On Facebook, BBSes and Big Data

Shredded BBS membership forms

Facebook is the unchallenged 800-pound gorilla in the social media arena.

There’s never been anything quite like it, nor is anything going to take its place any time soon. Even supposed “Facebook killers” like Ello, diaspora* and Google+ go by almost completely unnoticed. That lowercase “f” logo is more famous than the Golden Arches.

To some, Facebook is the Internet and the first port of call for their daily dose of news, events, social updates, political rants, cat pictures, or what their so-called friends had for dinner last night. It’s the obvious choice if you want to keep in touch with your family without having to actually do so — especially now that everyone and their mother is on Facebook (whether they know this or not).

The ubiquitous “like” button didn’t even exist back when I signed up sometime in February 2008 (for pre-emptive reasons), and I found Facebook to be as useless then as I do today. Despite spending some time on it in recent days, I still don’t really “get it”.

Facebook is quite the time-waster, in fact.

It’s counter-productive — unless you have something to promote.

Or people to stalk. Facebook is a people-data aggregator like no other.

It’s the answer to the question, “Hey, I wonder whatever happened to that guy from…?!”

Let’s put this to practice and wonder no more: After discovering a cache of old BBS registration form printouts I decided to hunt down those ex-members, armed with names and answers they gave some 20 years ago.

It’s not quite BIG DATA — but it’s personal data nonetheless.

Typical BBS membership form

And guess what? I found most of them. They’re nice and respectable members of society, married with children, or boring old farts. A great many have emigrated. The few that I couldn’t find are presumed dead, deactivated, or staunch refuseniks of Facebook.

Consider that two decades ago these were ordinary people who confided personal details to me, the SysOp — the provider of a service. Have I now broken their trust?

Never would they have expected this information to reach beyond its intended recipient, nor should any of it be held against them for insidious or commercial purposes. How can we trust Facebook with anything if they’re eavesdropping? Can we really trust Google not to be evil? Can I trust my car or thermostat to leak neither water nor personal data?

Here’s hoping we’ll never need to find out.


Although Germans are notoriously protective of their personal data, it is them who are the worst data hoarders according to this report by Veritas:

The worst dark data offenders are Germany, UK and South Africa with respectively 66%, 59% and 58% of their stored data defined as dark.

I’ve shredded those subscription forms along with the copies of passports and IDs but there is this one very curious included letter which simply begs to be shown here (anonymised, of course):

An unexpectedly curious and strange letter

The biggest security risks are those whom you trust, love, and willingly share with.

Big data starts small. Wouldn’t that make us all as potentially dangerous as Facebook?

Image credits: Scans and photos by hmvh DOT net unless specified otherwise

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