“Two years ago, Facebook recommended that my mom friend my step mom, whom my father left my mother for,” Caroline Sinders tells me. “There wasn’t a privacy filter for that. What is the social protocol for not wanting to block or unfriend an ex’s friend, but you really don’t what to know what they’re up to? Does muting work? At a certain point you have to mute multiple people just to actually not see that one person’s conversations. Well,
what if this was someone’s job?”
On Saturday, December 5th, Caroline will undertake this job as part of her performance piece “Social Media Break Up Coordinator,” debuting at Babycastles in Manhattan. Part social media coordinator and part life coach, “Social Media Break Up Coordinator” offers 15 minute sessions in which Caroline will help participants sort out the messier parts of their digital lives; a one-on-one meeting with your own personal social media consultant. Caroline also sees it as a satiric investigation into certain aspects of tech culture, the “creation of emotional labor and ‘dirty’ digital handlings around getting everything handled for you by other people, no task too big or too small.”
An expert in user experience and online communities, in the past Caroline undertook a small experiment that would blossom into this project by consensually muting and blocking a romantic partner on social media to investigate the impact different choices and filters had on their digital relationship.
When their partnership dissolved, she began to think about the ways to “really separate these intertwined relationships with friends and acquaintances, and the ways we have trained various algorithms to lean towards our interactions—these little social homophilous circles we had created around each other that were hard to navigate. So I started to think about the spaces that a person could fill where an algorithm breaks down.”
It’s likely everyone has been in one of these fraught situations, from hiding your Facebook feed from a prying relative, to the heavy moment of unfriending an ex. These virtual choices can be difficult to navigate given their emotional weight. “But what if you could hire someone to clean up your social media?” Caroline offers. “The person hiring the coordinator is susceptible to abuse, bad work relationships, soured friendships, etc., but the coordinator has the distance for it and can handle it.”
Caroline’s understanding of breakups can include friendships, work, romantic relationships, or “that weird person you met once at a party who always comments on Facebook” and will address such questions as explaining privacy, creating lists, curating posts to specific audiences, and navigating the emotional pitfalls of unfollowing, unfriending, or blocking.
Caroline explains that “all of these relationships, while incredibly different, have surprisingly similar solutions. They are on the same platform, though the emotional output is different. The right combination of a few things at varying degrees can yield incredibly different results.”
While the piece itself seems somewhat tongue in cheek, the issues underlying it have broad and vital relevance for anyone who spends time on the internet. “I really want to have a conversation around the way that algorithms fail us, and this greater trust into a system that is actually broken,” Caroline concludes.
“Our social lives are pretty messy, but social media design doesn’t take that messiness into account. I’m really interested in having a dialogue around the way systems need to be designed to actually deal with what happens when all different kinds of social relationships go wrong. What would happen if social media companies really focused on that?”