Review: Gershon's Breakup 2.0

Ilana Gershon’s The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media is an ethnography of how (mostly) young people manage (and mangle) their relationships in the 2.0 age. (And, as Seinfeld‘s Elaine says the breakup is “one of the most important parts of a relationship.”) The book addresses such issues as being “Facebook official,” changing one’s relationship status, “creepiness” and stalking, caller-ID ring tones, and privacy and writing for “multiple publics.” These issues are explored via ethnographic tales that are complemented by just the right amount of theory and literature – and it’s not too long. It is an example of the sort of ethnography I love.

Also, topically, it aligns with my fascination of how we use norms to facilitate our interactions – and the opportunities for conflict and humor. A decade and a half ago I was talking about social protocols and my continued fascination with mediated interactions is how I explain my fondness for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm – as my students know all too well. Larry David’s humor is all about mismatched norms, such as Elaine’s inappropriate “walk-and-talk” cell-phone call to a friend whose father is in the hospital. (Once they are thrown in jail she asks “If I call Jill from prison, do you think that would make up for the other ones? Cause you only get one call. The prison call is like the king of calls.”) Gershon portrays people in similar discussions, but this time about Facebook and messaging rather than the telephone. In Gershon’s terms, her students are negotiating idioms of practice including the management of second-order information: “the information that can guide you into understanding how particular words and statements should be interpreted” (p. 18). This process is understood via Jay Bolter’s and Richard Grossman’s notion of remediation wherein newer media need to be understood in the context of people’s use of old media. For example, Gershon’s students consider email to be formal because the ways it is similar to a letter relative to the other media they frequently use; Gershon and her cohort consider it informal, relative to their media experiences. Among the intriguing and often amusing tales, there are lots of nice applied insights, such as “the newness of new media is socially constructed by looking at the moments when communication is most fraught and when etiquette, perhaps, is most needed” (p. 11).

In a time when polemics about the goodness or badness of new media proliferate, I appreciate Gershon’s even exploration of these issues as people encounter them in daily life.

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