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See Less: How to help a billion breakups

Impact case study for REF 2021: Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience (UoA 04)

Facebook – the sprawling tech giant now known as Meta – has become a ubiquitous part of many of our lives, providing the platforms we use to connect with our friends and families, find the people we’re yet to know, and keep track of those we used to.

As the firm behind products such as WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, Meta finds itself uniquely involved in the intimate relationships of billions of people, playing a part at every step, from the early blossoming of the relationship, to the wedding planning and baby photos, and the eventual abrupt public declaration that the whole thing is over and was probably never meant to be in the first place.

How active Meta and its founding parts have been in peoples’ relationships has evolved over the years, with a significant milestone coming in 2015, when the company introduced the option for people coming out of a romantic relationship to “See Less” of their former partner on Facebook. The feature meant that you could stop seeing updates from the other person, without having to go through the awkwardness of ‘unfriending’ them and removing them from your online life altogether.

Facebook screenshot
facebook screenshot

The creation of the See Less feature was championed within Facebook by its Compassion Team, who said they were influenced by a study from Brunel’s Dr Tara Marshall when considering how the company should handle the breakdown of an intimate relationship between two of its users.

See less Meta feature infographic

Dr Marshall’s paper, described by the Compassion Team as “100 per cent must read,” showed that keeping tabs on your ex led to greater distress over the breakup, more negative feelings and sexual desire, lower personal growth, and a greater longing for the former partner.

However, it also showed that those who remained friends with their ex on Facebook displayed fewer negative feelings and less sexual desire, and didn’t long for their ex quite so much as those who had unfriended, or been unfriended.

The Compassion team said that introducing the See Less feature served two of the needs identified by Dr Marshall – it allowed the user to only see their ex-partner’s updates on their own terms, and it stopped content about the ex being shared with them in an unplanned way.

In October 2015, a pilot of the See Less button was rolled out to 5 per cent of American Facebook users – around eight million people at the time – and by March the following year, over 3 million people had engaged with the ‘break-up flow’ that contained the feature.

Following the successful trial, Facebook rolled the See Less button out to its 2.7 billion users, with hundreds of millions of people using the feature to control whose life interacts with their own.

News of Facebook’s new feature was covered by the BBC, The Guardian, and the New York Times, and whilst it's continued to evolve since its introduction, Dr Marshall’s study is now written into the DNA of how relationship breakups are handled online.

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Dr Tara Marshall

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Project last modified 12/05/2022