Warning, Gays: Facebook May Out You

Gay dog, gay friends, overall gayness easily revealed on social networks

By Owen Thomas
|  Tuesday, Sep 22, 2009  |  Updated 2:44 AM PDT
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Hon, you're about as obvious as a rainbow flag.

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if you post photos of your Frenchie and are friends with a bunch of buff, shirtless dudes, Facebook might figure out you're gay. Then again, so may the whole world.

This groundbreaking discovery is brought to us by students at MIT, where a study dubbed "Project Gaydar" has used sophisticated algorithms to figure out who's gay based on the online connections displayed on social networks.

MIT undergraduates Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree discovered that gay men had proportionately more gay friends than straight men, a trend that could be subjected to rigorous statistical analysis. A similar study of Dogster, a social network for canines and their owners, accurately predicted dogs' breeds.

Put these together and maybe we'd be able to out pet owners based on what they walk to the park.

Aside from the Internet-era twist of drawing data from social networks, Jernigan and Mistree's study isn't that surprising. Sociologists have a name for the commonplace observation that birds of a feather flock together.  They call it -- wait for it, wait for it -- the "homophily principle." Ba-dum-bum.

Online hysterics are calling the study "homophobic," predictably if tiresomely. Some worry that this will lead to employees being fired because of their sexual orientation. Of course, one might theorize that the problem there isn't overly revealing social networks but insufficient legal protections for gay and lesbian employees.

Facebook is sanguine about the study's conclusions. "In general, it’s not too surprising that someone might make inferences about someone else without knowing that person based on who the person’s friends are," spokesman Simon Axten told the Boston Globe. "This isn’t specific to Facebook and is entirely possible in the real world as well."

In other words, the problem isn't that someone might figure out you're gay from online data. It's what they do about that information that can cause trouble -- or not.

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