'Gaydar': Does Facebook Know if You're Gay?

MIT software tool 'infers' sexual orientation of male Facebook members

TinkyWinky, yesterday.

TinkyWinky, yesterday.

Two MIT graduates created a software program -- entitled Project "Gaydar" -- that scans Facebook friends lists and supposedly determines, based on association, whether or not a male subject is homosexual. That means if you're a male who does not identify sexual orientation on your Facebook page, but have loads of gay friends, you are, according to this research, most likely gay. But this "research" is full of holes.

Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree analysed the friend links of 1,544 men who said they were straight, 21 who said they were bisexual, and 33 who said they were gay. "Gay men had proportionally more gay friends than straight men, giving the computer program a way to infer a person's sexuality based on their friends," the Boston Globe reports. The key word here is infer.

Using that data, Jernigan and Mistree then did the same analysis on 947 men who did not identify their sexualities on their Facebook profiles. "Although the researchers had no way to confirm the analysis with scientific rigor, they used their private knowledge of 10 people in the network who were gay but did not declare it on their Facebook page as a simple check. They found all 10 people were predicted to be gay by the program."

That means ten known homosexuals -- out of 947 potentials -- were identified by the system, and that's what is called research. The computer program was unable to eke out bisexuals and lesbians, which, of course, make up a good deal of the homosexual population. An inability to determine such information makes Project "Gaydar" entirely one-sided and flimsy.

I feel that some people see the name "MIT" and automatically assume it came from on high, but in this case, these researchers need to do a lot more work before blabbing to the Boston Globe.

I would say this research raises interesting questions about online privacy, but it doesn't, because this research proves nothing. If perhaps the study were true, and a software program could determine a male's sexuality based on the group he associates with, I'd say people could potentially feel nervous about private information they may not have explicitly shared on the Web, but for now, I'd say most secrets are safe.

It's also worth mentioning that the "study" has yet to find a publisher. I sincerely hope that based on the headlines Project "Gaydar" is making today it does not accomplish that goal any sooner.

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Brennon Slattery

PC World (US online)
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