It turns out Facebook doesn't just tell you if two people are in a relationship. It can also tell you if they are likely to break up, according to new research coming out of Cornell University.
Jon Klein, a computer scientist at Cornell, and Lars Backstrom, a senior engineer with Facebook, sampled about 1.3 million Facebook accounts over the age of 20 to see if they could determine who users were dating or married to based on their Facebook friends. The study focused on "dispersion," the degree to which two user's mutual Facebook friends are not connected independent of the couple. Intuitively, it might seem that users with many mutual friends are likely to be in a relationship, a factor that this study refers to as "embeddedness." However, they found that family and coworkers were more likely to follow that pattern. Instead, people in romantic relationships were likely to have many mutual friends who are not connected to each other.
The study tested users with a listed relationship status to see how accurately the software could guess the identity of their partner. The study found that the dispersion calculation identified the primary partner in over 60% of cases, besting the embeddedness calculation's 24.7% accuracy, and random guessing, which was accurate just 2% of the time. The test is even more accurate for men. Among married American men, the dispersion test their spouses 76.9% of the time. The formula worked equally well for same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
While a cool math trick, this study wouldn't seem to impact the lives of average users. However, it turns out that the formula inadvertently also developed a predictor for which relationships are not going to make it. Looking at 400,000 Facebook accounts in which the user was unmarried but in a relationship, the researcher found that the likelihood that the relationship lasted two months was highly correlated to the ability of the program to correctly identify the partner among their friends. For the first year of a relationship, the user is 50% more likely to update his status to single within two months of the test if the program failed.
While currently this information is only available to those running the test, the fact that it can be determined suggests that that may not always be the case. One day, it could be the latest app, letting users predict the longevity of their romantic entanglements at the press of a button.