Need to dump someone? An app will do the job

NEW YORK • Checklist for the holidays: Buy bejewelled 2016 eyeglasses and noisemakers from street vendor. Stock Champagne. Regift perfume and sweaters. Turn Christmas tree into mulch. And, oh yes, break up with significant other. The year-end is popular for ending things.

But just in time for seasonal remorse is a flourishing break-up industrial complex, a confluence of technology and changing social mores. Dissolving a relationship used to be a private matter between the two principals, with a Greek chorus of close friends and family. Now the sopranos and tenors include apps, websites, social media tools and digital Cyranos for hire.

If you are not up to the dirty deed yourself, the Breakup Shop will do it for you.

The site, whose slogan is "Let us help you end it", uses e-mail, snail mail, text or Snapchat, at prices from US$5 (S$7) to US$80, for customised naughty or nice options. (In the nice category is an hasta la vista gift pack that includes chocolate-chip cookies and The Notebook on Blu-ray. In the naughty is a "mean photo attachment" of you with your new loved one.)

It has always been possible to "unfriend" someone on Facebook, but the company's new "break-up flow" allows you to limit your connection with an ex: untagging photos, burying past posts and editing any mention on your news feed.

"It's like unfriending lite," said project manager Kelly Winters. Maintaining even limited social media ties may seem self-flagellating, a gateway to cyber-stalking an ex's activities and new relationships (and if you digitally disconnect, at least you can imagine that he has been hit by a bus).

"We spoke to social scientists and experts to try and understand: Are we creating good?" Ms Winters said. "One of the most powerful moments was talking to a man going through a divorce after 20 years. He said: 'I have to co-parent our children with her for the rest of our lives. I've invested more in this relationship than anything else in my life.' We want to be thoughtful about the fact that you might want to stay connected, but don't want to be reminded. The breakup flow lets people stay in touch gently and casually, and it's on your terms."

Facebook's expert advice came from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. "We looked through the language and made recommendations, to be less confrontational or more empathic," said Ms Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, the centre's science director.

"There's a way of phrasing questions to be neutral, not incendiary. 'Do you never want to see John again?' might be how a person feels, but Facebook has an opportunity not to exaggerate or fuel greater animosity or pain."

For now, the break-up flow is available only in the United States, only on mobile devices and only for a random test group. "It can take up to a year to introduce a new tool to all users," Ms Winters said, "but this one will happen in far, far less time. The anecdotal response has been, 'Thank you, we needed this.'"

Actually, KillSwitch did it first. Enter your ex's name on the app and it goes to work aggregating photos, videos, wall posts and status updates on Facebook, removing them all in one fell swoop, with an option to save deleted pictures in a hidden album. "Hey, we're human, and who hasn't backslid at some point?" said Ms Clara de Soto, one of its creators. "But 10 days after we launched, Facebook shut it down. In their defence, it raised a red flag for mass deleting."

After KillSwitch's founders "leaned in really hard" with Facebook officials, they were granted access again. Ms de Soto, a former advertising copywriter, developed the app with Ms Erica Mannherz after friends went through break-ups and deactivated their social media accounts to avoid any virtual bumping into the ex.

"There are painful shards of a past relationship in your corner of the Internet," she said. "It makes getting over something really challenging." Out of sight, out of mind seemed like a better idea. The app is free and a percentage of the proceeds from ads goes to the American Heart Association of New York, "so broken hearts can help broken hearts," Ms de Soto said.

Some of the new break-up industry is clearly intended as entertainment. After downloading the US99-cent app Breakup Text, you choose the bow-tie icon for a "serious" relationship or the flip-flops for "casual" and decide whether you want to say "I lost interest", "I found someone else" or "I was eaten by a bear". Then you are provided with a passionate and hilarious diatribe, your own personal Louis C.K.

"It was a total joke," said Mr Jake Levine, a co-creator, whose day job is at the digital art platform Electric Objects. "It was meant to play into the fears of the older generation about what's happening with relationships these days. People who would really break up this way are jerks. Maybe relationships are less serious for millennials, but I tend to think new technology changes human beings more slowly than we imagine."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Need to dump someone? An app will do the job'. Print Edition | Subscribe