Social networking analysis – predicting you’re gay using Facebook

September 21, 2009

Social networking analysis - predicting you're gay using FacebookMany of us now spend a considerable portion of our lives online, and we build an online persona around that. Social networks allow us to keep track of our friends and share a part of ourselves with the wider world (wide Web). However, it also allows people looking in to make judgments on us and a simple MIT classroom experiment shows it’s even possible to predict whether someone is gay merely by studying their Facebook profile closely.

Those of us who use social networks may only think about privacy concerns when something big comes up. For instance, when a furor kicked off about the new Facebook Terms of Service last year. Or when Facebook introduced its Beacon advertising system, which has now gladly been put to rest. But what about all the other times, when we add friends, upload photos, and build up an online repository of information about ourselves?

The Boston Globe tells how social networking analysis, or data mining as some would call it, can be used to gather all sorts of information about individuals. It doesn’t matter whether the person in question has tried to hide their sexual orientation, political persuasion, or whatever from the wider world; enough data exists to make a good prediction as to who that person is and what they believe.

Two students taking a class on ethics and law on the electronic frontier, two students by the names of Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree decided to delve into the world of social networking to see what people were inadvertently revealing about themselves. They concocted a program which looked at an individual’s Facebook friends in terms of gender and sexuality and made a prediction about that person’s sexuality based on the data.

But it isn’t just sexuality that can be discovered in this way, with religious and political views also highly predictable from studying someone’s friends. The idea behind this social networking analysis is an old one that sociologists refer to as the “homophily principle” or the tendency for people to group together based on similarities.

But using the principle to extract information based on what information we readily give to social networks is a new twist, and one that we should all be wary of. As is always the case, be careful what you give up about yourself online because you never know who may be watching.

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