Social Networking and the Freedom to Friend

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The other day The Boston Globe reported on a new project coming out of MIT that uses social networking data to predict whether a male Facebook user is gay or not. The experiment has been given the not terribly original name Project Gaydar.

Part of a new field of study called social network analysis, Project Gaydar examines a a male Facebook user's public connections or "Friends" on Facebook in order to determine the likelihood that he is gay or not. Other analyses have attempted to predict a person's political affiliation or drawn conclusions based on favorited books and movies.

Gays and lesbians have had particular concerns about privacy rights due to the history of criminalization and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the U.S. Even gays who are largely "out" may prefer to keep their sexual preference private in select circumstances, such as applying for a job or while searching for housing.

Facebook, Twitter and other social networks do offer privacy settings that allow users some control over what other people can see. So there are some means available to protect information one wants kept private, including choosing not to post about certain subjects at all.

Several studies have shown that not posting about certain subjects--such as politics, sex, drinking, and your employer--is exactly what human resources departments in the U.S. expect from potential employees. According to a recent survey of human resources professionals, nearly half used social networking sites to help them screen candidates.

If you're gay or lesbian and looking for a job, you probably already know that you don't have much legal protection against discrimination in hiring or in the workplace. And if you're not gay or lesbian, you're pretty much shit out of luck, too. Any number of behaviors or lifestyle factors could place you on the "do not hire" list, including being overweight or smoking.

According to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, potential employers can use investigative consumer reports to find out about a candidate's "mode of living." However, under the federal Fair Credit and Reporting Act, employers must notify job seekers of such background checks and some states place additional restrictions on such reports.

Now, with social networking background checks, no notice need be given. Human resources managers can log on to Facebook, Twitter, or any number of other sites and draw whatever conclusions they like about prospective employees (including wrong ones) based on friends, favorites, posts or casual comments.

In other words, your future livelihood may depend on whether you've declared yourself a fan of The Simpsons or once retweeted Pee-wee Herman. And yet, the online reaction to intrusive practices like Facebook background checks is mostly defensive advice like "don't post publicly," or "clean up your digital profile."

Freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech are rights provided for in the Constitution to all Americans. As part of those freedoms, we must demand the right to Friend and to favorite, to gather and to chat, to poll and to post without the threat of corporate surveillance restricting our ability to make a living or to participate fully in our digital public sphere.

6 Comments

But, T., the companies and corporations that the HR folk work for are people, too. That means they have a right to surf the Internet and gather information just like every other human being.

And soon they'll have the freedom of speech to give their money to any candidate that they wish to win in the elections.

Stop being so negative towards our fellow corporation-citizens whose HR people are merely doing their free speech jobs.

Hi Joe,

Isn't it enough that corporations want us all to think alike at work by making us wear corporate logo clothing and take ropes courses together to encourage us to act as one? Now they want to control how we think and what we say in our private lives, too. This corporatocracy is going to send us straight back to the 50s culturally before long.

Omigod, those goddamned rope courses were almost the end of me!

This is when I wish that everyone could be as gainfully self-employed as I am. It is also when I am very tempted to toss in the trash the quotes recently received from various internet service providers. And umm... What can *they* deduce about me while I'm zooming around the nets on my phone? (Hey, this one's totally gay, cos she's into tattoos, Harleys, Virginia Woolfe, & Teresa's blog) Will the word privacy mean anything in 20 yrs, or might we seek its definition online & find it classified as an archaic term?

Hi Nici,

Thanks for posting! You're right, nothing we see or say online is private. No doubt our concept of privacy will change, too. In the meantime, I've made the decision to be myself publicly and I'll just have to live with the consequences.

In answer, a mini rant: There should be NO *consequences*. Unless I've misinterpreted it, that's what your Constitution says. Oh, wait. Right. It doesn't specifically mention LGBTQ folk. I suppose that is what's called a loophole. PS- I like to look people in the eye & say Yes I Am. Having people take a wild guess based on the sites I visit is an affront, because this short-ass butch does her best to make no assumptions about anyone. Saying that someone is gay based on who they friend & where they go online, is as ridiculous an assumption as this one: Meryl Streep is gay based on a few roles she's played, & given the fact that she REALLY likes hugging Amy Adams. It would be nice if she was gay, but that ain't the point...

Recent Comments

  • Nici: In answer, a mini rant: There should be NO *consequences*. read more
  • Teresa: Hi Nici, Thanks for posting! You're right, nothing we see read more
  • Nici: This is when I wish that everyone could be as read more
  • Joe G.: Omigod, those goddamned rope courses were almost the end of read more
  • Teresa: Hi Joe, Isn't it enough that corporations want us all read more
  • Joe G.: But, T., the companies and corporations that the HR folk read more