Science & Technology

People Can Tell a Lot About Your Relationship from Your Facebook Profile

Ah, Facebook. A beautiful way to give all your friends (and Mark Zuckerberg, and hackers) a glimpse into your life — and to share the great news when you fall in love. But when you shout about your relationship from Facebook's digital rooftops, does it make your friends think you're super happy? Super obnoxious? Or is it a little of both?

Looking at Love Online

A new paper in Personal Relationships explores exactly this. For one part of the two-part study, researchers created Facebook profiles for various fictional people in relationships. Some of them had profile pictures that showed them with their significant other (researchers controversially termed couple-y pictures like this "relfies," a portmanteau of "relationship" and "selfie."). Other profiles were relfie-free. Some profiles had an official "In a relationship with _____" status; others didn't.

The researchers played with statuses, too. Their fictional Facebookers posted messages ranging from things unrelated to their relationship, like "phoneless for a bit, email me!" to things that disclosed a lot about their relationship, like "Pining away for Jordan ... I just love you so much I can't stand it!"

Then, researchers had study participants browse the profiles and assess how happy the fictional people's relationships seemed.

The results were somewhat surprising. The more signs of couple-dom on a person's Facebook, the happier observers perceived the relationship to be. In other words, people trust how other people present themselves on Facebook.

That trust isn't necessarily misplaced, either. In the second part of the study, researchers compared 200 partnered people's happiness in their relationship with their Facebook presence and found that Facebook displays of affection really correlated with self-reported happiness. People with "relfie" profile photos who listed themselves as "in a relationship" were indeed more satisfied with and committed to their partners. Facebook faking is perhaps not as common as it seems.

"I'm Just Happy You're Happy"

There was another dimension to the fictional Facebook profile study: Researchers asked participants how likeable the fictional social media users seemed, too. "Relfie" profile pictures and official relationship statuses corresponded to an uptick in likeability, they found. People really are happy to see other people happy.

That's only true within reason, though. Study participants perceived people posting a steady stream of gushy, loved-up statuses as excessive; it brought profiles' likability scores down. It's not that the people posting those statuses seemed unhappy, or fake; they just didn't seem fun to hang out with.

This fits with another finding about Facebook: that use of the site correlates robustly with unhappiness. The more time a person spends on Facebook, the more likely they are to deal with poor mental and physical health. Depression, especially, is linked to Facebook use, though it's unclear if Facebook use causes depression or vice versa. Given that the typical audience of a Facebook post is down in the dumps, gushy posts probably seem boastful and rude at a certain point.

Then again, maybe it's simpler than that. We've all had an awkward outing with a couple so into each other that they talk in a secret language and eat every spaghetti noodle like they're Lady and the Tramp. It can be weird. Perhaps we're just experiencing the digital version of that when we see a Facebook user "pining for Jordan."

Written by Mae Rice October 19, 2018

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