Facebook knows you’re gay before your mother does

Research shows that your Facebook Likes reveal a lot about you than you think -- including your age, race, politics, and sexual preference.

News flash: Your Facebook Likes reveal a lot more about you than simply what you like. They can indirectly reveal your age, race, politics, sexual preferences, proclivity towards substance abuse, and IQ.

At least, so say researchers at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre, which yesterday published the results of a massive study of Facebook users and their Likes. The stat geeks surveyed some 58,000 users of its Facebook app, myPersonality, which gave them access to all of their Likes. They then analyzed the results for patterns, compared them to what their users actually revealed in profiles and questionnaires, and correlated the two. 

How accurate were they? Per the study:

Models proved 88% accurate for determining male sexuality, 95% accurate distinguishing African-American from Caucasian American and 85% accurate differentiating Republican from Democrat. Christians and Muslims were correctly classified in 82% of cases, and good prediction accuracy was achieved for relationship status and substance abuse – between 65 and 73%.

Some of the conclusions the researchers drew were, well, amusing:

* If you’re a male fan of the TV show “Glee,” you’re probably gay. Wow, that’s a shocker.

* If you’re confused after waking from a nap, you’re probably a straight male. And if you were dreaming about Glee during your nap, you’re probably deeply confused. (OK, I made that last one up.)

* If you’re a fan of the metal band Slayer and Under Armour sporting goods, you’re likely to also sport a nicotine addiction.

* If you like curly fries, Mozart, and thunderstorms, you’re probably smart. Big fan of Sephora makeup, Tyler Perry, and Harley Davidson bikes? Probably not. Hey, don’t blame me, I didn’t crunch these numbers.

* If you Like pages titled "Never Apologize For What You Feel It's Like Saying Sorry For Being Real" or "I'm The Type Of Girl Who Can Be So Hurt But Still Look At You & Smile" your parents probably split up before you left home. You’re probably also really annoying on a first date.

* If you like the Psychometrics Centre Facebook page, you’re probably a statistics geek with bad teeth.

And if you’ve now got the Pina Colada song stuck in your head after reading that, you’re probably not alone.

A lot of these inferences could be due to “statistical noise,” say the researchers – correlations that are more or less random. But what the Cambridge geeks did isn’t at all unusual. It’s called data mining, and it’s the new black.

Major retailers like Target have been mining data on their customers for years, looking for patterns that predict future buying behavior. Hence articles like “Target knows you’re pregnant before your dad does.”

Cops in several California cities use data mining for “predictive policing,” sussing out potential high-crime areas based on statistical analysis and getting there before the criminals do. (Insert obligatory Minority Report reference here.)

The success of the Obama re-election campaign was due in large part to how well the campaign crunched the enormous amount of data they had in order to determine who was likely to donate money, volunteer, and vote.

Like they say on the cop shows, your Likes can be used against you in a court of law, or – more likely and more chilling – in ways you’ll never know about.

For example, because you’re a fan of Slayer, you could be denied health coverage; after all, you’re probably a smoker. You could get turned down for a job because HR scanned your Facebook profile and discovered that you’re a member of a Harley Davidson fan page. Sorry, only the best and brightest can work there. And if you can’t get enough of Glee, forget about becoming a Boy Scout pack leader.

We are increasingly at the mercy of our algorithms, potential victims of statistical noise. You don’t need to be a genius – or to like curly fries – to see where this kind of thing can lead.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blogeSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld onTwitter and Facebook.

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