Breaking up in a digital fishbowl

¬†There is a scene in the movie “He’s Just Not That Into You” in which Mary, played by Drew Barrymore, laments the numerous technological ways she is being rebuffed by a potential beau. E-mail. Text messages. MySpace. “It’s exhausting,” she complains.

Well, Mary, it’s even worse after the relationship.

Ask Kashmir Hill, who was stung one day when she logged into a former boyfriend’s e-mail account — they had agreed to share passwords — and read a note he sent his mother explaining why he was no longer in love. The couple shared an online bank account and, for months after the breakup, Hill pored over the balance as it dwindled to $10. She cried when she finally closed the account.

A new dating order has emerged in the era of social media. Couples who used to see each other’s friends only at parties now enjoy 24-hour access to their beloved’s confidants thanks to Facebook. Sharing passwords to e-mail accounts, bank accounts and photo-sharing sites is the new currency of intimacy. And courtship — however brief or intense — is wantonly scrutinized by the whole world on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.

As a result, the idea of what it means to break up is also being redefined. Where once a spurned lover could use scissors (literally) to cut an ex out of the picture, digital images of the smiling couple in happier days abound on the Web and are difficult to delete. Status updates and tweets have a way of wending their way back to scorned exes, thanks to the interconnectedness of social media. And breakups, awkward and drawn-out in person, are even more so online as details are parsed by the curious, their faces pressed against the digital glass.

“When you make a decision to be with a person in cyberspace you are making a commitment to their network of friends and acquaintances,” said Liz Perle, a co-founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit watchdog group that studies families and media. “People have so many online strings that bind them that cutting one does not sever the relationship. There are always more.”

One by-product of the digital revolution is that trust is being assigned new meaning. According to the Internet and American Life Project at the Pew Research Centre, one in five teenagers polled shares online passwords as a way to build trust and foster romance. Grown-ups, explained Lee Rainie, the project’s director, are exhibiting similar behaviour.

Some family law practitioners say they are grappling with the complexities of online entanglements in real-world divorce.

Randall Kessler, a lawyer in Atlanta, said he advises divorcing clients to change their passwords, stop posting on social networking sites, acquire a new e-mail address, and secure or make copies of whatever is posted about them online. Users, of course, control what they post on private accounts. Where it gets tricky, though, is when photos, videos and comments have been forwarded, retweeted or reposted to friends’ accounts or on public Web sites.

Sam Altman, the chief executive of Loopt, a mobile tracking service that allows users to monitor friends’ locations using the Global Positioning System software on their cell phones, said he was seeing social mores shift firsthand. About 20 percent of Loopt’s users are couples who buy the service to keep track of each other’s whereabouts. But in the past six months, there has been an increase in the number of customers who use fake locations as a decoy so a person doesn’t know where they are, Altman said, a service that Loopt offers.

He explained that some of those customers have broken up and now want privacy. At the same time, they don’t want to offend an ex by overtly letting them know they have been blocked. “People who break up always want to change their location immediately,” Altman said. At the same time, “unless it was nasty, they don’t want rush to tell everyone they’ve split up either,” he said. “Better to be cautious than hasty.”

The reason is simple: Some hope the romance will be rekindled. Similarly, closing a joint bank account or switching to “single” status on your Facebook page suggests a permanent break.

Debora Spencer, a Seattle photographer, split up last summer with a long-time boyfriend with whom she lived for four years. Like many exes, she grappled with whether to remain Facebook friends.

Early in the relationship, Spencer’s partner had friended many of her Facebook pals, so their networks overlapped. After the breakup, she still received his status updates and read comments he posted on her friends’ walls. That made her realize that he knew everything she was doing, too.

So she defriended him, hoping it would stop the flow of news.

It didn’t.¬† “You learn things so quickly, within minutes,” she said. “Even if we had lived together in a small town, I don’t think I would have learned half of what I did as quickly as I did on Facebook.”

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