An article in the Globe this Sunday reported on an MIT student project:
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. 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.
Well, yeah. People in general tend to like to hang out with others who are like themselves. This isn’t really news, and I’m not sure why the article pitched it as a privacy issue:
Discussions of privacy often focus on how to best keep things secret, whether it is making sure online financial transactions are secure from intruders, or telling people to think twice before opening their lives too widely on blogs or online profiles. But this work shows that people may reveal information about themselves in another way, and without knowing they are making it public. 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. The ability to connect with other people who have something in common is part of the power of social networks, but also a possible pitfall. If our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.
Did we not already know this? I mean, just keeping to the “gay” thing, if I’m gay and in the closet, even pre-Facebook, I would probably make sure that I was not seen coming out of gay bars, and I wouldn’t hang out publicly with gay-rights activists. People are judged by their friends.
Which I suppose means, if you don’t want anyone to know your sexual preference, political beliefs, religion, or sports team affiliation — why are you even on Facebook? But if you want cover, you should, obviously, get as varied a group of FB friends as you can. “Celebrate Diversity: It Keeps People from Knowing What You’re Up to.” Now there’s a slogan that might just work.
I’m not sure what the software would say about me, except that I’m probably a mobbed-up farmer living in Fairyland. Which I suppose could be considered true in some highly metaphorical sense, but what couldn’t?
Anyway, when I posted this question on my boston.com blog about whether or not one should refrain from posting happy updates on FB when a friend is in mourning, I got to thinking about the shape of social networks of FB users. What does your network look like, if you’re on FB? How connected are your FB friends with each other? Does your network look more like this:
Or like this:
If you have “clumps” of friends on FB who all know each other, what are the clumps?
This struck me in relation to the mourning question because I think one element of that is how interconnected the friend in question is to the rest of your network. I have two major “clumps” of Facebook friends: my maternal cousins, and some friends of theirs; and friends from my Kansas City theater days. I think if anything seriously bad were to go down for anyone in those two clumps, the social obligation around it — as regards Facebook only, obviously — would feel different to me than if something bad went down for a friend who isn’t connected to anyone else. Because it wouldn’t just be a matter of the affected person’s feelings, but of everyone else in that particular sub-network.
How does your Facebook garden grow? Are you the hub, or are you one hub of many? What are your “clumps”? And have you ever had the experience of realizing that friends from different contexts knew each other on Facebook?