Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Project Gaydar": An Exercise in Homophobia

Via the Chronicle of Higher Ed comes this story, from the Boston Globe, on two students at MIT who designed a computer program that can tell if someone is gay. For real.

Two students partnered up to take on the latest Internet fad: the online social networks that were exploding into the mainstream. With people signing up in droves to reconnect with classmates and old crushes from high school, and even becoming online “friends” with their family members, the two wondered what the online masses were unknowingly telling the world about themselves. The pair weren’t interested in the embarrassing photos or overripe profiles that attract so much consternation from parents and potential employers. Instead, they wondered whether the basic currency of interactions on a social network - the simple act of “friending” someone online - might reveal something a person might rather keep hidden.

Using data from the social network Facebook, they made a striking discovery: just by looking at a person’s online friends, they could predict whether the person was gay.

Gasp! Gay? As in "we'll have a gay old time" on the Flintstones; or gay as in sexual orientation?

They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and, using statistical analysis, made a prediction. The two students had no way of checking all of their predictions, but based on their own knowledge outside the Facebook world, their computer program appeared quite accurate for men, they said. People may be effectively “outing” themselves just by the virtual company they keep.

Right, because not saying anything about your sexual orientation, yet acting like every other heterosexual dope on Facebook, is definitely wanting to be "outed".
“When they first did it, it was absolutely striking - we said, ‘Oh my God - you can actually put some computation behind that,’ ” said Hal Abelson, a computer science professor at MIT who co-taught the course. “That pulls the rug out from a whole policy and technology perspective that the point is to give you control over your information - because you don’t have control over your information.”
I'd say OMG is right, Hal, except for the fact that trolling people's social networking accounts looking for "gay" evidence strikes me as more 1930's pink triangle Germany than 2009 rainbow America.

It's not even good science, for that matter. Is there a comparable program looking for "straight" or "bi" or "asexual" evidence? Are we similarly trying to "out" racial or ethnic minorities who might be "passing"? Or the disabled? Or any other marginalized group in society?
The project, given the name “Gaydar” by the students, Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree, is part of the fast-moving field of social network analysis, which examines what the connections between people can tell us.
I love how the article and these "researchers" think they've coined the term "gaydar". That phrase is probably three or four decades or old, but isn't it nice to know these two will probably end up with a patent on the phrase because of this?
The applications run the gamut, from predicting who might be a terrorist to the likelihood a person is happy or fat. The idea of making assumptions about people by looking at their relationships is not new, but the sudden availability of information online means the field’s powerful tools can now be applied to just about anyone....Who we are can be revealed by, and even defined by, who our friends are: if all your friends are over 45, you’re probably not a teenager; if they all belong to a particular religion, it’s a decent bet that you do, too.
Except if you happen to have an incredibly diverse group of friends about whom all sorts of incorrect generalizations can be drawn. Homophily research (from Homans and Blau; which suggests people tend to cluster with persons who are just like them) is fine and enlightening for social networking research.

But this isn't about tracking likeness or endogamous relationships; it's about tracking latent characteristics (in this case, unspoken sexual orientation) with the purpose of "outing" or perhaps marginalizing someone or some group.
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.

The researchers treated their data anonymously, never using names except to validate their predictions during data analysis. The only copy of the data is on an encrypted DVD they gave to a professor, and they said they got the approval of an ethical review board at MIT.
I'm thinking Human Subjects here at UGA would never approve of such a study, but then this is MIT we're talking about.

Still, the comments from the computer scientists interviewed are astonishing in both their arrogance and naivety regarding sexual orientation and social networking.
“You can do damage to your reputation with social networking data, and other people can do damage to you. I do think that there’s been a very fast learning curve - people are quickly learning the dos and don’ts of Internet behavior,” said Jason Kaufman, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University who is studying a set of Facebook data. “Potentially everything you ever do on the Internet will live forever. I like to think we’ll all learn to give each other a little more slack for our indiscretions and idiosyncrasies.”
So being gay is now an indiscretion or an idiosyncrasy. Only in the world of "computer scientists" I suppose.

I haven't read the study so I shouldn't paint in such broad brushstrokes, but what makes this kind of "research" so nefarious is the way the computer hacks make it sound like it's the unwitting public's fault for what they "put out there" about themselves. The fact that the real harm, from an internet/technology perspective, occurs when researchers use such power to single out groups for marginalized or discriminatory treatment (or worse), seems lost here.

And if a bunch of computer geeks at MIT can run this, don't think some homophobic whack job out there isn't running it either.

Or worse, the government.

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