Two students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have learned that it is possible to predict which men in social networks are gay, even if they aren't out, based on who their friends are.

It's the theory behind traffic analysis, or the process of intercepting and examining messages to deduce information from patterns in communication, even without the content of the messages.

According to an article in the Boston Globe, the project, code-named Gaydar, analyzed the Facebook 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," the article said.

The students then asked the program to determine the orientation of men who did not declare it on Facebook, and ten men -- whom the students knew to be gay -- were also predicted to be gay by the program. (The program was not so successful at picking out gay women, or bisexual men and women.)

It's not that people need to be worried about being outed by a couple of MIT students. But a number of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have warned users how much personal information they are revealing in social networking sites without realizing it. What MIT students can do, other people -- including potential bosses -- could also figure out how to do, potentially leading to the notion that users might hesitate at publicly friending others based on what inferences -- correct or not -- might be drawn.

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Last Post by slfisher

Hmmm. Should they not have looked at 1500 straight guys and 1500 gay/bi guys in order to get more accurate results here - rather than base the 'gay men have proportionately more gay friends ' assumption on such a very small sample size of 54 against 1544 straight men? Please note that I am not a statistician (can't even say the word properly!) so this is posed as a question rather than a statement of fact.


To be sure, there are all sorts of methodological issues with this study. I am not a trained statistician, but I have had coursework in it. My primary concern with this story was not necessarily criticizing the methodology of the study itself, but the fact that people were even thinking this way, a sort of guilt by association thing, what it could mean to people themselves based on who their friends were, and what that could mean in terms of people's willingness to publicly friend other people.

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