You’ve been there. You’ve been scrolling through your Facebook feed and your ex pops up because they've been tagged in a photo with a mutual friend.
Your heart starts racing and you click on their name to examine more closely. They look happy. Are they happy? You click on their profile and scroll through the most recent updates. Is this Bruce Lee quote from two weeks ago directed at me? Who is this girl they just friended? And why did she just post a smiling emoji on their wall? And then you see your last post on their wall, from 6 months ago. Your heart breaks.
The reality of 2014 is that most of us live our lives and relationships online. And the internet hasn't quite caught up to understand that when a relationship ends, it might be painful to see evidence of that relationship at every tap and click.
But you know who understands? Brooklyn-based artist and designer Sarah Hallacher. On her site User Experience of Heartbreak she poignantly captures in animations what we all go through online when a relationship ends, and in doing so, she makes us all feel a little bit less lonely. I sat down with her to talk about it.
Ellen: I am so fascinated by this project. You've really captured the zeitgeist with this in a way that words can't. I sent it to a bunch of my friends and one replied: "This is really cool. And sad. But mostly cool." It does have a way of making me really sad, but it is just so on point that it's cathartic. So, thank you so much for making it, and for sitting down to talk.
Sarah: Thank you so much. I think it's something on a lot of people's minds. I almost didn't realize how sad it was until I went back and looked at it a few weeks after I'd finished. The act of making it separated me quite a bit from the content. I actually think the project has a lot of humor in it.
Ellen: I definitely laughed too.
Ellen: Can you tell me a little bit about the types of projects you typically work on? Do you design and code? How did you get started doing that?
Sarah: I'm interested in making work about the way people use technology, so having a working of knowledge of design and code definitely supports that. I began teaching myself to code a few years ago when I was feeling a bit lost in my career. My interest in code expanded exponentially when I attended NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program; a graduate school that calls itself 'The Center for the Recently Possible' and thrives on its students’ experimentation.
Ellen: So when did you first have the idea to explore the user experience of heartbreak? Was this a labor of heartbreak? I noticed this dedication on the site:
Sarah: This project definitely began as a labor of heartbreak and, in all honesty, it was a heavy burden to me in its early stages. I began by taking screenshots of my own social media experiences, which gave me an outlet to look at my relationship objectively. Then I realized I could probably tell a pretty interesting story about the screenshots.
But understanding how to present them was so difficult, because I still felt so attached to the relationship. I struggled for a long time deciding what I actually wanted to say. I took some time away from it and realized that this experience wasn't about me, but about a lot of people -- anyone engaging in this technology while undergoing a transition. It's about breakups, and deaths, and births, and how all of these events in our lives, from the minute to the monumental, are documented online. Almost to the point where we can't erase them, even if we want to. And then of course, we have our actual lives, which require their own work.
So, making it was a difficult process. Publishing it was one of the most rewarding feelings I've had from making something. A situation that had made me feel awful, subhuman, was now transformed into something that made me feel present, aware, creative, powerful. I wasn't aware "making a project about it" would do that for me. Actually, when my friend James said that to me, I kind of felt like punching him. (Sorry James! You were right!)
Ellen: I can imagine it was really difficult, but therapeutic. Someone once told me to build a breakup monument after a breakup, and I loved that advice. She told me to do something to mark the moment (like run a marathon or learn something new) that would move me forward in a positive way. It sounds like this was your monument. So, how did you actually build it?
Sarah: I drew everything by hand in Illustrator, which was both very time-consuming and such a fun challenge. Some of the illustrations took a few hours to make. I tried to be as accurate as possible with the intricacies of the designs. I wanted to capture every detail of the interfaces. Then I animated the illustrations in Photoshop and built the site from scratch.
Ellen: You say this on the site and it rings so true:
Ellen: I think the internet makes it harder for people to move on. I'm almost jealous of my parent's generation because their exes would just drive off into the sunset, never to be heard from again. I know there are some technologists tackling this issue, like the creators of the Kill Switch app, but I have mixed feelings about deleting everything altogether. What's your opinion?
Sarah: I think deleting things can be therapeutic if the timing's right. I made a rule for myself that I would only change things that affect my present and future, because that's what was real. So instead of deleting things, I just put them aside until I was ready to look at them with a "that happened and was good / it's over now and that's great too!" attitude. My partner had a very different approach. Everyone has a different approach, because everyone heals differently.
But I think our generation has to enact levels of self-control that feel impossible at times. Past generations could try to call or go visit an ex-partner. The phone might ring indefinitely, no one picking up on the other end. Their sister might pick up and say, "she doesn't want to talk to you" and then hang up. Or no one answers the door. And then -- well, those are really the only options they had.
With our generation, we can text, call, email, leave voicemails, look at Facebook, look at Twitter, look at Instagram, look at Foursquare, look at Gchat, and any other programs where one may have an online presence. And we can do it whenever we want with a simple click or touch. We literally carry around the ability to check on this person and get feedback in seconds. So these impulses, our curiosity and envy, have to be ignored more often than they did before.
Not only that, but we can go back and read or look at our histories with that person. You can see the relationship falling apart, or places where it felt perfect, or whatever the case is. You could probably drive yourself insane parsing through the data.
Ellen: And I definitely have. In one relationship several years ago, I had the hardest time deleting our text message conversation. I almost couldn't do it, even though in some ways it was preventing me from moving on. I kept going through it looking for clues. Now, I delete text conversations routinely, with everyone. I think maybe it's because I put less of my heart and soul into my texts now than I used to 10 years ago. I just prefer in person interaction. Have you personally changed the way you handle your digital life when it comes to relationships?
Sarah: Absolutely. I have no regrets about the way I interacted digitally in regards to my relationship. It felt natural and fun at the time. But I don't feel the need to post information about my current relationship, and that feels so healthy to me.
And it's not that my current relationship isn't documented; instead of being online, it lives in my memory and in my daily life. But there's something to be said about being happy in private. Like I don't need to convince anyone out there that I'm happy, because I just am. This feels right for me, but everyone's different. I think there are "posters" and "non-posters" too, which is an interesting concept in itself.
Ellen: I hear you. I can be both I think, but I'm much less precious about digital relationship memories now than I used to be. So, I imagine you've been getting a lot of feedback. What has the response been like?
Sarah: I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the feedback I've gotten. I really thought I'd get at least a few "Wow, what a creep, she's clearly not over her ex" comments. If they're out there, I didn't see them. And full disclosure: I scanned twitter pretty obsessively after FastCo published the article about it.
The best part about the project was getting emails from strangers thanking me for making it. It completely blew me away. People told me stories and opened up to me in ways I couldn't believe. I really didn't expect that. I felt like I had taken everyone's deep dark secret and just said "Look, I do it, too!"
It's not a secret though. It's the reality of the technology we engage with, combined with being human. It's a shared experience. I'm not saying that makes it good, or acceptable, but it's an important thing to observe and comprehend.
Ellen: I'm glad people are letting you know the effect it is having. I’m excited to see whatever you do next. What's the best way for fans to stay updated on your work? Are you doing any talks or classes soon?
Ellen: Okay, I ask everyone I interview this question: if you can think back to the last time you were really heartbroken, what would you say to that heartbroken version of yourself?
Sarah: This is a tough one! Anything I could've said, I probably wouldn't have listened (laughs).
Thinking back... of course there are things I wish I'd done differently. Mostly, I wish I'd been patient with myself. Maybe I would tell myself that. But on the other side, I feel proud of the things I did do. I learned new skills and started teaching. I worked with amazing people on amazing projects. I started cooking, swimming, seeing movies, reading more books, listening to more podcasts. I injured my knee running and felt old! I went on dates and felt young! I traveled alone for the first time on my 29th birthday, then a few times more. I got rid of superfluous possessions. I got closer to the incredible people in my life. I got a bike that became a very lovely new friend. The whole process was such a weird ride that I foolishly thought my age would've excused me from. A very good lesson learned.
Ellen: Definitely. I feel like heartbreak is such a good life editor. There's this quote I really like from Glenda Bailey: "Loss can be a great motivator. Losing everything does mean that it really defines what your dreams are." Not to say that you are losing everything in a breakup, but sometimes it can feel that way. So many of the wonderful things in my life - whether it's people I met, or activities I started or pieces I wrote - came after heartbreak. It is the ultimate muse. Okay, last but not least: your favorite song about heartbreak?
Sarah: "Farewell Transmission" by Songs:Ohia / Magnolia Electric Co. I'm not even sure the song is about heartbreak, but they have such a raw sound that even their sad songs have a way of making me feel happy. Or just, alive. The singer Jason Molina passed away last March. He was 39. At the time, I felt strangely connected to him...wanted to thank him. Heartbreak has a way of doing that to you: connecting you to people and things in ways you didn't notice before.
Ellen: Thank you so much for sharing a piece of your heart with us, Sarah. It's been a pleasure.
Sarah: Thank you!
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