In modern life and love, there are few moments as utterly confusing as the first encounter with an ex's profile on Facebook. Do you unfollow, preventing streams of tear-triggering information about them from filling your News Feed? Do you unfriend, even though it feels akin to a forever goodbye? Do you take a hiatus from social media altogether until your splintered heart heals?
Our relationships—romantic or otherwise—inhabit intricate webs of online connections. But when one sours, there's no handbook on how to handle the digitally induced heartache. In real life, you can skip out on the party you know your ex is attending, but how do you even begin to cull their presence in your online life?
Such matters of the heart are the subject of artist and machine learning expert Caroline Sinder's performance art piece "Social Media Break Up Coordinator." Sinders' work imagines a future where you can hire an expert to wade through your relationship's digital detritus, a social media coordinator who can guide you through the tedious task of erasing someone from your social media sphere.
Those who hire Sinders (for a flat fee of $15) start by filling out a 21-point quiz with questions about their social media habits and the nature of online problems they are hoping to fix (are they enduring an online breakup from co-workers after leaving a stressful job or just an ex?). Those responses generate automated solutions, preprogrammed by Sinders. From there, Sinders offers her own, more personalized advice during 15 minute one-on-one therapy sessions.
When I sought Sinders' counsel, I had just endured a split of my own from a very active social media user. We were connected everywhere from Twitter to Peach. I wanted advice for how to tone down how often they made appearances in my online life, without doing anything too drastic.
"Are you following them right now?" Sinders asked me, referencing Facebook. "I would say immediate unfollow."
She suggested I also implement Facebook's new ex-blocking tool. And on Twitter, she advised I not only mute my ex, but any mutual friends, hashtags or key words (like their name or where they work) that might put them back on my radar.
"It sounds really innocuous," Sinders told me, "But muting does really work."
She then wrote me up a "prescription" for fixing my online life on an index card.
In part, Sinders' work is intended to highlight the lack of humanity in the algorithms that govern our daily lives. There are ever-more tools that allow us to control who and what we see online (as well as who and what sees us), but there are also glaring, obvious gaps. If you unfollow someone on Facebook, Facebook will still tell you if they are attending an event nearby or alert you when it's their birthday. If you use Facebook's ex-blocking tool, Tinder will still match you with your ex's friends. These kinds of asynchronicities are obvious to man, but not so much to machine.
This is why Sinders envisioned "Social Media Break Up Coordinator" as a partnership between man and machine. Sinders is the software's operator, but also its translator, turning cold machine intelligence into something both comforting and easily digestible, providing necessary humanity where the algorithm is unable to.
But "Social Media Break Up Coordinator" is also an acknowledgement of the emotional labor it takes to unfollow or unfriend someone you were once close to, an acknowledgement that there's really no replacement for a human being holding your hand and telling you it will be okay. That's why Sinders doesn't just offer advice: if you need her to, she'll actually unfriend your ex for you.
Sinders' project is intended as art, but it's also a service that most of us have at some point probably felt that we needed. Eventually, maybe technology will catch up to the problems that it's created. Maybe Facebook's algorithm will detect my breakup based on my online interactions and automatically block my ex for a few months for me. Maybe Tinder will figure out that it's pretty weird to keep suggesting that I go out with friends of my ex. Until then, there is a lot of real work for a social media breakup coordinator.
Caroline Sinders will talk about the "Social Media Break Up Coordinator" Tuesday night at the first ever Real Future Lab in Oakland. Reserve tickets here.