A few weeks ago, on a beautiful late summer night, I was sitting with a group of friends, all gay men, laughing and telling tales over generous helpings of Dairy Queen. That evening, the discussion centered around one particular friend of a friend—specifically, whether said friend of a friend, a guy, was gay.
No pastime more deliciously is devoured by a group of gay men than ferreting out the sexuality of other men using that wonderfully reliable divining rod we call Gaydar. Like reading the Weekly World News, or eating half a bag of Tootsie Rolls in your bed and throwing the wrappers on the floor, it’s an oft-enjoyed guilty pleasure that does absolutely nothing in the way of advancing our culture.
In an instant, our banal Friday night ice cream klatch had morphed into an episode of C.S.I. The team meticulously began piecing together a dossier on our fine ambiguous friend in between scoops of Brownie Batter Blizzard. What kind of clothes does he wear? What kind of music does he listen to? Does he date girls? If so, for how long?
The consensus slowly coalesced around a weak “definite maybe.” That is, until our friend entered the following gem into evidence: Seems Mr. Ambiguous likes to give our friend the occasional back rub. You almost could hear the blip of our collective Gaydars going off. The glee-filled gasps and juvenile tittering that followed instantly made the group of high school students nearby seem positively mature.
My friends and I clearly were engaged in something wholly less than a scientific exercise. Indeed, you probably shouldn’t take anything said under the influence of that much sugar late at night too seriously. Besides, Gaydar itself, while fun at parties, is nothing more than our version of the Ouija board—or so I thought.
Then, I, like many of you, recently learned about the story of “Project Gaydar.” Two students from MIT were interested in finding out what information people inadvertently may be sharing with the world on social networks like Facebook, simply by way of whom they add or “friend” to their networks.
Using a software program to analyze the gender and “interested in” data of a person’s friends, the students found it was possible to predict whether a person is gay. More specifically, the software can predict whether a person is a gay man. Apparently, if you are male, and have lots of male friends who identify as “interested in men,” you are more likely to be a gay man. Shocking.
When the story became public, reaction ranged from the concerned to the bemused. Most mainstream media outlets trumpeted the story as yet one more frightening sign of the end of privacy in the age of the Internet. Headlines like “MIT Study Outs Gay Men on Facebook” and “Facebook Knows You’re Gay” likely sent a few people scurrying to see how this increasingly Orwellian tool knew which side of the fence we were on. Most in the gay blogosphere seemed mildly amused at best, and certainly anything but surprised.
So, what do we make of “Project Gaydar”?
First, any purportedly scientific research project containing the word “Gaydar” should be roundly relegated to that neighborhood of pseudoscience, which claims among its residents psychic spoon-bending and phrenology.
The study itself is anything but news. It simply reiterates what we already know. Birds of a feather tend to flock together. The best the study can offer is about as much as we can do on our own. I’d be willing to bet my accuracy would be right up there with the software program. That’s not saying much for the software program.
As for Gaydar, let’s keep it the unreliable parlor trick that it always has been. Sure, we all have had the experience of walking down the street, and sharing that knowing glance with a total stranger. Yep, he’s definitely gay. Or maybe he just is staring at the piece of sandwich stuck to your face.