Valentine's in the Pit: Virtual Breakup Engages Thousands

At noon on Valentine’s Day, students massed in the Pit in a mob. They packed the upper-level windows of Top of Lenoir dining hall and Student Stores, sat on each other’s shoulders and stood on surrounding walls.

A long “shush” erupted to silence the murmuring of the crowd. Someone on the outskirts cursed a twittering bird for drowning out the action.

Students had come to see Ryan Burke, a Carolina senior, break up with N.C. State student Mindy Moorman, in an event that many say drew the biggest crowd to the Pit in recent years- perhaps ever. Burke had extended the invitation to the virtual world on, a social networking Web site, saying that he was going to break up with her.

And break up with her, he did.

He said: How could you do that to somebody? She said: Why did you bring this many people to break up with me? The crowd cheered, laughed and jeered.

A few days later, the couple that wasn’t even a couple came clean: The breakup was a stunt.

Moorman had expected a crowd of perhaps 50 students for the “breakup” she helped plan and script for her 21st birthday.

“We’re turning the corner [to the Pit], and I hear a roar,” she said. “It’s like we’re sitting in the Dean Dome and Tyler Hansbrough just made a 3-pointer.”

“It was partly a social experiment to take something so personal as a breakup and see how many people would watch,” Moorman said.

The public response was huge. Moorman said that she received phone calls from two local newspapers and the TV programs Inside Edition and Good Morning America and that she was inundated with Facebook messages. The experience showed her the power of the Internet and modern communication.

“Anyone can become famous, if Ryan Burke and Mindy Moorman can become famous,” she said.

Estimates of attendance vary widely. “I have not seen events as large as this in my four years here,” said Frank Sun, director of external affairs at Student Television, who filmed the breakup, posted it on and advertised it on Facebook.

Two to three days later, more than 100,000 people had watched the footage on YouTube, he said. Student Television’s phone lines and computer system went down from an overload of student responses to the broadcast. “We got about 100-some instant messages in a few minutes,” he said.

The Daily Tar Heel published letters from the Carolina Women’s Center and from Counseling and Wellness Services, both expressing disdain for the behavior of the exes and the crowd.

“Why would our students feel that was entertaining?” asked Donna Bickford, director of the Women’s Center.

Amy Schmitz-Sciborski, a psychologist at Wellness Services, said the event modeled and normalized relationship abuse.

“It feels like, for an individual to invite someone to be publicly humiliated and then to have people participate in that, that is hostility and that’s harassment,” she said.

Schmitz-Sciborski said that in any mode of communication, electronic or otherwise, dignity should be upheld. “It’s such a new world with Facebook and MySpace; it’s a whole new medium of communicating and a whole new way of miscommunicating, too,” she said.

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