When You Fall Out of Love, This Is What Facebook Sees

We fill the human-shaped void with 225 percent more Facebook interactions.

How does the end of a real-life relationship change our enduring relationship with social networks? What can be done to make real-life breakups less debilitating? How can we make them harder, if we're into that sort of thing for artistic suffering or whatever, not that I am?

 A colossal spike in Facebook interactions on the day of the breakup, followed by 50 to 75 percent increased use (Facebook)

Since almost 20 percent of the world population, more than 1.3 billion humans, is active on Facebook every month, the Facebook Data Science team stands to tell us a lot about how we livin' and how we cope in the digital age. Just like how Google thinks it can predict flu outbreaks, Facebook's stockpiles of activity logs are becoming a serious player in the epidemiology of behavioral pathology.

The Facebook team reviewed data from "people who were on the receiving end of a separation" and looked at how their Facebook activity changed before and after said separation. They define being on the receiving end of a separation as "people who had been in a relationship for at least four weeks with someone who then switched their relationship status to 'Single.'"

By "in a relationship," they do mean a status that said literally "In a relationship," as well as those that indicated engagement, marriage, domestic partnership, civil union, and the like. The Facebook team measured how many messages these people sent and received, how many timeline posts they posted themselves or had thrust upon them, and the number of comments those posts got.

"We observed a steady regime around the baseline before the day the relationship status changes," the Facebook Data Science team wrote on their blog (a Facebook page) on Saturday, "followed by a discontinuity on that day with a more than 225 percent increase of the average volume of interactions."

"This points towards people receiving support their friends in times where they need it," they conclude, "whether it comes in the form of private messages, timeline posts or comments."

Or it points towards people withdrawing into an unnaturally curated social network for low-risk validation as a replacement for real human connection. However you want to say it. People can be unpredictable, irrational, and unavailable. A social network will never break up with you.

Anticipating this sort of increased Facebook usage onslaught after a separation, the dating site eHarmony recently gave some advice in the form of "Ten Things to Not Post on Facebook After a Breakup." The list includes sappy songs and slander and cryptic allusions to your fragile emotional state. (Though, those would get lots of comments and subsequent messages, right, Facebook Data Science?) It also recommends not posting photos of you and your ex together (Dear lord!), and not posting photos of you with someone attractive in order to inspire jealousy (Okay that's a good one). What are you supposed to post then? Quirky but deeply poignant Atlantic articles about the science of Facebook and relationships?

Presented by

James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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