No One Wins the Breakup on Social Media

You can't fake being calm and carrying on. Unless you can.

If you were still warm from the embrace of several beautiful young people when your copy of New York magazine arrived this week, you probably got a pretty good shock to hear that we Millennials are not, in fact, the hookup generation. I certainly was (wink emoticon). No, says writer Maureen O'Connor, we are "the breakup generation."

Even more specifically, we're the generation of public breakups and public post-breakup damage control. Facebook released data earlier this year that said when people switch their status from indicating any type of relationship to "single," they immediately swoop into a transient 225 percent increase in the volume of interactions on the site. In those days and weeks (months?) after a relationship ends, it's also true that the theatrics of our social-media caricatures bend toward an audience of one. "I am fine," says the Instagram, in fewer words but so many more. "I am doing fine. Can't you tell?"

Of course the existence of that message proves it cannot be entirely true, but that doesn't stop us from trying. The better you are at lying, the closer you can come.

In "Winning the Breakup in the Age of Instagram," O'Connor explores the idea of landing on the confident and successful side of a divide—or at least appearing to. And in looking superior to your former other half, feeling better about yourself. It's petty, she admits, but ubiquitous. A state of mind that really, if you ever find yourself consciously experiencing, you might do well to find a mirror and ask, "Am I evil?"

"Winning the breakup" didn't enter the Urban Dictionary lexicon until 2012. Though it refers to a timeless pettiness, the modern concept generally includes social media. Facebook and Instagram have obviously turned the chance encounter with an ex into an inevitability. A "winning the breakup" advice column on the site Ask Men—which is seriously the name of a publication, even though that's basically the premise of every publication—does recommend "going cold turkey" at the end of a relationship. As in, severing all ties, including blocking on social media. I don't think that is generally necessary or cool. But if you don't do that, the chance that you will check in on an ex is roughly 90,000 percent. Though, on a personal note, I never check the Instagram or Facebook of my ex, Sharon. I really just have too much going on, and it doesn't even cross my mind.

"Inevitably, no two people ever can desire a breakup exactly equally," O'Connor writes. "Which means at least one person comes out of it feeling like a loser—and as any résumé-padding overachiever knows, where there are losers there are also winners."

The only real winners are the people who don't care how they look on social media, to their ex or to anyone.

The loser in my case is Sharon.

Unless you are a truly good person who wants to see that your ex is doing well no matter what, I suppose it's normal to hope that person hasn't immediately replaced you with anyone who can totally fill the you-shaped hole you just ripped out of their heart.

Last week Sharon posted a photo of our (her) dog in a sweater, and it said,"Brrrr." The photo seemed to say, "Everything is fine, Jim. I'm just fine, thinking about the weather, not about you." Aren't you, though, Sharon? That's the same thing I used to say when I was cold.

O'Connor seeks out the opinions of some of her Millennial friends on gchat (one of whom told her, “I’m assembling a team of hotties to torture my ex on Instagram”), so I did the same. What do you think is the best way to BE on social media after a breakup? Cool or devastated?

"I think the best way to present devastation is to go silent," said Chiara Atik, author of Modern Dating: A Field Guide. I tweeted something, anything. "Other than that," she went on, "[be] cool. But not ebullient, not effusive."

Culture writer Spencer Kornhaber went with cool, too. "You definitely want to not give a shit," he said. "And be happier than ever."

"Smiley selfies?"

"Too obvious. You want no hint of calculation."

Calculation is the enemy of cool, it seems. Earlier this year I spoke with Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, who studies cool full-time. In a post called "How to Not Try," he explained to me four approaches to not trying. I think about them constantly.

In the case of Instagram appearances post breakup, his ultra-distilled Laozian or Zhuangzian strategies might be the most appropriate. The former focuses on playing down goal-focused desires. "Let’s say you’re not good at relaxing if you're going on a date," Slingerland told me at the time. "It’s because you’re too focused on the goals. Like, I want this person to like me; I’m hoping that we’ll get to have a second date. Instead, what you really need to do is be like the uncarved block and just be simple and sincere, and that’s how it’s going to work out."

In that way, you have to leave the relationship in the same way you came into it: alone and as cool as you can be.

For example, I recently posted an Instagram of me playing Lisa Loeb's "Stay" on guitar. It was very cool and spontaneous, and I don't care if Sharon saw it. She didn't mention it, but I bet she did. Slingerland gives a naturalistic explanation for people's ability to harness spontaneity: that we trust people who are spontaneous. We're instinctively wary of people pretending to be something they're not, as a matter of survival.

"People who are spontaneous are attractive," he said, "because people have really good bullshit detectors." It's through a biocultural evolution that we have an innate tendency to like people who seem like they’re not trying. "You’re successful on a date when the person feels like they’re really meeting you, and not something you’re putting on."

None of these approaches is effective unless you internalize it to a point where you're not consciously following it anymore. That takes time and preparation, the stuff not afforded by a lot of breakups. So at that point, since you cannot go quiet lest you appear devastated, and you cannot fake cool lest you reek of effort ... the only reasonable approach is to delete all social media accounts and throw your phone in the river.

Then go get your phone and dispose of it in some way that's ecologically responsible.