How to Predict Your Friends’ Breakups Using Social Media
Let’s say you have two friends, Jasper and Ernest, who have been going out for a few months. (They bonded over having names no human has had for 60 years.) Good for them! But you’re starting to get a little worried about the future of their relationship. You’ve noticed that Jasper seems uncomfortable holding Ernest’s hand in public lately, and Ernest is a little less patient than usual when Jasper can’t decide which candy he wants at the movie theater concession stand. (To be fair, it’s all boiled sugar, dude. Just pick one.)
Sure, you could invite Ernest (you’re closer to him, and he’s less high-strung) out for a beer and casually broach the subject of his ambiguously impending singularity, but you might make things awkward at best or set in motion a romantic-comedy-style chain of pathologically motivated events that all but assures his and Jasper’s breakup at worse. Could you just mind your own business and develop some healthy boundaries? Of course, but you could also take up jogging, stop experimenting with increasingly dangerous juggling routines and eat a fruit, but you’re obviously not going to do any of those things, so get out your tweed hat and bubble pipe because we’re embarking upon an investigation of how social media can be predictive of breakups.
Our examination starts with Reddit. According to a study published in 2021 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS (hee), researchers analyzed more than a million Reddit posts by more than 6,800 people for two years before and after they experienced a breakup and found that they could see the signs of it in the language they used as early as three months before someone put their tender heart in a blender.
For those of us at home, that means being on the lookout for an increase in “we” and “I” pronouns, indicating first a focus on relationships and then a focus on the self; an increase in informal and personal language, indicating a drop in analytical thinking; and an increase in “insight words” like “understanding” and “meaning,” “causal words” like “because” and “result” and “modal words” like “would” or “should,” indicating an increase in cognitive processing, aka Going Through It. These patterns will ramp up to the week of the breakup and during the taper off. (They could also just mean your friend is really emo and judgy, in which case a breakup is probably inevitable as well.)
Next, open Facebook, check how many friends in common the couple in question has, and then check how many of their friends have friends in common. If they seem to be part of one tight social circle, that’s a bad sign. According to research from Cornell University in 2014, the biggest predictor of relationship success via Facebook data was a high “dispersion rate” among social circles. For instance, if Jasper is friends with Ernest’s pub trivia team and Ernest is friends with Jasper’s incredibly genre-specific book club, but the trivia team and the book club don’t know each other, that’s great. That means they both have interests and lives outside the relationship but the relationship is important enough to introduce to those lives. On the flip side, if none of Jasper’s friends know Ernest — or if everyone is all friends with each other — that means one of those factors is missing, making a breakup 50 percent more likely within two months. No wonder those How I Met Your Mother kids were constantly playing musical partners.
Now, walk your little fingers over to Twitter, open the couple’s profiles, select the “Tweets & Replies” tab that nobody ever uses, and try to get a sense of how often they interact — and, more importantly, if that interaction is decreasing. Also pay attention to whether they’ve suddenly started interacting with other people a lot more. According to a 2015 analysis of 661 couples, both spell relationship doom and the imminent sliding into of DMs. You’ll know it’s happened when each partner quickly loses between 15 and 20 followers as their (apparently not disperse) friends choose sides, which is gonna be tough for you. Like, Jasper is definitely gonna need it more, but you’ve known Ernest longer, you know? It might be best to just leave Twitter altogether.
They’ll also start using strangely specific words more, such as “don’t,” “god,” “fuck” and “blessed.” The researchers attribute the latter to “using positive thoughts to heal their wounds,” but they clearly don’t realize Twitter is the most sarcastic platform.
Finally, make your way to Instagram — which is admittedly harder to parse because everyone lies about themselves on there, but it can give you a general sense of relationship satisfaction. Case in point: People who are satisfied with their relationships — surprise, surprise — don’t tend to spend a lot of time on Instagram. As you’ve always suspected, people who post a lot about their partner are more insecure, but people who post a lot of selfies don’t usually have a great time romantically, either. Once the breakup happens, people start posting a lot, and they also use the platform to communicate passive-aggressive messages to their former partner. So when Jasper starts posting selfies captioned “twizzlers AND reese’s pieces #yolo #cantdecidewontdecide #blessed,” you know it’s time to stop by with vodka and delete your Twitter account.
What really sucks about all of this is that social media makes breakups way worse. It’s made it easier than ever to, say, surreptitiously check up on your ex to make sure they’re really sad and can’t replace you, something 88 percent of people admit to doing even though it significantly hampers their ability to move on. Even for those who have taken a night to get totally trashed, pull up Chaka Khan’s greatest hits on Spotify and gone scorched earth by erasing all traces of their ex from their social media existence, Facebook Memories will constantly pop up like, “Remember the day you and Ernest went to the Japanese gardens?” Nor will the almighty algorithm let Jasper go a single day without seeing that you’ve liked Ernest’s new profile picture. Seriously, just blow it all up.
There is, however, a light at the end of this actively incinerating tunnel. Thanks to this wealth of data, we can also pinpoint with shocking accuracy the length of the breakup process. The whole thing should only last about nine months, from the preceding three months, when the relationship is beginning to fall apart, to six months post-breakup, when most people seem to have gotten over it, based on their social media use. People who struggle past the six-month point will show “prolonged signs of increased mental burden and preoccupation, and also (have) more references to their ex and their shared life together,” so if Jasper won’t shut up about the fucking Japanese gardens, it might be a good idea to refer him to professional help.
On the bright side, you know just about when to introduce Ernest to your friend Lawrence.