15 October 2009

Outed by Facebook

Gay, or straight? How you use Facebook can out you, whether you want others to know your sexual orientation, or not, says a new study.

Gay, or straight? How you use Facebook can out you, whether you want others to know your sexual orientation, or not, says a new study.

People tend to be self-segregating, and if the majority of your Facebook friends are gay, or straight, or black, or female, chances are you are too, according to a study done by two MIT students. The study was published in the 5 October issue of the journal First Monday.

"The issue at stake is that information we put out in the public space about ourselves does reveal private information we might not wish to share," say study authors Carter Jernigan and Behram F.T. Mistree.

And it's not just Facebook. It's all social networking sites, e-mail, instant messaging, cellphone records. All of these are steeped in network data. There comes a point where you no longer control your profile – it becomes the domain of your whole social network. You can still determine what your profile looks like, but you have no control over those of your friends, acquaintances and colleagues. And that's where the problem comes in, according to the study.

How the study was done
For the study 4080 Facebook profiles of MIT students were analysed. The study authors wanted to see whether they could correctly predict the sexual orientation of specific users by using a computer programme that analysed the details of that person's friendship associations. Previous studies had found that in real life men (65%) and women (70%), both gay and straight, overwhelmingly prefer same-sex friendships.

It was found that self-reporting gay male MIT Facebook users had a much higher percentage of gay male friends than heterosexual male users.

What concerns the authors are the implications of such serious violations of privacy. If it was so easy for them to determine this, which other conclusions can be drawn?

A study done at the University of Maryland found that while 92,1% of gay, lesbian and questioning students had revealed their sexual orientation to their friends, only 78,7% had told their parents. This shows that people use discretion during the coming out process – a discretion that could now be sidelined by a computer programme.

Studies show that lesbians and gay males draw 55% of their friends from the gay/lesbian/bisexual community, while heterosexual and bisexuals draw four percent.

Facebook also has fields for "Interested in (men, women, men and women, blank) which makes this analysis, or 'data mining' as it also known, particularly easy. (Read the full study on being outed by Facebook)

Social networking is huge
It has been found that prospective employers analyse the Facebook profiles of applicants. There are many stories doing the rounds of employees missing work for 'family emergencies' and are then found to have attended stag parties or such events. Often people forget the public nature of social networking sites and stupidly put up their party pictures, where the boss sees them.

Facebook has an active user base of 250 million people, and the amount of personal information out there is staggering, say the study authors. Over 33 million pictures are uploaded onto Facebook every day, and many users post intimate details on their profiles. Advertisers use this information to target market segments selectively. If that is possible, then why not also information on sexual orientation and other highly personal matters?

Facebook does try and protect its users' privacy by forbidding spammers and telemarketers from harvesting information. Users can limit their profile visibility to specific networks of people, omit certain information, block certain other users, or even have a limited profile only visible to specific people.

But even then, the amount of info people put out there about themselves is still staggering. And say Jernigan and Mistree, it could be used against them.

(Susan Erasmus,, October 2009)




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