Breakups Suck. They Could Suck Less.

Anthony Pinter
Oct 2, 2019 · 5 min read

This blog post summarizes a paper about how algorithms are cruel to people after breakups which will be presented at the 22nd ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Collaborative Work and Social Computing.

Illustration credit: Edward Levine | Psychology Today

As social media has become increasingly integrated into our lives, milestones traditionally practiced offline have shifted into our online lives. For example, becoming “Facebook Official” with a romantic partner has become an important relationship milestone to many, carrying equal significance to moving in with one another. Being “Facebook Official” with a partner represents the intertwining of two online lives, similar to the way that moving in together is the intertwining of two people’s worldly possessions.

However, reality is not a Disney movie, and not all relationships end in happily ever after. While it may be easy to physically disentangle two lives in the wake of a breakup, social media is designed to connect us and keep us connected… and this makes breakups difficult to manage online.

In a system that encourages connecting and reminiscing on memories and experiences, how can you avoid being presented with a painful reminder of a relationship lost?

In this paper, we investigated people’s upsetting encounters with content involving ex-romantic partners. Through interviews with people who had had an upsetting encounter on Facebook, we sought to understand what types of content was surfaced by curation algorithms like those that power News Feed, and where in the social media site these encounters occurred. From our interviews, we identified design opportunities that might help mitigate these experiences, improving people’s experiences in the wake of a breakup.

At this point, you are probably thinking, “Sure, breakups suck, and sure, social media can make them suck more. But hasn’t Facebook solved this? I had a breakup just last week and I just used Take A Break!”

Facebook does have a dedicated feature that lets people mute others for a set duration of time and untags photos in which both individuals were tagged. And Facebook has always had features like unfriending and blocking that can help manage who people are and are not connected to. But what happens if someone never made a relationship Facebook Official? What happens when a mutual friend posts a picture of your ex but doesn’t tag them in it (defeating features like Take A Break or unfriending)? What happens when Memories shows you a picture of a vacation that only the two of you took, flooding you with memories and emotions that you weren’t in the right headspace to experience?

We heard of moments like these in the experiences of our participants. Even when they had used every available feature to help prevent upsetting encounters in the wake of a breakup, they told us of instances of algorithmic insensitivity in a variety of different places on Facebook. Some blamed the platform for not being better; others blamed themselves for not being better about using features or just because they had no one else to blame. Still others blamed people outside of the relationship, like family members:

“Can you guys stop liking my ex-husband’s pictures?”

Regardless of whether they used relationship management features or not, participants told us that these tools came loaded with implied assumptions about what using them would mean for their social relationships to others — to unfriend or not, that is the question. Further complicating the problem, these features were often not applicable to the overlapping social networks that come to surround a relationship. For example, while one might unfriend an ex-partner, they might not unfriend the mutual friends they share with that ex… particularly if those friends are friends that were made while in the relationship.

To describe these various relations and the places in which they occur, we use the term social periphery. The peripheries around relationships presents designers with interesting challenges to address when they design systems that rely on algorithms to accomplish tasks like content curation. In systems such as Facebook, which are predicated on the idea of fostering connections and communities, the algorithms that create features like News Feed or Memories often rely on simplistic representations of people’s lived experiences. However, human experience is much more complicated than the data we choose to provide to Facebook, meaning designs for connecting and community might not be as straightforward as Facebook’s design might imply. Simply removing the digital connection between two ex-partners ignores the social networks and spaces that those two people still share, which can lead to inadvertent encounters with upsetting content that algorithms think are “ideal,” like suggestions to friend an ex’s new partner or showing pictures or posts the ex is part of.

We found that the periphery appears in unexpected ways (e.g., in untagged photos, in mutual friends’ posts, or in events pages) and can lead to upsetting encounters in the wake of a breakup. Thus, a challenge we present for designers is to consider the periphery when designing representational systems like Facebook in order to account for not only breakups but also any lived human experience that involves contextually nuanced social connections.

Because of the vast complexity of human relationships and experiences, there will not be a single solution for all situations. Instead, we outline considerations for designers to use to help them prevent painful missteps in their work:

  • Don’t make features and workflows simple: our participants fretted over whether or not to use features such as unfollowing and unfriending, in part because they felt the gravity of the action did not match up with the one-click ease in which the action could be accomplished.
  • Don’t make them hard to find or understand, either: our participants struggled with understanding what the outcome of certain features would be (leading to upsetting encounters) or just plain didn’t know the feature existed (like P03, who would’ve been saved an immense amount of grief had they known Take A Break existed).
  • Don’t make a tool that does mass-anything: making a feature that simply removes the periphery will inevitably break (and will probably break immediately). Designers should avoid anything that accomplishes an action en masse, because that would ignore the nuance of human experience and relationships.
  • Don’t focus only on relationships (romantic or otherwise): our lives are represented through pictures, videos, posts, and other digital artifacts in addition to who we are connected with. These things might be sources of upsetting encounters just as much as your ex’s mom, so consider the artifacts when designing.


Anthony T. Pinter, Jialun “Aaron” Jiang, Katie Z. Gach, Melanie Sidwell, James E. Dykes, and Jed R. Brubaker. 2019. “Am I Never Going to Be Free of All This Crap?” Upsetting Encounters With Algorithmically Curated Content About Ex-Partners. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 3, CSCW, Article 70 (November 2019), 23 pages.

Link to full paper here.

If you have questions or comments about this study, email Anthony Pinter at


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