Last year, I wrote a piece called Swearing Off Social Media is the Newest Red Flag. Because whether you love it, hate it, or don’t understand it, personal profiles on social media networks are valid connections to and extensions of reality. How you choose to manage those digital links to tangible reality provides relevant insight into your emotional composition, your self-image, your motives, and your priorities.
Tools like Facebook and Instagram have become so pervasive in North America that almost any approach to its application – be it active, passive, resistant, or indulgent – could be reasonably interpreted as deliberate. And with romantic relationships, apparently quite predictive of future outcomes.
Catalina Toma is an assistant professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was curious to know if there is any connection between how people represent their relationships on Facebook and how long those relationships actually last. It turns out, according to the study she recently published with her colleague Mina Choi, there is.
“Romantic relationships do not exist in isolation. Rather, they are affected by the social context in which they are embedded,” say the authors. “Results show that the public association between the self and a romantic partner generally boosted Facebook users’ relationship commitment, which, in turn, increased their likelihood of staying together…”
The researchers took over 200 college undergrads in close-proximity relationships and evaluated several key things: their stated level of commitment and attachment (via survey), their volume and frequency of relationship “presentation” on Facebook (Relationship status, tagged photos, etc.) and then ultimately, whether or not the couple lasted at least 6 months longer.
In the end, the participants who definitively updated their relationship status, frequently shared paired-up photos, and regularly posted on their partner’s wall were the most committed, and eventually the most likely to still be shacked up half a year later.
“Consistent with public commitment theory, these publicly posted cues likely induced participants to perceive themselves as part of a romantic unit, thus cementing the relationship.”
And the study does make an important distinction between Facebook activity affecting or being affected by relationship commitment; one could easily presume from the high-level results that people who were already committed were more likely to present that existing commitment to the world, digitally highlighting what was already on track to being a longer, more fruitful relationship.
Not the case; the data, no matter how you slice it, shows that the social presentation itself contributed positively to the longevity of the romance.
There are of course a few things outside the study that are worth noting.
Firstly, the study provides no insight into the quality of the relationships that broke the 6-month barrier. It’s entirely possible that the longevity of many relationships one might infer as ‘successful’ were more contrived and laborious than they ‘should’ have been given the fundamental dynamics between the partners.
Secondly, this study is not to say that without social media romantic relationships cannot flourish; you’re not doomed if one or both partners are effectively “off-the-grid” when it comes to mainstream social platforms. Obviously successful relationships have been around long before likes, tags, and selfies.
But when you connect two people who are both engaged members of the social media society, and at least one of them is reluctant to proudly present their offline romance to the online public, it is definitely worth asking, “Why?” Because what this research suggests is that if someone is unwilling to become “Facebook Official”, the answer to the question of “Why?” might have some pretty unflattering implications about the questions of “What” and “When?”