me with someone at work. I would constantly check his Facebook for photos and posts that would provide me definitive evidence that he was or was not cheating. The problem was that I never actually knew the context behind the photographs and posts that were being shared on his page. A photo of him and a few of his coworkers out at the bar could suggest that he preferred spending time with this other woman instead of me. However, it could also suggest that he and his coworkers had had a difficult day and wanted to unwind in a social setting. All I really knew was that he and his coworkers had gone out for drinks: I did not know the reason why they went out for a drink, who was actually there (perhaps someone left before the photo was taken), or even how close he actually was to his coworkers. This photo was a potato chip of information that made me have to continue snooping because it did not satisfy me with a definitive answer as to whether or not I was being cheated on.
How often do you find yourself doing the same thing? Perhaps you are looking up a long-time crush to see if he or she is still with his or her significant other? Perhaps you are trying to find out if the girl who used to make fun of you in high school was still as pretty as she used to be or as popular? When we come across their profiles, do we truly ever come away with accurate information, or do we uncover ineffectual tidbits of knowledge that do not serve to bring us any closer to the answers we seek? As Gershon (2010) states, “Facebook offers the hope of certain knowledge, but rarely does one ever fully know for certain whether or not someone is actually flirting with your lover, whether or not your lover is being unfaithful, and so on” (p.86).
Another meaningful concept in how we communicate is CMC’s ability to provide us with ways to construct our “selves,” or who we wish for others to see us as. Facebook users can post particular photos of themselves, they can un-tag themselves from others photos, they can hide posts from their walls, and even delete comments. All of these tools allow people to compose who they appear to be to other people; it allows them to communicate only the information that they choose to share. For example, I have set all of my photo albums on Facebook to “private,” which means that only I can see the photos. My initial reason for doing this was because I did not want new coworkers, friends, and prospective lovers to see how overweight I used to be. A lot of my album photos were taken before I lost 80 pounds and I did not want the image of my old self to be what they saw when they looked at my Facebook profile. I wanted to appear like a healthy, athletic, and happy individual and those photos did not fit that ideal. Gershon(2010) expands on this when she discusses society’s changing definitions of public. People today struggle with making information “public enough,” where “people liked to imagine that they had control over who might be in their audience; they wanted to control access to their communication,” (Gershon, 2010, p.167) and make information public, but only to selected audiences.
When making a Facebook profile, a Twitter account, or a blog, people must manage multiple audiences- friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, etc., which requires them to manage the various “selves” that they present to each of these audiences. Gershon (2010) mentions an interviewee named Frank, who gets upset that his parents read his online blog, even though he uses his full name in the blog address and posts links to his blog posts on his Facebook account. His reason for being upset was because the blog was supposed to be for only his friends to read, not his parents. His parents argued back that he posted the information for the public and anyone could read it, including them.
The most important thing to remember in our current age of computer mediated communication is that everyone experiences and uses different medias in different ways. Our idioms of practice are varied and this affects how we utilize computer mediated channels of communication, as well as how we interpret the way others use these same channels. Remediation, or how a person’s media beliefs and uses are connected to that person’s use of other older and new media, also influences how people utilize and interpret CMC (Gershon, 2010). As Gershon (2010) tells us, “not only do ideas about one medium shape the ways in which people use other media, but this interconnected set of media ideologies and practices can change from person to person, depending on their history with and use of different media” (p.92). This information is the foundation for understanding how to look at and interpret computer mediated communication: no one person uses CMC in the same way or with the same intention.
Knowing this broadened my perception on how my fiancé and I interact via CMC channels, as well as how I prioritize medias in my professional life. My fiancé and I live in two separate towns and only get to see each other on the weekends because we both work jobs with hectic schedules. More often than not, we communicate via text message and telephone calls. For me, text messaging is acceptable but impersonal. I much prefer phone calls in order to communicate with my fiancé, especially at night before we go to sleep. I feel comforted when I can hear his voice saying “goodnight,” rather than reading it in a text message.
However, I operate differently when I am work: I much prefer to communicate via email, unless an emergency or important issue arises that needs to be handled immediately. I find I am much more accessible to my clients via email because it allows me the time to research their concerns or questions and compose a response that is both professional and accurate. When I receive a phone call from a client, I often feel rushed and harried when I have to find an answer to their questions and concerns. My different uses of media in both my personal and professional life speaks volumes on how I interpret media channels. In my personal life I prefer to have as close to a face-to-face connection as possible and so a phone call provides me with the intimacy of being able to hear someone’s voice and intonations, something that text messaging lacks. In my professional life, I prefer to appear organized and informed when I respond to clients. Email allows me this luxury because I can take the time to craft messages and responses that project the image I wish to portray. Phone calls require an immediate response and therefore do not offer the ability to craft an appropriate message in the same manner as an email.
Gershon (2010) concludes her book by highlighting the importance of understanding idioms of practice and media ideologies in other people, in order to avoid ethical issues when disconnecting from another person. She states, “By focusing on breakups, I have been able to highlight the social dilemmas that emerge when shared expectations and etiquette are not yet in place” (Gershon, 2010, p.200). However, by focusing solely on people’s disconnection using new media, Gershon has forgotten about the other various social dilemmas that arise via new media channels- creating friendships and, most importantly, managing friendships. While it remains true that new media lacks standardization in regards to how people utilize channels in order to disconnect from each other, the same is also true for how people connect (or sometimes reconnect) with others. There is no set standard for “friending” someone on Facebook or following them on Twitter: does one post an obligatory hello on a Facebook wall or Tweet when a friendship or follow is accepted? At what point in time is it even acceptable to “friend” or follow another person? If you have just met, how long do you wait before becoming friends online? If you were childhood friends, is it okay to reconnect via CMC channels?
Once a person is friends with someone, how much work needs to be put into maintaining that friendship? There is no standard formula or rule that guides a person with how often to Tweet, post, or like something on a person’s social media page, so how do we know if we are being a good friend? What guidelines exist for us to determine what level of interaction deems someone as a good, or close, friend? Fulk et al., (1987) tell us that “the nature of media and their potentials are socially constructed, and the richness and utility of a medium are affected by interaction with other individuals in one’s social network” (as cited in Walther, 2011, p.456). What this means is that there is a form of standardization in the utility of new media channels. A person can develop his or her own standards for using new media channels- i.e., speaking with someone in person at least three times before friending them on Facebook, using email instead of the telephone at work because of the ability to craft proper messages, etc. People create their own standards of how they utilize and interpret CMC channels and very rarely do people break from their habit of how they use a media, as evidenced in Gershon’s book when she describes how individuals get stuck on one media channel (Gershon, 2010, p.115). The question remains: If an individual has his or her own standards of CMC use, can it truly be considered standardization of new media? While I do not think that individual practices and standards should be overlooked, as these media ideologies can influence other people’s uses of new media (as discussed above), and these influences have the capability of creating a universal standardization of new media. What I believe is that more research needs to be done, focusing on the creation and maintenance of connections via CMC channels in conjunction with disconnecting over new media, in order to find a definitive answer.
Find Gershon’s book HERE on Amazon.com
Gershon, I. (2010). The breakup 2.0: disconnecting over new media. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Walther, J. (2011). Theories of computer-mediated communication and interpersonal relations. The Sage handbook of interpersonal communication (4th ed., pp. 443-479). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.