On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog. But They Know If You’re Gay


Does it matter if you list Curb Your Enthusiasm as one of your favorite shows on your Facebook profile? Whether you become a fan of Coke or Pepsi? How about if you upload more than 50 photos per week? Actually, when it comes to figuring out if someone on Facebook is gay, you only need to look to their friends. Even if you don’t identify yourself as a same-sex loving social networking ho, the the company you keep does. A pair of MIT research students have discovered how to ID the homos on Facebook, even those who try to hide. Enter the privacy police.

By simply revealing who you’re friends with on Facebook — something even “guarded” profiles do via public Google searches — students Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree believe they can get a good guess about whether you’re straight or gay. With a piece of software aptly named “Gaydar,” anyone’s social network becomes a predictor about their sexuality.

This has privacy advocates fearing anyone can be “outed” on the site. Which is technically true. But also: If you put your entire life out there on Facebook, you’re opening yourself up to this sort of thing anyhow. That photo of you in drag is going to out you to friends before some script kiddies do.

And it’s not just sexuality that your social network can indicate, but political views, religion, or even affinity for dogs or cats. It’s based on the “homophily principle”: People group themselves around other people they identify with. So if you’re a guy with a lot of gay friends, chances are …

(The program works best on gay men, with less accurate results on women.)

Here’s how it works:

Jernigan and Mistree downloaded data from the Facebook network, choosing as their sample people who had joined the MIT network and were in the classes 2007-2011 or graduate students. They were interested in three things people frequently fill in on their social network profile: their gender, a category called “interested in” that they took to denote sexuality, and their friend links.

Using that information, they “trained” their computer program, analyzing 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.

Then they did the same analysis on 947 men who did not report their sexuality. 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. The analysis seemed to work in identifying gay men, but the same technique was not as successful with bisexual men or women, or lesbians.

It’s a neat trick, and certainly one worth knowing about in case you’re a 16-year-old living under the roof of your homophobic parents. But for out gays — who are tired of seeing how gay their Twitter feeds are — it only indicates the obvious: Yeah, we have gay friends.

But hey, so does Sarah Palin. Though it’s unclear whether this software can be adapted to indicate bigot status.

(Pictured: Football star Brady Quinn, who is not, in fact, gay.)

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  • Alexander

    God, Brady Quinn is fine. What ever happened to him?

  • 7sk

    Miami didn’t pick him up when they had the chance, got drafted by the Browns, then…nothing, really.

  • jay

    so how do they know if you’re bi?

  • jay

    @jay: oh, never mind. just noticed the part where they said they really can’t tell.

  • scott ny'er

    oh good lord!!! Is nothing sacred.

  • Alexander

    @7sk: Damn, he had potential (both in and out of bed).

  • Cole

    duh!! you didn’t need to come up with a scientific method to figure it out. Just click on people’s friends. Straight guys rarely have their shirts off on social networking sites, whereas, most gays seem to love being in various states of undress. The more shirtless men you have as friends the more likely you are gay.

  • I pliss

    @Cole: You are not from the east coast cause the straight guys usually have there shirts off in pics if they have the bod to flaunt it. I have a few straight friends that have their shirts off. doesn’t me that they are gay or bi.

  • ricky

    i must be the only person on the planet that doesn’t facebook, twitter, myspace, email, cell phone or anything else.

  • M Shane

    @No. 5 · scott ny’er When you put yourself in facebook, you expose yourself to more info gathering than if you stared in a movie. C’mon. Granted, Bush and Cheny had it set up so that you might very well have been arrwested as an ‘enemy combatant'” just for being a citizen. Hopefully enough people figure that out and it neve happens again.
    From all of the thousands of phones they tapped they didn’t find anything out about terrorists , but they sure knew if you were gay, and you weren’t making an effort like in Facebook.

  • 7sk

    @ricky: Yes. Probably. But wait, how are you on Queerty, then?

  • Yuki

    I don’t trust this; so WHAT if you have gay friends? My friend Adrienne has a ton of gay friends, but she’s straight.

  • adolf

    it’s really not that hard to spot a MO on facebook/myspace. just look at their friends. and if they have “like to party with hot girls”

  • hyhybt

    @Cole: I must be straight after all, then. Where can I find a bunch of gay friends who like to go shirtless?

  • WTF

    This has privacy advocates fearing anyone can be “outed” on the site. Which is technically true.

    No, no it is not true. Take for instance my friend Andrew. A good deal of his friends are gay men, a larger number than one would expect from a straight guy (he’s just cool like that), so software like this (and the fools who would rely on it) are going to end up making egregious errors that could cost them dearly if they put themselves into a position of slander or libel based upon flawed presumptions.

    The program works best on gay men, with less accurate results on women

    I would assume this is because it makes assumptions on gender norms, which are arguably more socially fluid for females. But these “norms” are being shattered every second by those boys and girls coming up the line who seem to not subscribe so fiercely to these rigid roles. It’s like using the antiquated “science” of phrenology to predict criminals in the 21st century. I mean, just look at some of these comments claiming to know how to spot gays without such technology. They’re all relying upon stereotype and assumption. Shirt off equals gay? While I’ll agree a great many gay tools like to throw off their shirts at the drop of a hat (gay answer to the “woo girl”?), a shitload of straight boys do it to, esp. the lift up the shirt to show your abs move while you mug for the camera you’re holding in the bathroom mirror.

    This crap makes creationism look like rigorous science. I hope they didn’t get a grade for this 6th grade science fair crap.

  • scott ny'er

    @WTF: You mean like the Guys Gone Wild dvds. Anyone can see that those are the guys with their shirts off in their facebook profiles AND on DVD AND anywhere they can get attention.

    I remember seeing a co-worker’s photos and he had a bunch of him and his frat bros in togas. And btw, he really should not have been in a toga.

    You make good points. The next and next, next generation will hopefully blur stereotypes more and more. But, stereotyping does exist. Isn’t that how gaydar works to some extent. I wouldn’t know, my gaydar is none existent.

  • Swellster


    Nothing except he is the starting quartberback for the Cleveland Browns (yeah they suck, but its not like he faded into obscurity).

  • tavdy79

    @Alexander: Do you know this from personal experience?

  • Nick

    @ricky: you’re not the only one!!

  • B

    WTF wrote, “This crap makes creationism look like rigorous science. I hope they didn’t get a grade for this 6th grade science fair crap.”

    It is not “crap”. What they are showing is that you can make use of seemingly harmless information to make reasonably accurate guesses about people’s characteristics. It is certainly of interest to people doing risk assessments of various technologies, and there are no doubt other characteristics you could estimate using similar techniques.

    It’s most likely uses would probably be by advertisers – if they can identify someone as likely to be gay, they’ll try to show ads with hot guys instead of the customary hot babes when targeting a male audience. A more insidious use would be (for example) a Mormon business owner who really doesn’t want gay employees and who is willing to not hire a few straight guys as “collateral damage” when the program guesses incorrectly.

  • John

    Shirt off equals gay? Maybe so…but all the toothless white trash on “Cops” is usually shirtless when the cops arrive at the trailer park to end the domestic violence.

Comments are closed.