Checklist for the holidays: Buy bejeweled 2016 eyeglasses and noisemakers from street vendor. Stock Champagne. Regift perfume and sweaters. Turn Christmas tree into mulch. And, oh yes, break up with significant other.
The year-end is popular for ending things. (One analysis of changes to Facebook relationship statuses that mentioned “breakup” revealed a peak in the two weeks before Christmas.) But just in time for seasonal remorse is a flourishing breakup industrial complex, a confluence of technology and changing social mores.
Dissolving a relationship used to be a private matter between the two principals, with a Greek chorus of close friends and family. Now the sopranos and tenors include apps, websites, social media tools and digital Cyranos for hire.
If you’re not up to the dirty deed yourself, the Breakup Shop will do it for you. The site, whose slogan is “Let us help you end it,” uses email, snail mail, text or Snapchat, at prices from $5 to $80, for customized naughty or nice options. (In the nice category is an hasta la vista gift pack that includes chocolate-chip cookies and “The Notebook” on Blu-ray. In the naughty is a “mean photo attachment” of you with your new loved one.)
It’s always been possible to “unfriend” someone on Facebook, but the company’s new “breakup flow” allows you to limit your connection with an ex: untagging photos, burying past posts and editing any mention on your news feed.
“It’s like unfriending lite,” said Kelly Winters, a project manager on the company’s compassion team. (Yes, Facebook has a compassion team, whose bailiwick entails “easing life’s difficult moments,” such as designating a “legacy contact” to handle your account when you’re dead.)
Maintaining even limited social media ties may seem self-flagellating, a gateway to cyberstalking an ex’s activities and new relationships (and if you digitally disconnect, at least you can imagine that he’s been hit by a bus).
“We spoke to social scientists and experts to try and understand: Are we creating good?” Ms. Winters said. “One of the most powerful moments was talking to a man going through a divorce after 20 years. He said: ‘I have to co-parent our children with her for the rest of our lives. I’ve invested more in this relationship than anything else in my life.’ We want to be thoughtful about the fact that you might want to stay connected but don’t want to be reminded. The breakup flow lets people stay in touch gently and casually, and it’s on your terms.”
Facebook’s expert advice came from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “We looked through the language and made recommendations, to be less confrontational or more empathic,” said Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, the center’s science director. “There’s a way of phrasing questions to be neutral, not incendiary. ‘Do you never want to see John again?’ might be how a person feels, but Facebook has an opportunity not to exaggerate or fuel greater animosity or pain.”
For now, the breakup flow is available only in the United States, only on mobile devices and only for a random test group.
“It can take up to a year to introduce a new tool to all users,” Ms. Winters said, “but this one will happen in far, far less time. The anecdotal response has been, ‘Thank you, we needed this.’”
Actually, KillSwitch did it first. Enter your ex’s name on the app, and it goes to work aggregating photos, videos, wall posts and status updates on Facebook, removing them all in one fell swoop, with an option to save deleted pictures in a hidden album.
“Hey, we’re human, and who hasn’t backslid at some point?” said Clara de Soto, one its creators. “But 10 days after we launched, Facebook shut it down. In their defense, it raised a red flag for mass deleting.” After KillSwitch’s founders “leaned in really hard” with Facebook officials, they were granted access again.
Ms. de Soto, a former advertising copywriter, developed the app with Erica Mannherz after friends went through breakups and deactivated their social media accounts to avoid any virtual bumping into the ex. “There are painful shards of a past relationship in your corner of the Internet,” she said. “It makes getting over something really challenging.” Out of sight, out of mind seemed like a better idea. The app is free, and a percentage of the proceeds from ads goes to the American Heart Association of New York, “so broken hearts can help broken hearts,” Ms. de Soto said.
Once the breakup is official, why not sell the detritus of the relationship, or profit from someone else’s misery? Sites such as Out of Your Life and Exboyfriend Jewelry (now owned by Breakupgoods) are the digital equivalent of smudging with sage to clear a home of evil spirits, like the character in “Sex and the City” who auctioned off the past gifts from the man who left her. (Is it a coincidence that the character’s name, Blair Elkin, is an anagram of Ellen Barkin, the actress who put more than 100 baubles accumulated during her marriage to Ronald O. Perelman on the block at Christie’s and netted more than $20 million?)
Mere mortals may purge anything from a bedroom set to a bird feeder — or even a pet bird. The more unusual items on Never Liked It Anyway have included a hairnet and a bottle of ketchup. One may think those things could be thrown in the trash. “It’s a cathartic experience, a cleansing ritual,” said the site’s creator, Bella Acton. “We get all our sellers to tell why they’re selling, and there’s a ‘bounce back’ space to tell what they’ll do with the money. Yes, that happened and we’re sorry, but what are we going to do to get you back to fabulous?”
Buyers on these sites seem unconcerned with inheriting the sellers’ bad juju. “You’re getting a bargain,” Ms. Acton said, “and if you can have a Louis Vuitton bag for $500, you’ll deal with the negative energy.” Most participants are women, but it’s been useful for some unfortunate men, as Ms. Acton explained: “He proposed, she said no, and he’s left with the ring.”
Some of the new breakup industry is clearly intended as entertainment. After downloading the 99-cent app Breakup Text, you choose the bow-tie icon for a “serious” relationship or the flip-flops for “casual,” and decide whether you want to say “I lost interest,” “I found someone else” or “I was eaten by a bear.” Then you are provided with a passionate and hilarious diatribe, your own personal Louis C. K.
“It was a total joke,” said Jake Levine, a co-creator, whose day job is at the digital art platform Electric Objects. “It was meant to play into the fears of the older generation about what’s happening with relationships these days. People who would really break up this way are jerks. Maybe relationships are less serious for millennials, but I tend to think new technology changes human beings more slowly than we imagine.”
Mackenzie Keast, one of the Canadian brothers (a real estate developer and a civil engineer) who created the Breakup Shop, said: “We see it as a tongue-in-cheek entity. We’re very professional, but there’s a little humor involved in paying someone else to do a breakup. Attitudes are changing. It doesn’t have to be this lonely, miserable, emotional experience. It can be a means to moving on to the next potential partner.”
Kanye Myers, a 27-year-old from Toronto who works in digital media, ordered a text message from the Breakup Shop to stop dating a woman he had met through Tinder. “Things got a little too clingy,” he said. “It started in the digital sphere, and it made sense to end it there, like a digital exorcist; in the old days, they would have come in with crosses. I totally get why it would be popular with millennials. We were raised online. It only makes sense that we would download the messy part of our lives, too.”
While Mr. Myers conceded that his mother might disapprove, and that he might be in trouble should he ever cross paths with the woman who received his breakup text, he was unapologetic.
“I guess everyone has justification for what they do,” he said. “I know that I’m a good person, but this relationship was way too short-term for me to invest in a large-scale breakup. I just wanted to go on with my life that morning.
“Maybe if it was more serious, I might spring for the phone call.”