September 29, 2009

Are You Gay? Your Facebook Profile And Sexual Orientation

No matter the concerns over personal privacy on, it looks like one thing can be given away even if you don't say it: your sexual orientation.

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These days, it seems just as common to have an account with as it is to have a cellphone.  We at Kinsey Confidential even have an account!

Even among account-holders with the least publicly accessible Facebook profile pages, Facebook is used as a means of communication and sharing information.  Although a good number of you skip the question about whether you’re interested in women, men, both, or neither, some research indicates your profile gives away your sexual orientation.

The Research

Two MIT students, Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree, scanned the Facebook profiles and friends of 1,500 students at MIT, who indicated explicitly on their profiles whether they were interested in men, women, or both.

Their analysis revealed the pattern that men who reported interest in men only were significantly more likely that men interested in women only to have male friends who are interested in men only.

From this pattern, they created a program to predict the sexual orientation (based on the gender of one’s sexual and romantic interests) of individuals they knew to be gay, but who’s Facebook profiles did not explicitly mention sexual orientation or interests.

In each of the ten cases they used, the program successfully predicted that the men are interested in men based on the number of other men interested in men they have as friends on Facebook.

A Reason To Pause Before Jumping To Conclusions

There are a number of issues that should make us pause for a moment before declaring that we’ve created the Facebook-version of “gaydar” (an expression used to refer to the supposed ability to determine whether a person is gay, lesbian, or bisexual without asking them or having them tell you).

First, if you notice in the preceding paragraph’s awkward use of “men who are interested in men only” and “men who are interested in women only”, we cannot infer whether individuals actually identify as gay or lesbian because they report an interest in people of the same gender.  In fact, we need to note that Facebook asks “interested in…?”, but leaves it to you to infer what that means: is it romantic interest?  sexual interest?  social or political interests?

Most might say “duh, it’s romantic/sexual”, but Facebook even allows you to specify the things you’re interested in: friendship, dating, a relationship, or networking.  We don’t know whether the researchers simply looked for men reporting interest in men specifically for a relationship and/or dating, or whether they would have also included men interested in friendship with other men.

Finally, we do not know how representative their sample is of all heterosexuals, bisexuals, and lesbians and gay men.  Are those lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who make their sexual identity public different in some way from those who don’t, and particularly in terms of differences in friendships.  (Maybe those who are not “out” will have fewer out-lesbian, gay, and bisexual friends?)

The program was successful for 10 men they knew to identify as gay, but they had no luck predicting whether people are lesbian or bisexual.  Ten successful matches hardly constitutes a representative sample of the large population of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

Implications Of The Facebook Gaydar

For many, this program might seem like a cute gadget to use, testing to see how accurate it is among those we know to be heterosexual or gay, lesbian, and bisexual.  But, this program also has the potential for “outing” those we don’t know.

In fact, the program was developed based on the analysis of people the researchers don’t already know.  What is clear is that even without announcing your sexual interests and orientation explicitly, we might now have a way to infer it.

If this were to get into the hands of those who hold prejudiced attitudes toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, they could use this tool to discriminate against people without ever even having those people announce their sexual identities.  We could see new college students discovering their new roommates sexual orientations and deciding to switch rooms or roommates, just as we’ve seen it being done through Facebook in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion.

This program simply adds to the growing fear that our private information is quickly slipping away into the public, even when we don’t explicitly make it available.