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.)