How Facebook’s ‘Bearing Witness’ hurts users during breakups

When celebrities break up, it affects everyone else. Think Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, or Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, or even Britney Spears and Kevin Federline. So it should surprise no one that…

How Facebook’s ‘Bearing Witness’ hurts users during breakups

When celebrities break up, it affects everyone else. Think Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, or Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, or even Britney Spears and Kevin Federline. So it should surprise no one that Facebook itself and the millions who log on every day are reared on breakups.

But when it’s your breakup, there’s an important difference. You may be in the middle of one, but anyone who says otherwise is either lying or misinformed. For those who are single or looking for someone on Facebook, breakups affect the entire ecosystem of what it means to be single and searching online. Someone may have a relationship with a partner, but a breakup puts them in the hands of the other partners in the picture.

People gain from experiences they have with the other members of a relationship. When you’re in the middle of a relationship, it teaches you about the kind of people you want to date, who you want to move on with, where you should be going, what kind of rom-com you want to watch, and what’s important. For this to happen, the absence of that person is an event in itself. That’s why when Facebook divides its audience into two people, users are faced with the choice: Stay on Facebook and not have a life, or leave Facebook and have a life.

Is there really anything Facebook can do to prevent our news feeds from showing us how toxic our last breakup was, how lonely it makes us feel, how much rage we might feel from a poor breakup display, or how many bad pickup lines we get? I’m not sure.

Based on conversations I had this weekend with many Facebook users who are seeing their stories streaming out for them to read, there is a disconnect between Facebook’s own inability to control what it showcases on its platform and the level of support the Facebook community has for those who are experiencing breakups.

The stories running out for me in my feed could be anything. I’ve been retweeted with broken hearts by people who have gone through these same tears. A love story gets broken. A relationship gets rebooted. A breakup ends. People blame themselves, and sometimes their own systems. In the end, it’s the relationship that’s broken, not the messenger. And how does this affect us?

Facebook isn’t some nefarious institution that sends out, everyday, shameful stories about miserable relationships to drive us to a zero-sum decision: Stay on Facebook and have a life, or leave Facebook and have a life. Facebook doesn’t aim to induce these resolutions for you. But it is its people who deliver them. If Facebook is only for people to share their lives with their families and friends, that makes sense: That’s how people have been sharing their lives for millions of years. But what we don’t know is that it isn’t just those who are posting to the right people who are judging us. Anyone is the judge.

These are the ways we intersect with our relationship to Facebook: We check out which connections are important to us. We pick out who should be in a new relationship. We fill in our hopes for our next step. But unlike any other network, we’re not in charge of those choices. And that creates a system that leaves people vulnerable and meaningless in the moment of the break up.

I don’t expect Facebook to rip away the wreckage that’s been raised by us in our timelines. All I am asking for is respect for how our breakup views the world — and for our right to be, well, in control of what happens to us in the moments when that breakup is happening.

There are so many problems we can have in society because we have not designed a system that takes into account our own emotional states and directs our attention accordingly. I’m not making this a technocratic critique, because we should have ways to address our own social justice in our technology. I’m asking for our companies to realize that we as people deserve to be treated in as kind and fair a way as we treat any other human being.

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