Friday, 25 September 2009

They Know Who You Are

Social networks are definitely a means of telling others something about ourselves. We make a statement about ourselves, who we are, who we would like to be, or better how we want others to think about us. The pictures we post. The information we upload. We carefully choose what to say and what not, we want to paint a picture of our ideal self let's say. admit it or not! So there are guys and girls posting only pictures of their parties, so every one else is going to think: "Ohhh look at this guy, he's cool. He's always partying!". You know what I mean. We can therefore make some inferences about a person by looking at her Facebook or MySpace, or Flickr, or whatever profile. We all spend some time "voyeurizing" (allow me to use this term) others profiles! Nothing new until now...

The last news I read today is rahter more interesting. Two students at MIT started a bizarre new project (apparently nicknamed Project Gaydar): basically by analyzing one's data on Facebook, mainly one's friends, they claim to be able to understand whether someone is gay or straight! The idea behind the projects is based on the concept of homophily: we usually stick around with people similar to us. Therefore if all my friends in Facebook are over fifty years old, I am probably not a kid. If all my contacts on MySpace are musicians I'd probably be something similar. If all my friends are gay, well you see where I am heading towards.

This means that probably when the software will be finalized they are going to be able to tell whether I am likely to be a terrorist, a musician, an old jew, a painter, a young but fervent calvinist, a bus driver, a drag queen and so on. Interesting! Anyway, as I've written above it is not surprising that someone can pretend to be Sherlock Holmes and try to infer various stuff by looking at others' profiles. The issue is not that. What is more frightening is that others may analyze my friends in order to try to understand (?) who I am. Only think about future employers: one day they may tell you: "Well, Mr. X, you looked like the ideal candidate. You seem to have all the qualities we needed, but our software warned us about you dirty communist affiliations. We are sorry, but we cannot hire you." Ok, maybe you are thinking that in this case it is a positive thing for the firm since we all know communists (!), but damn it! where's privacy? What if they are wrong? What if, instead, they hire me and then discover I actually am a communist? What would George Orwell say?

As Written in one Malcolm Gladwell's article on the New Yorker (on another theme): "Apparently human beings don't need to know someone in order to believe that they know someone". I personally think that's the key.

Anyway, the article I am referring to (the one from which I learned this news) ends like this: “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.”

I think this is the right way of ending my post too.