Showing posts with label Facebook. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Facebook. Show all posts

Saturday, April 13, 2013

MIT study on Implicit relationships

I was reading somebody’s blog post and watched the link they posted about the UN’s Big Data research when I heard the emcee reference a study out of MIT that looked at Facebook user profiles at MIT and could predict a user’s sexual preferences based on their friendships. So, I investigated the research.

 You can read the entire paper here. The title is 'Gaydar: Facebook friendships expose sexual orientation' by Carter Jernigan and Behram F.T. Mistree.

Disclaimer: I didn't read the entire paper. It's really long. I did read the majority of it.

Here are the high points:

Aggregation of personal data –  The researchers talk about how in any environment – state department or social media, the aggregation of data poses a great potential for risk. A few examples they use are officials looking up the passport activity of President Obama as well as confidential information of taxpayers. If the information is available anywhere, people will exploit it. 

Sex segregation – As the old saying goes “birds of a feather flock together” and this truth intuitively makes sense. Those of us that enjoy leadership and being on teams will migrate towards campus involvement. Those more proficient in sports activities and have a competitive attitude and drive and thus will most likely find each other on sports teams. Well, the same could be said in regards to how sexes segregate themselves. A study cited in the paper states that men have 65% male friends and 35% female friends and females have 70% female friends and 30% male friends. This suggests a likelihood that if given an individual person identified by a specific sex, they should have the same percentage of friendships. A significant deviation from this might offer some insight to that person's lifestyle.

Homosexuality and sexual segregation – According to the study, homosexual men and women draw the majority of their friends from the LGB community whereas bisexual men and women draw their friends from the heterosexual community. So, again an observation of the amount of the sex of friendships of an individual user should begin to indicate insights about that user.

Forming the hypothesis – Because of these observations, we expect gay males to have a higher proportion of gay male friends online.

Methodology - The researchers used a web-crawling software (Arachne) to go through all of the Facebook users at MIT and extract data concerning student’s sex and “interested in” information as well as the user's friendships. The result was that the researchers could use explicit and implicit (see article for explanantion) friendships to deduce a user’s sexual orientatation based on what their friends listed in their “interested in” bio information. For example, if an MIT male was examined, based on the percentage of male/female friends he had and their listed sexual orientations – the algorithm developed by the researchers could tell the sexual orientation of the user.

Implications – So, the most interesting thing about this, to me, isn't being able to know someone's sexual orientation.  That's interesting, but I don't really care.  Rather, what's really significant about this is the notion that people can harvest seemingly harmless information about you and use it to make implicit assumptions about you. Think about it this way - you're a CIA agent. You live in Atlanta and work for a private equity firm as a cover so your family and friends think you're normal. Say you're trying to keep up with your kids so you have a very basic Facebook profile and every once in awhile you tweet a picture of you and the fam on vaca or the new boat you just bought.  Obviously, you wouldn't post that you work for the government in your 'About Me' information or anything that would significantly link you to a clandestine profession. But, what this research is suggesting is that we can make accurate predictions on a user's lifestyle/personal habits based on information that they aren't making readily available. So, perhaps I scan your friends on Facebook and most of them make sense except a few that are located in D.C. and that information coupled with some of your spending habits that I've observed on your Twitter/Instagram accounts yields a suggestion that you travel to cities that are outside of your job's requirements and your standard of living is significantly different from what it should be. Certainly there are other explanations for these observations. However, another insight that this research suggests is that "types" of people act in similar patterns. So, sure all of these insights into your buying history and friendships would be normal ordinarily. However, when compared with a test set of other CIA agents' info, we come up with a 95% likelihood that you are, in fact, a CIA agent. Cover blown. Your kids and wife are taken hostage and Arnold Schwarzenegger is called in to come and save you.

This is a bit of a reach, but I think the underlying coversation here is very significant. If Big Data analysis is allowing businesses, governments, or (God forbid) terrorists to gain useful insights into aspects of our lives that we aren't intentionally sharing... what could that mean?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Armchair Activism and an Equals Sign

 Undoubtedly, if you are a Facebook user you have been witness to a lot of profile picture changes within the last few weeks. Specifically, around March 26 when the Human Rights Campaign challenged their followers to change their profile pictures to one of the image below (the far left is most popular, and the latter two were for giggles).

 In an article posted on the Fast Company website, an overview is given to some of the analysis that the Facebook Data Science Team cooked up.  You can find it here. What's especially interesting about this event is how it's given researchers some significant insights into activism and how different demographics respond. The team observed that 120% more users (than the previous Tuesday) changed their profile picture over the course of a day. As you can see below, after applying a time-series model, the data shows a very obvious, positive trend.
The team used the changes to indicate the "stance" of each user on the marriage-equality issue. This resulted in giving the team data on the gender of "activists" as well as their age. Even more interestingly, it gave them geographic information in the form of frequency per county (below). Wouldn't you love to have access to their numbers? To read the full break down, visit here.
Further, as we've discussed in class, there is a lot that one can learn from the images themselves. I was interested that the team didn't do any data extraction on the actual images. I think that one reason might be that as the images were saved and re-saved as they transferred from user to user, the quality of the picture degraded (as you can see below). Thus, pixel data may have been skewed. But, I ask the question because I observed a lot of people I know changing their profile pictures in support of Proposition 8 (the legislation in question) which is in opposition of equal marital rights (as defined as man and woman). So, the mere fact that profile pictures were changing doesn't necessarily (to me) represent a full indication of the frequency of support of one side or the other. My observations were that people were changing their picture (in large part) as a response to what others were doing.
 And you also have people (like me) that chose to use the tense climate to recognize things that are TRULY significant... like the fact that April is Mathematics Appreciation Month which coincidentally had a strong association with the symbols being used in this virtual human rights rally.

In closing, I think that the truly significant and telling statistics would be things like:
  • The amount of people that changed their profile picture and are registered to vote.
  • Or, that have ever written/called/have heard of their state elected officials.
  • Or, made any other action whatsoever outside of clicking "edit profile picture".
Pardon my cynicism, and let me explain. I have seen time and again microcosms of the same event transpire on campus. We have a very active and vocal student body that have some great things to say in regards to: tuition, state appropriations, academic excellence, etc. However, if I were to weigh the amount of times I've seen people post an uninformed, aggressive comment on Social Media against the amount of times I've seen said individuals at a Board of Trustee meeting, SGA Senate meeting, or University Senate meeting... the scale would bottom-out. I wholeheartedly believe that for our country to move past this climate of bipartisanship, we will have to engage in informed, healthy debate. And while social media is an excellent platform for this to take place, ultimately policy is decided by appointed officials so it's our duty to first be an informed electorate, vote for the best candidate, and hold them accountable to their actions by keeping our voice known to them directly.