The era is long gone when a romantic breakup meant ripped-up
photos and burned love letters. Today, digital photos and e-mails can be
quickly deleted but the proliferation of social media has made forgetting a
What about the ubiquitous digital records of a once beloved
that lurk on Facebook, tumblr, and flicker?
"People are keeping huge collections of digital
possessions," says Steve Whittaker, a psychology professor at UC Santa
Cruz who specialises in human-computer interaction. "There has been little
exploration of the negative role of digital possessions when people want to
forget aspects of their lives."
In a paper, "Design for Forgetting: Disposing of
Digital Possessions after a Breakup," Whittaker and co-author Corina Sas,
of Lancaster University, examine the challenges of digital possessions and
their disposal after a romantic breakup. Sas worked on the research as a
visiting professor at UCSC.
Digital possessions include photos, messages, music, and
video stored across multiple devices such as computers, tablets, phones, and
cameras. Their pervasiveness "creates problems during a breakup, as people
'inhabit' their digital space where photos and music constantly remind them
about their prior relationship."
In interviews with 24 young people between the ages of 19
and 34, Whittaker and Sas found that digital possessions after a breakup are
often evocative and upsetting, leading to distinct disposal strategies. Twelve
of the subjects were ‘deleters’; eight were keepers, and four others were
They presented their findings at the Association for
Computing Machinery Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the
premier international conference on human-computer interaction, with more than
3 300 attendees.
Some of the heartbroken may want to forget but are
"extremely resistant to actual deletion," Whittaker and Sas found,
most often the "dumpees." Others later regret disposing of
Disposal is made more difficult today because "digital
possessions are in vast collections spread across multiple devices,
applications, web-services, and platforms," they write. "When the
relationship is good, this promotes a rich digital life. But when it sours …
people have to systematically cull collections across multiple digital
Untagged but not
Facebook photos can be untagged but not deleted if posted by
someone else. "It's time consuming and emotionally taxing because people
tend to re-engage with possessions, especially photos," they note.
Some of the initial tactics encountered: changing one's
relationship status to "single," immediately unfriending or blocking
ex-partner's access to ones' profile.
Whittaker and Sas propose that software solutions might help
scrub cyberspace of painful memories, for instance automatic
"harvesting" using facial recognition, machine learning or entity
extraction. Or a holding pattern until a
cooler head prevails.
"A lack of disposal tools meant most participants
either kept, or disposed of everything," they said. "Keepers took
longer to heal, disposers often regretted their impulsiveness."
The authors propose a "Pandora's Box" that could
automatically scoop up all the digital artefacts of a relationship, put them in
a single place for later strategic deleting or retention. Or a trusted friend could be put in the
position as a gatekeeper.
Or there could be new tools for active selection from
collections of digital possessions to create a "treasure chest" of
valuable items that may be retained for later happy memories.