Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Outed by Facebook?

Facebook has certainly been a helpful tool in the coming out process for many. Simply set your interests to “men,” and you can cause a flurry of interest.

But what if you want to be a little more discrete for whatever reason? Maybe you’re uncomfortable, maybe you’re shy, maybe it’s nobody’s business. That’s a discussion for another time – but OK, you want to keep your sexuality private.

Well, two MIT students recently came up with a program that can accurately predict whether someone is gay, based on otherwise innocuous information on facebook.

Here’s how it works, via The Boston Globe:

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.

Interesting. So that raises the question of whether Facebook then allows advertisers – like Atlantis Cruises – to specifically target the LGBT community.

Surprisingly, the short answer is no. The longer answer, via Slate, is this:

When companies advertise on Facebook, they're allowed to choose a range of demographic characteristics that determine which people see their ads. It's possible that Atlantis didn't choose to limit its ads just to gay people but, say, to all single men under 40 who live near San Francisco. This way the company gets to people like you—folks who aren't out on Facebook but who might still be in the gay-cruise demographic.

The Facebook rep added a couple other points: Ads aren't selected based on groups you've joined or based on your friends. You weren't shown the gay-cruise ad because your friends are gay or because you became a fan of the group "No on Prop 8," for instance.

But there is one caveat: If a friend of yours presses "Like" on an ad, Facebook will show you the ad, too, plus a note saying which of your friends liked it. The company also uses the "Like" feature to determine which ads to show you in the future.

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