Editor's note, Feb. 1, 2023: Anthony Pinter is now a teaching assistant professor in CU Boulder's ATLAS Institute.
Did you just see a Facebook “memory” of you and your ex from Valentine’s Day…three years ago, and now you’re bummed or just annoyed? You can blame the algorithms, says Anthony Pinter, a doctoral student in CU Boulder’s information science department, and soon-to-be ATLAS Institute faculty member.
Pinter studies ways to make algorithms, which work behind the scenes to make social media platforms work, more sensitive to us as humans, rather than just data leveragers. In a 2019 study, he found that after people go through a breakup, they often see things that are unexpected or upsetting on social media related to their ex or the lost relationship. While his published study on the topic was about Facebook, he says sites like instagram and Snapchat are similarly designed.
Pinter took some time to speak with CU Boulder Today about social media and breakups, how social media apps know what they know about you, and some tips on how to manage your apps after a breakup.
What’s going on? Why can’t I move on from my ex on social media?
So my partner and I break up and I’m going to unfriend or unfollow him or her. In the perfect world that would be great, that would solve all of the problems.
Unfortunately, when you look at it from a larger scale, there are many connections that still exist that would connect you to your ex, either through other people, such as mutual friends, or through pictures that you’re both still tagged in. Or maybe we go to the same kind of events or have the same kind of interests, so you both RSVP to that upcoming show.
We call that big cloud of stuff that surrounds a relationship the social periphery. So the answer to the question of why we can’t get away from our exes on social media is the algorithms on these sites are designed to connect us, and leverages the social periphery to do that. This is where that upsetting recommendation that you might want to "friend" your ex’s new partner comes from.
From a data perspective, or from an algorithm’s perspective, this is a really good suggestion. This is somebody who you used to interact with a lot, and they just added someone new, so maybe you’d want to add that person as well. But from a human perspective, this is an absolutely terrible suggestion—why in the world would I want to “friend” or follow my ex’s new partner?
So these algorithms are pulling up things that are upsetting, unexpected and that can impede our healing process.
Tips for avoiding your ex on social media
All of the platforms have features that allow you to tailor what an algorithm might show you. For example, on Facebook you can say: “On this day I don’t want to see things that have this person in it,” or, “I don’t want to see things from this date range,” imagining the pictures of the vacation you two of you took.
That’s great, however, people don’t tend to use that super often. Or the opportunity to use this only happens after they have had a bad experience. So you get the recommendation to connect to your ex’s new partner, and you’re like, this is a terrible recommendation. I need to fix this right now.” But you’ve already had the experience, and so that defeats the purpose.
Things people can do is: start with getting distance from the breakup and the ex. The capital S solution is to get off social media for a little bit, but obviously that isn’t really a good suggestion for most people’s lives. So a more practical suggestion might be to disconnect from the ex, and disconnect from the ex's friends. On Instagram that might look like unfollowing, but it can also just be muting them for a little while so they don’t show up in your feed. Deleting photos is always an option, or archiving them.
The broad answer is to get distance however you can. So manage your data, put it away, so to speak—whether that means deleting, unfollowing or muting. The less you see of someone on social media after a breakup, the better you may feel.
Algorithms: What might surprise you
These big companies, including social media companies, know a lot about us, even more than most people expect. Part of this is the trade-off of use. We don’t pay for Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook, at least not monetarily. Instead, we pay them with our data. That’s the compensation these platforms receive. Then they sell that data to other companies and platforms.
For example, Google is the largest advertising company in the world. They use data from your interactions with them to place advertisements based on what they know about you or think they know about you.
Many of these companies that we interact with daily on social media and other platforms design features that rely on that data. I think it’s fair to speculate these sites probably maintain top 10 lists of whom we interact with, or track the top 10 pages or accounts we interact with. They then leverage that to make suggestions of other things we might want to follow, friend or buy.
Making better apps in the future
If we assume these platfirns have that kind of data—whether it’s something we’ve given them explicitly, such as via a feature like “in a relationship,” or whether its data they’ve gleaned from our interaction on the platform—we could theoretically use that data to make better features in the wake of a life transition such as a breakup.
So in the future, maybe we can use this data where the algorithms determine people are in a relationship, and change the suggestions when the data says they stopped the relationship. I think the silver lining here is the amount of data they have on us could be used to improve our experiences, it’s just a matter of if we can get them to do this, and is it a best practice to do that.
Upon completing his dissertation this spring, Pinter will be staying at CU Boulder as a teaching assistant professor in the ATLAS Institute. He intends to continue his research on rethinking how we make algorithms and how we design features on apps to improve user experience, including algorithm design to make things that are a little more compassionate to human beings in wake of emotionally fraught situations.