Facebook knows you’re gay before you do

Am I the only one creeped out that Facebook is now guessing, sometimes correctly, if its users are gay?

In the world of Big Data, our private lives are increasingly becoming intermingled with the shadowy, yet public, world of cyberspace.

Whenever we go online we are providing data that can be used to market to us; from Google searches to Facebook likes to eBay purchases, we are inputting data into a series of mathematical models which make incredibly educated guesses about the kinds of people we are.

Facebook creepily offers help to a gay guy thinking of “coming out”

Enter Matt. As BuzzFeed notes, Matt was your typical Facebook user who suddenly found an ad in his news feed for help in coming out. The weird thing was that Matt “did” need help coming out, and understandably he was more than a bit curious as to how Facebook knew.


At first, Matt wondered if Facebook had accessed his text messages, as he had confided in a close friend the previous night that he was gay, and asked for advice. There didn’t seem to be any other reason for Facebook to suggest Clemons’ page; his only two “likes” were for a politician and a local bar, neither of which would suggest anything about his sexual orientation. Moreover, he hadn’t mentioned anything on his wall or over Facebook chat.

After checking his activity log, all he could find were two comments, linked to his Facebook, that he left on a Buzzfeed article covering Rob Portman’s endorsement of marriage equality.

While Facebook insists that it does not access text messages or chats sent through its mobile app, it doesn’t need to directly invade our privacy in order to make startlingly accurate inferences about us.

How they know if you’re gay

Matt’s two comments, along with other data points Matt had provided through his age, gender, browsing habits/history and other trends, led Facebook to estimate that if you lined a hundred people with characteristics identical to Matt’s, a significant number of them will be closeted gays. In short, while Facebook didn’t know Matt was gay and struggling to come out, Matt’s digital profile suggested that he was more likely than your average user to be in that situation.

All the way back in 2009, two MIT grads were able to write a program that was able to discern whether a particular Facebook user was gay based on: A) whether they didn’t specify a sexual orientation in their Facebook profile; and B) whether they had an inordinate number of openly-gay Facebook friends. There are a lot of different ways to guess whether someone’s gay.

To put this in a real-world context, with some employers now asking for access to job-seekers’ Facebook log-in information, do you really want every future employer to know that you’re gay, which they’ll suspect as soon as they start seeing all the gay ads popping up once they’ve logged in as you. For some, that may not be an issue. For others, it most certainly would be. But regardless, it should be your decision to release that information, and to whom – no one else’s.

And how you vote

This form of marketing is here to stay, and is becoming more ubiquitous over time. From Target not only knowing that you’re pregnant, but being able to predict your due date within an impressively small window, to the Obama campaign knowing who you were going to vote for even before you did, targeted modeling of individual behavior is creeping into an increasingly large share of our lives. Of course, it didn’t start with the Obama campaign — John Aravosis wrote about this predictive-voting phenomenon for the Economist back in 2000.

On its face, why shouldn’t companies and political organizations use this method of targeting shoppers and voters? It’s effective, relies on ostensibly public information, and increases our ability to satisfy our needs and wants. After all, Matt did need help coming out, and that woman visiting the Target Web site really was pregnant, right?

But even if these models rely on seemingly-benign information that we make public, and make our lives more efficient (analytics are used in everything from suggesting book purchases to city planning), it still feels uncomfortable when a non-human entity knows so much about us. Though I suspect gays and lesbians would hardly be comforted if it were a human being secretly cataloguing their sexual orientation either.

Logically, individual-level marketing is no different than a clerk at our local department store remembering the kind of shoes we like, or a bartender who always knows our favorite drink, so why does it feel like an invasion of privacy when a computer does it?

Why you might be feeling creeped out by all of this

The answer may lie in, of all places, “road rage.” In 1995, researchers at AAA reported that, while the roads we drive on are public, we consider the area in and around our cars to be our personal space. Drivers who encroach on such space are seen as invading our territory:

“As individuals we have a personal space, or territory, which evolved essentially as a defense mechanism—anyone who invades this territory is potentially an aggressor…The car is an extension of this territory. Indeed, the territory extends for some distance beyond the vehicle…providing room for the defender to prepare to fend off or avoid the attack. If a vehicle threatens this territory by cutting in, for example, the driver will probably carry out a defensive maneuver. This may be backed up by an attempt to re-establish territory…flashing headlights or a blast of the horn are, perhaps, most commonly used for this purpose. However, this may not always succeed in communicating the full depth of our feelings. As it is usually difficult to talk or even shout to the offending driver, other non-verbal communication (offensive gesticulations) may be employed…In some circumstances, the defending driver may wish to go one step further and assert his dominance….This is comparable to the manner in which a defending animal will chase an attacker out of its territory.”

While we obviously don’t have the capacity to honk a horn or get in a fistfight with Facebook, the relationship between personal and public space is similar online as it is on the road.

While our activity online is often very much public, it happens within our own personal space, alone on our computers. And we have an expectation of privacy. I feel like my Google search and Web comment histories are, well, mine. The idea that they can be used to sell me products or provide me with life-coaching resources feels like an invasion of my personal space. Even if, as I mentioned above, the same documentation of our tastes and habits is happening when the waiter at our local diner asks us if we want “The Usual,” the fact that our online activity is an individual pursuit makes it feel like the proverbial online waiter shouldn’t know what our “Usual” is. Much like on the road, we seek to maintain our bubbles of personal space in an undoubtedly public online world.

The Internet changes things

In the old days, the bartender knew your favorite drink, the waitress your favorite meal, the barista your coffee, your travel agent when and where you liked to fly, and the local pharmacist what kind of prescription drugs you took (and thus, your ailments) and possibly what kind of birth control you used, and how often you used it.  In the case of the postal service, sure you gave them confidential correspondence, but you generally knew that they’d never be peeking inside. And in the case of the phone company, if you had a little sexy talk with your significant other, no one was the wiser because you had a reasonable expectation your amorous dialogue wasn’t being stored for posterity.

But with Big Data, a lot of those once-private activities are happening in the same locale, via the same venue.  The same person, as it were – your computer – is handling your food, clothing, travel, prescriptions, and even phone conversations and dating. It’s as if the little old lady at the corner 7-11 didn’t just know what your favorite Slurpee was, she now has your entire medical and sexual history, and she’s perusing your phone calls and opening your letters to make sure you’re not a pervert, or even simply sharing music or movies with your friends. By aggregating seemingly-public content, companies today are able to invade our privacy in ways formerly unimaginable.

In terms of Big Data, it’s almost impossible to draw lines that divide acceptable and unacceptable business practices. As the BuzzFeed article noted, “[The use of analytics is] normal, in that weird way where saying the same thing — ‘Facebook knows I’m gay,’ or ‘Target thinks I’m pregnant and due in August’ — can sound like either total paranoia or smart business, depending on how you say it.” The same models used to accurately predict Matt’s sexuality are used to more efficiently link us to the goods, services and information we use on a daily basis. Moreover, while, for Matt, the result came off as an uncomfortable breach of privacy, it only takes a handful of public data points to tell the world a lot about yourself.

Consider that fact before you make your next click.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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40 Responses to “Facebook knows you’re gay before you do”

  1. tetri-tolia says:

    The interesting thing is that there is an exceedingly easy way to overthrow this particular system — not to stop it from learning about you, but to stop their knowledge from achieving their desired effect — by using an ad blocker. Yet people find the creepiness cool, in a way — witness all the comments here half-joking about what the algorithms think about them. You’ve already given in when you admit that your desires are for sale.

    I haven’t seen an ad on the internet for seven years now, so I have no idea what the advertising algorithms think I am, nor do I care. But I suspect that many people find even the creepiness of a personalised advertisement to be an emotionally satisfying validation of their narcissism — one which they do not get from their human society — and thus they remain willing to be bought and sold by the system.

  2. Eric says:

    You clearly have zero grasp of marketing and advertisement.

  3. Jay says:

    oh no! facebook wasn’t even there – exist, when i knew it! & wouldnt know a damn thing about me, if i am not honest with myself (& else where)

  4. Matthew H says:

    I’m happy that you have found happiness in your life, I would never be so arrogant as to say what is true for you is not. I have no reason to doubt your experience, your life. Human sexuality, like with all animals, is a complex biological condition and none of us should be expected to fit someone else’s definition of “correct”
    I too have a personal relationship with God, and he has taught me humility. I listen for his directions, but I am always aware that my ego can interfere with his lead. I do not dare to speak for God, or say that God has told ME the way YOU should live your life. I believe by trying to let God work thru me, that God is happy, accepting and ultimately the source of my complete attraction to people of the Same Gender.
    God made me as I am, and he cares only that I Treat others as I wish to be treated, and that I love the lord my God, that is the only law.

  5. Xgay Greg says:

    I lived with a man as my lover for the better part of 11 years. He cheated
    on me and I cheated on him. The ONLY thing we had going for us was lust. Today
    I’m married God’s way. My wife and I share the good news that Jesus can set you
    FREE from any sin and that includes the sin of homosexuality. I know that most
    people hate to hear the truth of God’s word so they create their own god,
    however, there is ONLY one God and ONLY one way to heaven. Check out my YouTube
    video, I go by xgaygreg.
    I have NOT had ex-gay therapy, unless you consider Jesus my Therapist.

  6. moderate Guy says:

    A gay website.

  7. Serana says:

    When I changed my relationship status to ‘married’ I got a lot of ads for local counselors, and even one for AA. I guess there’s a lot of people out there with marriage issues…

  8. Matthew H says:

    first up, there is nothing wrong with algorithms used to estimate the probability of someone being gay for advertising then algorithms used to estimate what type of TV shows you like.

    If you don’t like Facebook (and other sites) using Big Data on you, then throw out your computer, or don’t use it to access the internet. TANSTAFFL folks, (besides, you always have the protection of the herd).

  9. When they offer to grow the weed for you for free, be sure to take them up on that! LOL! :)

  10. Vincenzo Mustich says:

    Your profile is sold (intended as personal profile, not facebook profile) to advertisers.
    So yes, you are sold indeed.

  11. This is an interesting article, but I think the analysis of why people find it creepy is off the mark. There’s a reason that you often hear an exchange in movies that goes something like, “Good evening, Mr. so-and-so,” and then “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Mister…?” The problem is the asymmetry of the situation. Normally when someone is collecting information about us, we’re also collecting information about them, and there’s a sort of balance in the process–there’s a low level of risk in giving someone information, that builds up as the information does, but in ordinary relationships, the symmetry of this information leads to gradual trust; if this person were to turn on me, I’d have just as much information to use against him as he has against me. That’s absent here; there’s not really any reason for facebook not to use this information against us. We don’t trust them.

    The bizarre thing is that, despite not trusting them, we continue to let them have information. The trick is that none of the information seems all that personal. We don’t tell facebook any deep secrets about ourselves; they’ve just got information about books we read, movies we like, that sort of thing. In the real world, this stuff is fine–every day we drive around in the same car, and we throw out all our trash in one place. It’s fine because, while our trash out on the curb is technically in public, and our car is on public roads, so there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy, there *is* a reasonable expectation of *anonymity*–nobody’s going through my trash or plotting every movement of my car, because I’m nobody in particular, and there’s no rational reason they’d do those things; it’d take a lot of effort, and the information they gathered would have minimal value. But online, suddenly the cost of the effort vanishes completely. Thanks to things like tracking cookies and analytics instrumentation, not only does it not take much computer power to gather this information, but that computer power is supplied by the users themselves–it runs in their browsers on their computers as they surf the web. And if you collect enough of that minimally valuable data in one place–search terms, items seen on amazon, celebrities followed on twitter, wikipedia articles viewed repeatedly–in aggregate, it can have significant value. But because of the asymmetry of the situation, we have basically no say over how that valuable information is used; Facebook considers us not to have any rights over it, and sells it to anyone who’ll pay.

    So it’s not that facebook is a waiter who remembers our order. It’s that facebook is a waiter who asks how we’re handling breaking up with our girlfriend, when we haven’t told anybody we’ve broken up with her; we go into the back room and discover he’s created a little shrine of us, filled with ATM receipts, hair from our hairbrush, and close-up photos of us taken while we were asleep.

    It is creepy. Don’t belittle that. We need to come up with better ways of thinking about and handling information and privacy online, and that creepy sensation is the only thing spurring people to consider that. We need to hold on to that unease.

  12. Decade says:

    The obvious problem is that you have no idea about how information security works. You use the same Facebook profile for work and personal life, you use the same browser while browsing and randomly “liking” stuff, and you don’t keep track of where your data are going and who has access to it.

    I consider Facebook to be like a blogging platform: Everything I put there is public in some way. I don’t “like” a lot of stuff, and I keep Facebook signed in with just one browser, that I don’t use for other stuff. If Facebook wants to know something about me, I have to tell Facebook explicitly.

    One thing I want to try is Qubes OS. That operating system uses separate containers for browsers, so Facebook wouldn’t be able to track you without permission. It would make explicit what I already do with my separate browsers, and it has the added benefit that hackers wouldn’t be able to break my browser and find my personal information. http://qubes-os.org/

  13. trolley says:

    This bullshit phrase is old as fuck, and still not relevant. You’re not sold, you’re not the product. Now stfu.

  14. Anna Bender says:

    since I ‘like’ and ‘share’ every marriage equality post I come across and post pro-marriage equality stories to facebook facebook has decided I am gay and has put many ads assuming that in the sidebar. Just because I support LGBT causes doesn’t mean I am LGBT.

  15. Megan G says:

    i wasnt even on facebook or had it open in my tabs and this was recommended for me lmao. also i am a gamer and gay and in my gameinformer magazine there was something about homosexuality and an add that looked gay to me due to the rainbows. so i made a post on facebook and i got recomened “gaming in color” which is lgbt gamers. kinda creepyy. but meh.

  16. .___. says:

    They know the ones you will lie at before you do.

  17. Leke says:

    Facebook often tells me to grow weed.

  18. Craig Garver says:

    Amazon can be fun too. At the beginning of the recession, I got hit hard at work and had way more time off than I knew what to do with. I started posting a lot at Yahoo! Answers, in the coming out section, helping out. Being a librarian at heart, there were a few dozen books I’d recommend all the time, and used Amazon to verify author names, etc. It started getting funny watching Amazon predict what I needed. My own buying wasn’t gay related (I already have a whole book case of that), but the searches were. Essentially they plastered my suggested for you page with LOTS of coming out books! “Oh honey, we know you’ve looked up ‘The Joy of Gay Sex’ 47 times now, along with two dozen books on how to come out. It’s ok … just come out already you big ol’ queen!”

  19. Don’t assume everything is pure science and not just mere coincidence. Facebook sometimes gives me military related ads that specifically call out military people — let’s assume the marketer knows enough to put some sort of targeting on their ads, then why would I be getting those ads? Also, I’ve seen some bugs where people get ads specific to one location even though their IP address and their stated location on their profile is something completely different. We could chalk this up to coincidence or maybe there was enough data on his profile to assume Matt is gay. At the same time, I don’t think it’s creepy because the advertisers don’t see the names/identities of the people they target on Facebook, so the ads are still private until the user actually signs up for a product or service.

  20. cambridgemac says:

    I assume that day was….yesterday….

  21. karmanot says:


  22. karmanot says:

    Same here! I love the last minute life insurance ads, only $29.99 a month and no medical exams. The small prints says that after death the body must be sent to the Coroner of Nigeria in order for one’s survivors to collect.

  23. karmanot says:

    I got accused of being straight once, because I choose a Chicago dog with onions and slaw over a Coney Island one. I wasn’t the least bit offended. Mine that Facebook!

  24. Ninong says:

    I have noticed a distinct increase in the number of targeted ads that pop up everywhere I go lately. Not only that, I noticed a couple of days ago that one site even displays my correct age next to my little avatar thingy and my actual name — not my online name. The only place that would have my actual name is Facebook. And even though my FB profile shows only my month and day of birth, not year, I did give my complete date of birth to register originally. Then I took out the year in my FB profile a couple of days later. I know FB knows my exact age and maybe Disqus does, too? Almost everywhere I go I’m already registered to post based on either Disqus or FB. Disqus-linked sites use my online name and FB-linked sites use my real name. Now even YouTube keeps bugging me to change my phony YouTube name to my real name. That message keeps popping up all the time lately.

    It’s clear from the ads that they direct to my attention that they know my age and are aware that I post to Americablog Gay and TowleRoad on a regular basis. Those don’t bother me so much because I get specific suggestions ever time I check out anything at all on YouTube. So I’m sort of used to that but what has been depressing lately is that they’re sending me a lot of ads for End of Life Hospice Care, How to Make a Will, Retirement Home Living and other BS based on my age. I know my age but I didn’t realize it was now public knowledge across the entire WWW?

  25. emjayay says:

    I get gay ads on Facebook based on not much. But apparently enough. No declared “gay” friends. Probably from looking at Towleroad or Americablog Gay once in a while or something. One day I looked for chandeliers on Ebay to possibly establish a value and within seconds got chandelier ads (which of course I had no interest in at all) appearing everywhere. Obviously, the combination of internet, cheap high volume data processing, and capitalism has resulted in this situation. Totally new and kind of amazing, but when you think of it, not surprizing. It’s the capitalism part that fuels the process, as usual.

  26. nicho says:

    Rule #1: If you do not pay for the product, you ARE the product.

  27. UncleBucky says:

    Good, Jon, good work!

  28. Outspoken1 says:

    What’s Facebook? [snark]

  29. Drew2u says:

    if it weren’t for using it to find jobs, and being successful at that, I’d be right there with ya.

  30. Drew2u says:

    Time to link back to the quadrillion-gigabyte data mining center in Utah that was written about in Wired, again.
    I still find it funny when I post anti-bagger commentary but the ads recommend teabaggistan sites based on my friends’ likes XD

  31. BeccaM says:

    This is one of the reasons why I usually lie on one or more of my online profile items whenever prompted to enter such information.

  32. nicho says:

    I have had three or four months of nonstop Facebook ads from France in French for French heterosexual hookup sites. I have one FB friend who is living temporarily in Paris. She is heterosexual.

  33. keirmeister says:

    Are there more examples of this happening with Facebook? I’m wondering if this is more of a coincidence than anything else.

    Of course, I don’t like the idea of anything-goes ad content on my feed. I may not like what’s being advertised. Then again, Facebook is free, so….

  34. Indigo says:

    That’s fine. All Facebook ever wants to do is hook me up with a nice guy from my town or get me to buy underwear I wouldn’t wear to a foam party. It probably helped their AI figure it out that I’m listed as openly gay but even so . . . just because I have drag queens and queer boiz and the local Frontrunners are listed in my “close friends” column it’s only statistically 99.9999% likely that I’m as queer as a three dollar bill. But okay, whatever. It’s high time we put the 20th century myth of privacy to rest anyhow.

  35. Skeptical Cicada says:

    I have more problems with this post than with Facebook’s advertising algorithms, actually.

    I get that Jon has an objection to data mining. Okay, fine. Nothing wrong with that. He makes some interesting points about voting and such.

    But using sexual orientation as a hook doesn’t sit well with me because I get the sense he imagines we’re all supposed to be more horrified at being gay than we are. By the end of the second sentence, we’re all told how being gay is some deep, dark, “private” matter, and how we’re supposed to be all “creeped” out if someone thinks we’re gay, with an insinuation that it’s even worse if–OMG–they’re correct and we actually ARE gay. Um, not really.

    We ARE gay. It’s not some dark secret, like being guilty of a crime or something. Since there’s nothing wrong with being gay, it’s not particularly horrifying when others think you’re gay, particularly when we actually ARE gay. Far more annoying, frankly, are people who treat being gay like a cancer diagnosis and go out of their way to avoid mentioning it to you and whisper about it to everyone else. It would be more offensive, I think, for Facebook to treat being gay differently from other human characteristics, like gender or ethnicity, that they probably also use to coordinate advertising. We’re well aware of how the media bends over backwards to avoid even mentioning a gay person’s sexual identity unless a reporter has fifteen sworn statements and photographic evidence!

    I have no idea what Jon’s sexual orientation is. I don’t believe he’s disclosed it here, and his article archive doesn’t suggest any special interest in gay topics. I wondered only because this article feels very much like an assumption that I’ve repeatedly seen among some liberal heterosexual men, who far more readily and viscerally identify with the possibility of someone being outed than with the possibility of someone actually being discriminated against for being gay. Being called gay seems to strike them as a particularly horrifying prospect. And while closeted gays fear being outed, I fail to see how having an ad pop up on Facebook is tantamount to a public outing.

    I’m left feeling as if Jon is trying to use this gay angle as just a tool for advancing a data-mining concern that has little to do with gay rights and more to do with other things. It feels a bit exploitative, particularly with the overstated assumption about the horror of someone thinking a gay person might be gay.

  36. karmanot says:

    The day will come when government non friends will be outed to Homeland Security.

  37. karmanot says:

    Two-Facebook: One all smiley and friendy; the other Big Brother

  38. Another reason I told Facebook to go f*ck itself months ago.

  39. SkippyFlipjack says:

    It seems pretty unlikely that “Matt” was outed because of two posts on gay-themed articles. It’s much more likely that either a) Matt has enough gay FB friends for FB to make that assumption or b) that FB gathers information about users across all the sites it supplies authentication for or has ad partners serving ads to, so “Matt’s” web surfing isn’t nearly as anonymous as he might think it is.

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