In which I <3 The Breakup 2.0

Gershon, Ilana. The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2010. Print.

I’ve been excited to revisit this book because I think it’s interesting, focused, and elegant, managing to bring insight both to the particular object of study (technology-mediated breakups) and to our always-changing relationships to technology in general.

Break-ups in particular have the potential to lay bare our thoughts and feelings about technology because, as Gershon writes,

Breakups were moments in which everyone I interviewed would turn into a detective—they told stories about not quite knowing what was going on or not understanding why someone else was acting a certain way. 

As McLuhan said so long ago, the same words mean something different texted, emailed, or posted on Facebook. Gershon’s point, though, is that the occasion of a breakup makes people intensely aware of the differences between media—both in terms of what it “means” to send a message on one versus the other and in terms of what secondary information (e.g., timestamps) can be gleaned through the affordances of each.

To put it in Bolter and Grusin’s terms, every message is hypermediated when you’ve been dumped. 

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Right? RIGHT??? via

The particular media affordances we focus on during these times—ability to password protect, ability for other people to tag us, ability to see when someone is typing—are indicative of our media ideologies, the values and assumptions we bring to our interactions with various media. For instance, if you CAN be tagged in someone’s Facebook photo, but they haven’t tagged you, this has the potential to Mean Something—they could be ashamed of you or trying to hide you from someone or think you are ugly in that picture or etc., etc. Or it could be that they just don’t care about tagging people. But if two people in a relationship don’t share media ideologies—and don’t understand that they don’t share them—a small omission like this has the potential to lead to a breakup.

Gershon discusses how our media ideologies drive how we interpret second-order information—the medium is the message, but the message sent and the message received may be very different if those ideologies don’t match. She tells, for instance, the story of a couple that used text messaging primarily for in-jokes and frivolous communication. When the young man sent a text message to break things off, his (ex?)girlfriend didn’t believe it because texting wasn’t used in their relationship to convey that kind of information. And in many relationships, Gershon notes, texting “I want to break up” may not actually be performative but may only indicate the need to have a talk about the relationship.

Since these exact media are fairly new (even though, yes yes, “new media” are deeply embedded in older media), we haven’t quite figured out the conventions and etiquette surrounding them. When we run into problems, we tend to discuss them with the people who surround us. This results in isolated pockets of shared practices and assumptions that people often don’t realize aren’t universal (because, well, everyone THEY know does it this way). These are what Gershon terms idioms of practice. And these different idioms of practice arise because people base their usage on their media ideologies—someone who finds texting rude is never going to use that medium to ask someone out on a date. Even if new media aren’t really new, in many ways we experience them as such—this book, Gershon writes, is about how we deal with the newness of new media.

As mentioned before, Bolter and Grusin argue that people evaluate media based on each medium’s relationship to lived sensory experience—immediacy is transparent, while hypermediacy places the emphasis on the medium itself. Gershon however, would like to suggest “that this emphasis on immediacy and hypermediation is part of Bolter’s and Grusin’s own media ideologies, and that people care about different aspects of media depending on the context.

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Anyway, Gershon said that in her experience, people were less interested in duplicating reality or in technology for its own sake than they were in figuring out which affordances of a given medium gave clues as to the intentions of their partner. Because certain media do this more effectively than others, the choice of medium in and of itself can be seen as a choice to be forthcoming or to hide information.

The final chapter of the book is, in fact, what first interested me in the idea of online publics and Michael Warner’s fabulous Publics and Counterpublics. But after spending so much time and research disentangling “audience” and “public,” I’m a bit disappointed that, on a reread, Gershon seems to be largely conflating the two. As perhaps makes sense given her subject matter, she’s more concerned with “in-publicness” than with the publics themselves.

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Earlier in the book, she makes the really interesting point that being “facebook official” is the same sort of public statement as “pinning” was in an earlier era. Just, you know, without the double entendre. via

To me, the chapter is strongest (and, coincidentally, the most relevant to my research) when it is interacting directly with Warner. Gershon discusses the idea that every sentence online both addresses you in particular and you as a part of an “indefinite” public audience. According to Warner, understanding and accepting that you are part of an anonymous audience is intrinsic to participation in a public because it affirms your connection to the other people that are also a part of that audience. That is, this public speech is addressed to me because I am a part of a particular group.

But it is in fact this understanding that, according to Gershon, is missing from many people’s online interactions—they somehow believe that their writings are being read not by an anonymous group that includes their intended audience but instead are consumed by that audience alone.

Gershon argues that instead of writing their public discourse with an eye toward the anonymous but connected audience, however, her informants think of publicness in terms of access, the multiple known entities that can and cannot read their writing. Yet in many cases, she says, people deal with the complications of multiple audiences by pretending that one or more of them does not exist.

Usefully, she closes the chapter with five characteristics of these accessibility-based conceptions of the public that distinguish them from the more anonymity-based type:

  1. People assume that they have some level of control over who is or is not hearing what they have to say.
  2. Technological access is necessary for existing “in public.” 
  3. People think of the audience not as “the public” but as multiple smaller, sometimes conflicting audiences.
  4. Proper audience behavior changes depending on which audience you are a member of. 
  5. Shifting ideas about the nature of the public also change what is considered public vs. private information.

As I move forward, I will be interested to think about these aspects in relation to the more pseudonymous publics I study.

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