LONDON — Clicking those friendly blue “like” buttons strewn across the Web may be doing more than marking you as a fan of Coca-Cola or Lady Gaga.
It might reveal how you vote. It could out you as gay. It might even suggest that you’re an unmarried introvert with a high IQ and a weakness for nicotine.
That’s the conclusion of a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers reported analyzing the “likes” of more than 58,000 American Facebook users to make guesses about their personalities and behavior, and even whether they drank, smoked, or did drugs.
Cambridge University researcher David Stillwell, one of the study’s authors, said the results may come as a surprise.
“Your likes may be saying more about you than you realize,” he said.
Facebook launched its like button in 2009, and the small thumbs-up symbol has since become ubiquitous on the social network and common across the rest of the Web as well. Facebook said last year that roughly 2.7 billion new likes pour out onto the Internet every day. That means an ever-expanding pool of data available to marketers, managers, and just about anyone else interested in users’ inner lives.
The study zeroed in on the 58,466 U.S. test takers who had volunteered access to their likes.
The study found that some Facebook likes were linked to sexual orientation, gender, age, ethnicity, IQ, religion, politics, and cigarette, drug, or alcohol use. The likes also mapped to relationship status, number of Facebook friends, as well as half a dozen personality traits.
Some likes were more revealing than others. Researchers could guess whether users identified themselves as black or white 95 percent of the time. That success rate dropped to a still impressive 88 percent when trying to guess whether a male user was homosexual, and to 85 percent when telling Democrats from Republicans. Identifying drug users was far trickier — researchers got that right only 65 percent of the time, a result scientists generally describe as poor. Predicting whether a user was respectively a child of divorce was even dicier. With a 60 percent success rate, researchers were doing just slightly better than random guesses.
The linkages ranged from the self-evident to the surreal.
Men who liked TV song-and-dance sensation Glee were more likely to be gay. Men who liked professional wrestling were more likely to be straight. Drinking game aficionados were generally more outgoing than, say, fans of fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett.
Some of the patterns were difficult to understand: The link between curly fries and high IQ scores was particularly baffling.
Jennifer Golbeck, a University of Maryland computer scientist who wasn’t involved in the study but has done similar work, endorsed its methodology and described its results as “awesome.”
But she warned of what the work showed about privacy on Facebook.
“Even if you think you’re keeping your information private, we can learn a lot about you,” she said.
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