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What Our Breakups Look Like on Twitter

The digital signs of a breakup are so obvious that researchers say they can create an "early breakup warning system."
Image: Pasko Tomic/Flickr

Twitter is a pliant tool for tweeting truth to power, browsing memes, and, for the uniquely terrible type of person that broadcasts their romantic relationships across the internet, it's also a way to showcase love and loss. Especially, as it turns out, loss.

To find out how relationships and their messy endings are reflected in tweets, a team of researchers from Finland, Michigan, and Qatar tracked thousands of Twitter couples over a 6 month period and watched hundreds of them fall apart in 140 characters or less.


Social media has taken on the unexpected role of relationship status gatekeeper in recent years. Millennial couples wringing their hands over when they should become "Facebook official" or tweet "@MyBoo xoxo" is a scenario you'd see in Seinfeld, if Seinfeld was about makerspaces instead of not being able to go to the movies or order Chinese food or whatever.

Before and after. Image: Garimella et. al.

"Given the scale and richness of data available on these social networks, they have proven a treasure trove for studying relationships and relationship breakups," the researchers wrote in a paper set to be presented at the 2014 Conference on Social Informatics. To be sure, the continual documenting of romantic flings in the archive of the internet makes Twitter an ideal ground for social research into how love plays out through the wires.

The goal of the study was to determine if imminent breakups can be predicted by changes in communication patterns like "stonewalling" (ignoring your partner's tweets), and if indicators of post-breakup depression can be teased out of tweets. As it turns out, they can.

The researchers culled their initial dataset from a snapshot of 28 hours of Twitter use and identified roughly 40,000 couples by searching for words like "love," "taken" and filtering out tweets that didn't mention the other party. They then tracked the Twitter activity of the identified couples over a period of 6 months, after which they pared down their sample even further by filtering out couples that were married or whose non-romantic relationships slipped through the initial filtering.


The findings can be used to design an 'early breakup warning system'

Eventually, the researchers discovered 661 couples whose relationships had completely imploded online by finding those that had their partner's handle removed from their account description (that's some cold shit).

According to the researchers, the trend of decreasing communication before a breakup was strong and consistent. Specifically, the amount of tweets to the partner in question decreased, the amount to other users increased, and the amount of original tweets being sent from the account decreased overall. This is, in effect, the communicative "stonewalling" that the researchers were looking for to indicate a looming breakup.

The study also found that, post-breakup, there was an uptick in instances of words that indicated sadness, like "depressed," "anxious," and of course, "sad." The results also suggest that people who get broken up with are sadder, or at least more likely to vent about how sad they are on Twitter, than the people who did the breaking up. The difference in how exes talk to each other on Twitter before and after their breakups was striking, as well.

"The change is roughly from 'I love you so …' to 'I hate when you …', indicating a surprising amount of public fighting and insulting happening after the breakup," the researchers wrote. "For future analysis it might be interesting to quantify which relationships 'turn sour.'"

According to the researchers, all this valuable knowledge about what breakups look like on Twitter just before they happen could be used to design a kind of "early breakup warning system," which would certainly be equal parts terrifying and fascinating for our culture.