1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Rocky relationship

Sonya Angelica DiehnAugust 6, 2014

Is the romance gone? Are you considering breaking up? That you have a romantic relationship with Facebook is not so nutty, experts say, and may even play in to networks' decline. A social media reporter shares her story.

A woman sitting comfortably with a laptop in a cafe (Photo: Steffen Kugler)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

I used to be a very enthusiastic Facebook user. But about a year ago, I remember logging on with a feeling that there was no more spark. That I was just doing this out of habit; that Facebook and I were in a rut. I felt like the romance had gone.

Yet, I stuck it out - through tough times, including a format change - and felt like I reached a sort of comfortable equilibrium in my relationship with Facebook, of using and posting and sharing at a level that worked for me.

Yes, my "relationship" with Facebook. The cycle I described sounds remarkably like that a romantic relationship might go through. Am I "in love" with the social network?

That's actually not such a far-fetched idea, said Susan Quilliam, a UK-based relationship psychologist. "You can fall in love with Facebook," Quilliam told DW, based on her professional experience.

The Facebook love high

Relationships go through a typical cycle, Quilliam explained. The first stage is very much biologically and emotionally driven - you enjoy each other's company, you spend a lot of time together, and feel-good hormones like oxytocin are coursing through your brain. You are, literally, high on love.

Joining a social network can have a similar effect, Quillium said. "You get a physical as well as emotional hit - Internet technology does mimic pleasure from person-to-person interaction," she told DW.

But over time, this surge of pleasure levels out. Then you enter the "love hangover" or "reality check" phase: your biochemical-emotional high gradually fades, and you start to see your partner's negative aspects. At this point, the relationship often goes one of two directions: you can "level out to happy contentment and build good memories," Quilliam said.

Close-up of the feet of a couple on the bed
Psychologist Quillium says the hit you get from social networks can be like that of sex or a drugImage: Fotolia/Prodakszyn

Or, there can be "a lack of stimulation or reward, which leads to boredom," Quilliam said. It's also possible that you get "so much painful stimulation that you become wary of it."

The same can happen on a social network, for example if your friends become "unfaithful" and stop paying attention to you; or you get mobbed; or if the platform unexpectedly changes its privacy settings.

This leads to a key phase in the relationship: you make a choice to continue, or to separate.

Should I stay or should I go?

Pavlin Mavrodiev, chair of systems design at the technology university ETH Zürich, agrees that a user's activity "could approximate the stages of a relationship."

Mavrodiev studies collective decisions - including on online social networks. He and his colleagues developed a model that they used to analyze the decline of social networks.

The model hinged on a constant decision to stay with or leave a social network, which boils down to a basic equation: "If the benefits are greater than the costs, the user stays - if not, the user leaves," Mavrodiev explained. And this was exactly the point I had come to in my relationship with Facebook.

Such a choice "parallels human relationships," like in whether to continue with or end a romance, Mavrodiev added. In every relationship, at some point a person fundamentally weighs what they are getting out of it against the difficulties involved. And comes to a decision - which I did as well.

A man with an Dell lapto silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo (Photo: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)
Mavrodiev suggests certain usage of a social network can even mirror an abusive relationshipImage: Reuters

Death of a social network

This key decision then has repercussions for the network as a whole, Mavrodiev elaborated. If one friend leaves - or even becomes inactive - the benefit for linked friends decreases, and may cause other users to leave.

This can then cause "a cascade of user departures" - which is exactly what happened in the demise of the former social network Friendster, as Mavrodiev and colleagues uncovered in their autopsy. "This is one way social networks fail," Mavrodiev concluded.

From my perspective, I'm still not sure if my "relationship" with Facebook will surive. I eventually reached the point of being in a stable, if slightly boring, marriage with the social network. But ever more of my friends seem to be leaving - which may lead me to do so as well.

But the fact that Facebook is now tied to my work would make that complicated. Who wants to work with their ex? I may stay after all - albeit in a marriage of convenience, and not love.