How Facebook Knows Who You’re Dating— And Why That Matters to All of Us

Imagine two couples.

The first couple, Jack and Jill, have a gazillion friends in common. They met at a party thrown by mutual friends, and it was love at first sight. They’ve stayed with the same social circle, so all of Jack’s friends know Jill’s friends, and vice versa.

The second couple, Bob and Barb, have some friends in common. But they met later in life, when they’d already developed strong social networks on their own. Most of Bob’s friends just know Barb; they don’t know any of her friends. Most of Barb’s friends just know Bob; they don’t know any of his friends.

Which is the stronger couple?

Before I tell you, let me share the story of how Facebook—yes, Facebook—figured this out.

Facebook Wants to Know Who You’re Dating

Back in 2011, a group of Facebook employees were sitting around trying to figure out how to organize your News Feed to make sure you saw posts by the people you cared about the most.

Maybe you hadn’t told Facebook that this girl was your cousin, but you’re going to get mad if your cousin’s engagement announcement gets lost at the bottom of your feed.

Not everyone tells Facebook who they’re in a relationship with, either. But clearly you want your guy’s posts to show up first.

So Facebook got to work developing an algorithm that could figure out who the most important person in your life is—which would usually be your boyfriend or husband.

Back in the old days, researchers used something called “embeddedness” to determine the strength of social ties. The more people you know in common, the stronger your relationship.

Jack and Jill are highly embedded. They have lots of friends in common. Their friends all know one another.

But it turns out that embeddedness doesn’t prove you’ve got a strong relationship. You need more than mutual friends to stay together.

What you need is dispersion.

Who’s the Stronger Couple?

Dispersion is what Bob and Barb have.

It’s defined as “the extent to which two people’s mutual friends are not themselves well-connected.”[1]

Bob is friends with many of Barb’s friends, family members, and co-workers, even though he only knows them through Barb and wouldn’t bump into them otherwise.

Barb is friends with Bob’s friends, family members, and co-workers on Facebook, even though she wouldn’t have known them if it weren’t for Bob.

If Bob and Barb ever break up, Bob would lose a good chunk of his social network, because they’re only friends with Bob through Barb.

On the other hand, if Jack and Jill ever break up, their friends would have a tough time figuring out who to invite to parties, because their ties are equally strong to both Jack and Jill.

What the researchers found was that Bob and Barb are actually the stronger couple.

But why?

Has Your Guy Introduced You to Everyone?

There comes a point in every budding relationship where your guy invites you to meet his friends and family.

It’s a significant milestone. He feels confident enough in your relationship to introduce you to people who don’t know you and would never meet you otherwise.

These people will make the effort to get to know you, because they care about him. The more they care about him, the more they will make you feel welcome. Especially if they think you’re going to be in his life for a while.

Becoming friends with your guy’s social network is an even bigger milestone than you may have realized.

It’s a sign that your relationship is going somewhere.

But if the only people you know are the friends you have in common, it may be a sign that he’s not inviting you fully into his life.

He’s holding back parts of his social circle. That’s not good.

Why This Matters to You

If your guy isn’t introducing you to people in his life, then it’s a red flag.

Facebook found that couples who didn’t pass their dispersion test were 50% more likely to break up within the next 2 months.

So pay attention to your guy’s willingness to introduce you to people he knows.

And if those folks want to friend you on Facebook, go ahead and add them to your social network. It’s good to become friends with his friends.

But if your guy keeps large segments of his life off-limits to you, consider it a sign of hesitation or caution about how sure he feels about pulling you into the fabric of his life.


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