Who will I be, without you?

Anthony Pinter
5 min readSep 8, 2022

This blog post summarizes a paper about how people manage their data and identities on social media after a break-up. It will be presented at the 25th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Collaborative Work and Social Computing.

Caption: Image generated by the author using Midjourney; licensed under Creative Commons Noncommercial 4.0 Attribution International License

When a romantic relationship ends, the two former lovers are left to sift through the remains of the relationships. These remnants might be the physical objects, like shared items gifted to the other obtained together in the context of the relationship. However, a new type of remnant has become prevalent and requires consideration as our lives become more represented in sociotechnical systems. People must also make decisions about the datafied representations of that relationship that exist on social media in the form of pictures, posts, and connections.

Datafied representations can be particularly problematic when trying to date again — a potential new partner might misinterpret the presence of the ex in posts or comments as indicating that the relationship is still ongoing (or might pick back up). These data also provide algorithms with fodder to make recommendations that filter into reminiscence and connection features like Facebook’s Memories feature, as my prior work has found (Pinter et al., 2019). A memory surfaced by a reminiscence feature with good intentions might instead remind the viewer of a tremendously painful experience.

Making decisions about what to do with those data remnants — the digital possessions and connections that represent the former relationship — has become an inevitable part of breaking up in the 21st century.

To understand how people enacted post-break-up identities after a break-up, we investigated people’s decision-making around the online remnants of their lost relationships. Through interviews with people who had had a break-up, we identified how people make decisions about and subsequently manage the data that is indicative of an ended relationship.

After their break-ups, participants had to make decisions about what to do with the data remnants of their relationship. In our analysis of their experiences, we saw them contending with what kind of identity they wanted to present to their online audiences after their break-up. For some, they focused on data management that presented a ‘future-facing’ identity — one of being single, of being a ‘me’, not a ‘we’. Others were concerned about representing that the relationship had existed, but that was ‘past-facing’ in nature — that the relationship had occurred, but was no longer.

As part of our analysis of our participants’ decision-making and identity-enacting, we turned to digital identity theory. Leveraging Hogan’s concept of the “identity exhibition”, we saw participants as being on exhibit to their social media audiences. However, we also saw them taking an active role in curating what data could, or could not, be part of that exhibit. In making decisions about what kind of identity to present in the wake of their break-up, our participants hewed to one of two curatorial philosophies:

  • Revisionist curators take data management action to create online identities that are present- and future-facing. Revisionists are focused on presenting an identity of being single, and attempting to avoid any confusion about whether they are in a relationship or not based on the data available on their social media profiles. Accordingly, they delete or archive data that is indicative of the relationship.
  • Archivist curators do not take data management action, which results in identities that are present and past-facing. Archivists present identities that acknowledge that the relationship did exist at one point, but can face issues with audiences misinterpreting the data as being current and accurate, which is not the case.

Our recommendations for design turn to the likely source of the original “identity exhibition.” Where Goffman had his stage, Hogan went to the museum. Drawing on the concept of the museum (full of exhibitions), we see opportunities for design to assist both revisionist and archivist curators through rethinking what the archive on social media sites is used for, and how it is presented to users.

In supporting the revisionist’s goals, the archive might be useful as a storage space for that data that is indicative of the relationship. Presenting the archive to users in this way could encourage them to retain their data in a place on the site that is not viewable by their audience. A further feature here could encourage reminiscence in service of deletion, aligning with calls for designing for forgetting (see Sas & Whittaker, 2013).

For archivists, the archive might be reconceptualized as an integral part of the user’s profile, with an easily accessible button and workflow that allows the user to find and utilize the archive more efficiently. For example, on Instagram such a button could appear on the user’s view of their profile next to the “tagged posts” button. Here, a feature might mimic the concept of Facebook’s “Take a Break”, hiding posts to the archive for a period of time before returning them to the exhibition that the audience can view.

Regardless of curatorial philosophy, experiencing a break-up can suck. Making it easier to put one’s curatorial philosophy into place, and create an ideal post-break-up identity on social media might help people move on from the break-up and limit the impact of algorithms acting upon that data.

Citation: Anthony T. Pinter and Jed R. Brubaker. 2022. Behold the once and future me: Online identity after the end of a romantic relationship. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 6, CSCW2, Article 372 (November 2022), 35 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3555097

Link to the paper can be found here.

The title of this paper — “Behold the once and future me” — is a lyric from Los Campesinos!’s song “Sad Suppers,” which itself is probably an homage to T. H. White’s “Behold the Once and Future King.” LC! is the author’s favorite band, and he considers it one of his crowning achievements to use a lyric from LC! as the title of a paper.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post or the associated paper, please contact Anthony T. Pinter at anthony.pinter@colorado.edu.