On December 5, 2012, musician Jonathan Mann posted Song A Day #1435.
It was titled "We've Got to Break Up."
Although I had worked with Jonathan Mann previously, I knew very little about his personal life. I watched this video several times, examining the elegant and kind way Mann and his ex-girlfriend sang about the end of their relationship and defined the boundaries they would have going forward. It was the first time I had seen anything like it.
You don't have to choose
Though it will be awkward, yes
Just invite us to your parties and we'll work it out
Don't feel weird, we love all of you
Now, we see these types of status updates all the time. They show up on Facebook or Tumblr or via Twitter link, and carefully explain that the people involved in the breakup want to maintain an amicable relationship while still sharing a catalog of friends. They'll note which partner is changing living arrangements, or offer suggestions about how to include all parties at social events. Sometimes, they'll simply say that nobody involved wants to share details about the breakup and trust silence to stand in for privacy.
When our personal lives become public through YouTube, blog posts, and social media, our breakups become public as well. We want to share this aspect of our lives in a way that makes sense with the rest of our public story. So we shape and create a narrative that is both true and just enough; that is, like Jonathan Mann's example, both elegant and kind.
In case you think that this type of story-shaping is a uniquely Facebook-related phenomenon, remember that we've always communicated with each other through stories. The "how was your weekend" story we tell to our boss on Monday morning; the "what did you think of The Walking Dead" story we text to a friend after the season finale; and the story of our relationships, edited and embellished for various audiences. A coworker might not need to know that you and a partner are having a fight, a parent might receive a calm version of the story with an emphasis on how maturely you are handling the situation, and your closest friend will get the "that asshole" narrative.
And, as anybody who's been in a relationship knows, saying "that asshole" to your closest friend is very different from saying "that asshole" to you and your partner's closest mutual friend. One is an expression of emotion to a sympathetic source, and the other is a chess move. When you take the next step and post "that asshole" to a public forum like Facebook, it's like pushing down the handle on a detonator.
Many of us don't want to turn breakups into explosions. We also, instinctively, understand that a single sentence, the kind that is auto-generated by creating a Facebook Life Event, is not "just enough." It implies that there is a part of the story that we're not telling, and people who like sniffing around for sulfur will start contacting us, wanting to know whyyyyyyyyy, whose fault was it, are you mad or sad or ready to start dating again?
So instead, we say in public: these are the new boundaries around the edges of my life, including the boundaries around the conversation I will have about this breakup.
As Jonathan Mann told me:
"The main reason I wanted to do a song/video was because I'd seen lots of breakup announcements on Facebook. Often, they came in the form of people simply changing their "single/in a relationship" status, and then that change being posted into the timeline. This always felt really weird to me. I understood the desire to let everyone know what happened, but being so vague about it made it seem almost like folks were asking for a certain kind of sympathy and attention in a really weird way. It made me uncomfortable.
So I wanted to kind of flip that on it's head. The polar opposite of a vague status change: a full song and video explaining exactly what was going on and letting everyone know that we still loved them, and loved each other, and everything is OK. We're just breaking up."
I wanted to hear from other breakup-status-updaters, so I put out the call on Facebook, asking people if they would be willing to anonymously share their stories with Boing Boing. One response highlighted the importance of the breakup explanation as a way to pre-empt additional conversation:
"Because my relationship had been a fairly "stable" thing in my social circle, and very few people in it had any insight into the horrible problems said relationship had, we both felt that a blanket "Hey we're breaking up" announcement set up on Facebook would be the best route to go. We felt people would be really shocked by the whole thing (and really, a lot of people were).
Honestly, I didn't want everyone asking me questions, (and looking back, I foolishly felt people would care more than they actually did/want to cause drama for some reason?) about why the break was happening. I wanted to reserve those conversations for people who I felt deserved to know the story, and who I could trust not to tell my Ex anything about my life once I left."
When social media puts all of our friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and relatives on the same level of social access, it becomes important to, as this person put it, "reserve conversations for people who deserve to know the story." We've probably all been in social media conversations where we've had to endure unwanted advice or sympathy from people who might be on our Friends List but who are not actually our friends. A well-crafted breakup status inhibits this type of unwanted communication by being self-contained. If there are no lingering obvious questions to ask, we will not be forced to address them in a Facebook status comment thread.
Breakup status updates are also crafted to allow both parties to end the relationship with a mutual agreement of respect. The person who wrote the "blanket 'Hey, we're breaking up' announcement" did it with the ex in the room, so both of them could approve the status before it was posted; when I wrote my own breakup status update, I sent it to my ex before posting it online to ensure that we both agreed on what was publicly shared.
This is also important when people in a former relationship share a friend group; Mann and his ex-girlfriend advised friends to invite them both to parties, for example, and another person told me about a party specifically thrown as a way to introduce friends to the breakup:
"An ex and I had a breakup party (we invited people via Facebook). People were a little confused about it, but it was really good. It directly let everyone know we were breaking up on good terms and they didn't need to choose sides or feel uncomfortable about it. Basically a relationship wake."
In "We've Got to Break Up," Jonathan Mann sang about wanting to have kids. His son, Jupiter Mann, was born in time for Song A Day #1951. Since Mann's daily songs are part of his career, his old breakup status song is still available online and is, in fact, one of his most popular videos. Other people I heard from chose to take theirs down. Removing the breakup status post from the Facebook status history makes sense, the way removing or untagging yourself from photos featuring an ex-partner makes sense; this person is no longer a part of your public story, and removing images and references lets you literally reshape your own narrative.
I also heard from a person who decided to reshape this public narrative even before the relationship formally ended:
"Several months before I could admit to myself that my relationship with my then-husband might be ending, I went through a life purge. I thought that if I could lighten my environment, maybe I would feel emotionally lighter as well. I stripped our apartment of duplicates, items that hadn't been used in more than six months, and objects I had until then held onto for sentimental reasons. I closed unused accounts. From active accounts I deleted statuses/photos/albums shared before that year and any information I thought was too revealing. This included hiding my Relationship Status from public view."
Why do so many of us write and post stories about our breakups instead of, as this person did, hiding our Relationship Status updates from the public? Well, to start with, by the time that a relationship reaches the point where it needs a breakup explanation, there are probably a lot of people—from parents to coworkers to mutual friends—who are invested in that relationship's story, if not the relationship's success. Writing a breakup status update is a way to inform these people about a relationship's end, but it also lets us reframe the end of a relationship as something besides a failure. As Jonathan Mann explained:
"The song got a hugely positive response both in terms of the content, i.e., let's not get awkward about this in social situations, and also just in general. People seemed to really resonate with a heartbreak song that wasn't sad but joyful. I heard from a ton of people who were going through breakups at the time who said the song helped them through."
In that aspect, sharing the truth about our relationships and breakups—even a highly edited, boundary-bound truth—is just another a way to connect with each other; to accept Facebook likes and expressions of love from people across all of our social circles, and to let that little bit of emotion resonate with other people who have had similar experiences.
Because, at some point in nearly all of our lives, we've got to break up.
So we use this elegant and kind way to tell people the story of what happened.