Project Gaydar and Online Privacy (or What You Might Be Telling the World)

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An experiment by students at MIT has shown that they were able to ’successfully’ predict the sexuality of people based on their friends on Facebook. The so-called ‘Project Gaydar’* showed that by looking at information that a person’s friends share online (in this case, their gender and sexual preferences) they were able to learn something about an individual themselves, even if their profile had high levels of privacy.

On one hand this may not be ground-breaking research – people tend to be friends with people who have similar interests to them and so it might be expected that gay men are likely to have a higher than average proportion of gay male friends. However, the research does highlight, again, the privacy issues that people need to think about when using social networks, and when sharing information online.

The ongoing growth of social networks and online communities is actually the tale of the ongoing growth of people sharing information online. This is a good thing. People are connecting with friends old and new, and are engaging with people and organisations who have similar interests, face similar challenges or are discussing similar questions. This sharing of information is unprecedented. It allows people to get advice and recommendations from people like them, and from people who are in similar situations. This is a huge benefit to individuals and organisations alike, but this sharing of information does, of course, mean that people are sharing things about themselves with anybody who may stumble cross the content they have added. And if people are able to put together your contributions to various communities and sites, they may know more about you than you realise.

That people can read things that you are sharing online should be no surprise to anybody. But that people can analyse your connections and the various contributions you make across the web, now and in the past, means that they can, if they so choose, build up a fairly comprehensive picture. What the MIT students did with just one facet of somebody’s life (their sexuality) could be repeated to build a much more complete picture of people using the information they leave across social networks and online communities. That this surprises people is a sign of the maturity of social networking, and online communities more broadly asa social phenomenon.

People are, in many cases, just using online communities as extensions of their offline activity. They are doing old things in new ways. Meeting people, talking to friends, solving problems, sharing advice. The real power of social media is that it is a large collection of information that is connected to people, organisations or places, and that is archived and kept for posterity. It can be sorted, added to, amended and changed by the person who originally contributed it or by others. People are associating themselves with data in a vast information resource, just by doing what they will do anyway.

This is, of course, the power of social media and why it offers so much to us all. But many people are still thinking of it as just a new medium through which to do old things. That is why they don’t realise the full extent of what they are sharing (and why this can be a powerful and good thing) and why they are shocked by the findings of studies such as ‘Project Gaydar’ at MIT.

* You can read the full paper here – Gaydar: Facebook friendships expose sexual orientation

Image by Alicakes* via Flickr

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