My sister and I broke up on Facebook. Well, she broke up with me really. I checked my profile one day and saw that the comically incestuous "In a relationship with Sarah Gordon" had become the covert and serious "In a relationship" with no specified partner.
My sister had decided, apparently, that broadcasting her relationship with her actual boyfriend was more important than broadcasting our whimsical siblinghood. I think I might have felt a little hurt at the time. But if I did, I've repressed it, because it's definitely inappropriate to feel spurned when your blood relative virtually dumps you.
I rebounded quickly, edited myself back to "single," and within two hours had received five commiserating and curious messages.
"i saw in my mini-feed that you just broke up with your boyfriend. i'm so sorry! are you okay? also, who was your boyfriend?"
That was when I decided, like 40% of Facebook users, to leave my relationship status blank. If breaking up with a joke was this stressful, I couldn't imagine clicking out of a real relationship, flooding hundreds of mini-feeds, and enduring swaths of lowercase condolences from my favorite acquaintances.
Even if you opt out of the "Relationship Status" tab, however, Facebook fall-out from a break up can still be brutal: Should cute couple photos be de-tagged? Flirtatious wall-posts deleted? Pics where his face was particularly hot de-liked? Can you de-like something on Facebook?
Our generation certainly isn't the first to advertise our relationships and deal with the thorny consequences. Medieval jousters tied the handkerchiefs of their beloveds to their clothing. In Norway, an available maiden walked around with an empty sheath on her belt until an interested suitor inserted a knife. In the 1950's high school of my imagination, men marked their territories with letterman jackets and sweetheart pins. A thwarted courtship, in all these cases, was a very public affair.
The difference today is that post break up, all the evidence of a relationship is permanently archived. When a new love interest peruses all 700 of your Facebook photos, as is routine, he or she will see you canoodling with your ex and, even more uncomfortably, he or she will read the comments: "gag me you guys are too cute" and "vomit get a room. jk I love you guys."
Given these intimate electronic trails, it seems practical, and not just petty, to de-tag, delete, or even de-friend. But the sad reality is that the photographic record of my life is almost entirely contained on Facebook. If I de-tag myself, then that image disappears, almost irretrievably, into Facebook's untagged ether of unflattering angles, sloppy drunk faces, bong hits, and I-didn't-realize-that-shirt-was-see-through.
I may want to temporarily eliminate tender snapshots for the sake of a potential future suitor, but I don't usually want to completely Eternal Sunshine a relationship. A simple solution is to save the most treasured photos and wall-to-walls on a hard drive, but this involves a devoted scrap-booking impulse I rarely have in the wake of a break up.
I was confronted with all these issues a few years ago. He de-tagged and de-friended. I, on the other hand, attempting some moral high ground, refused to tamper with the online artifacts of our affection.
It was approximately a year later, on my annual tour through my entire Facebook photo database (why are there 30 photos from that night when I have major grease-face?... oh my god that guy, what the hell happened to him?), that I realized how awkward it looked: The two of us with linked arms, my head on his shoulder, me tagged, him not.
Any potential future suitor, stumbling upon this image, would probably think: That must have been a really shitty break up.
History is always archived on Facebook, but also constantly revised: Drunken exploits edited out, fat days deleted, past relationships purposely depicted in particular ways, inadvertently depicted in others, or not depicted at all.
In a couple decades, however, when Facebook is no longer primarily a tool for finding, stalking, studying and communicating with love interests, but simply a scarily comprehensive record of my life (and, of course, a way to connect with old classmates!), I'll be happy that my youthful angst didn't delete my youthful affairs.
I'll just keep my privacy settings high.
Follow Claire Gordon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/clairedon