It's June 2018, this is what life is like without Facebook

Without Facebook, public transport got awkward.
Alistair Hughes

Without Facebook, public transport got awkward.

If you can't imagine a world without Facebook, Tom Fitzsimons can. He'll be your guide into this imaginary future as part of 'The Takeover'.

​June, 2018: Well, it's been a year since President Trump shut down Facebook, and all his friends and allies agreed to do the same, from France's President Marine le Pen to our own Prime Minister Winston Peters.

Obviously there are downsides - for Mark Zuckerberg, who dared to challenge Prez Trump and is now stuck in a CIA black site - and for all of us who like democracy, free expression, the rule of law and all that carry-on.

Still, isn't it great not to have Facebook anymore? Aren't we so much happier?

At first, it seemed to me that life wouldn't be that different. I never even used Facebook that much before the ban – just a weekly dip to see if I'd got a message (almost always: nope), to click "maybe" on going to an old school friend's birthday, or to peek over my partner's shoulder to watch a lizard fleeing a bevy of snakes.

The change seemed superficial. I jumped on my bus, Wellington's No 23, and, true, I was no longer looking at the tops of everyone's heads as they lazily scrolled through their news feeds. Instead, I was trapped in their blank middle-distance gazes, just like I used to be in the 1990s.

It was worse, not better, and for a moment, I missed Facebook, which helped to disguise New Zealand's special brand of social awkwardness.

But then life got better. For instance, my children. Suddenly they were there, and not only in the ear-splitting ways that can break across a smartphone, like whining or yelping or wielding a carving knife at a block of butter I've left on the bench.

Instead, I actually began to pick them up and look at their cherubic faces.


There was no phone in the way. I gave the little one a leaf and watched her turn it over in her hands, awed by nature, before she tore it in half. I asked the big one how his day at school was, and got three "good" answers before he said that was enough questions and couldn't he go watch Lego Ninjago Spinjitsu on Youtube like he used to? (Sorry, son, they closed that too).

The talk flowed with my partner too. Unencumbered by (Facebook-owned) Instagram, she stopped staring at our friends' slumbering new babies, or the so-called "humans of New York", or stories about how men vastly overestimate how much of the housework they do - because she couldn't see them anymore. It was like being in the woods, we were so isolated. It was a huge roaring silence, like when the wind stops in Wellington for a day.

We talked about our hopes and dreams. We shared a moment of eye contact. We talked about starting a vege garden and compiling an earthquake kit. We're still talking about them today.

Life's been better in ways big and small since the Facefreeze. Everyone's going to bed earlier, freed from the bottomless maw of their newsfeed, with its promise that the next thing to appear might be a treat of a headline, or a hilarious joke, or a dance manouevre you'd never seen before. (Never mind that you'd already seen thousands more kinds of amazing dance manouevres than everyone, combined, who had ever lived before 2005 had seen - this next one might have been friggin' amazing!)

The lack of blue light helped with the sleeping too. The blue-dominated F symbol, the blue light of the backscreen, the blues you got from all the status anxiety - it's all gone, and everyone seems to have a little more zip because of it.

It goes wider. The teenagers have lost a vital outlet for cyber-taunts and body-shaming, so the mental health services say they're getting fewer calls. (Yeah, teen pregnancies are apparently back up, as people gingerly make physical contact again, but you win some, you lose some).

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The boomers have lost an outlet for displaying their hauntingly clumsy pictures of their walks to the top of small nearby hills, or their excessive replies to each other about that concert at a winery ("OK", "Yes, I agree, great concert", "Thanks and see you next Tuesday", etc, etc), thus provoking less angst in people like me about the passing of time, and how soon technology will surely overtake us all.

The hipsters have lost their avenue for endless vanity: Instagram with its filters and overlays designed to perfectly capture that solitary bubble rising in their wild white sour craft beer, or the bare lightbulb hanging just so during their wedding in an old barn.

The braggers are gone! What was Facebook really, apart from a bunch of bragging? 1200 friends, 1500 friends - who cares and what bollocks! They weren't your friends. They were people you'd never say hello to on the street – the guy from that university football team you halfheartedly joined for half a season, or your old boss at that cafe job you hated. Human beings can't even begin to handle more than one-tenth of that in their social circle. You just made us all miserable by ever pretending they could.

We bragged about jobs, about relationships, about holidays, about houses, about money, about our politics and our values. We fished for likes - and thrilled to the torrents of praise for our amateur photography skills or our reproductive ones. "Happy birthday" we told each other a billion times, over and over, year after year, meaninglessly, with no more effort than mashing our fingers across a keyboard. (Actually, "HB TF" was one of the measly six Facebook birthday messages I got last year - only four keys' worth of goodwill).

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Every now and again, of course, we argued. But that was no fun either - not like an argument with a friend at the pub. It was just a spiral of bog-standard online vitriol, stripped of tone and understanding, buttressed by nonsense cooked up by Macedonian teenagers, spun out over dozens of comments, each one then eagerly liked by a baying mob of bloodthirsty onlookers.

Angry Facebook was like an open sewer, and now it's gone. Doesn't it feel good?

Of course, there was the odd thing to like about Facebook. I remember the happiness of finding my sister's account left open on my laptop one day and writing "I love sports" into it, for all her thousands of friends to see. She does love sports.

I remember the time I located a friend in Sweden after looking him up on Facebook, and thought 'Hey, this thing is useful after all'. Sadly he then quit Facebook and we lost contact again.

I remember when one of my cousins wrote "Anyone know of a good cleaner in Auckland?" and then one of my uncles replied "Jif".


I remember the exploding watermelon, and the link to that website showing Kim Jong-Un looking at things, and that time a friend wrote powerfully about his Mum's death, and the rush of kind responses.

I remember thinking, every now and again, wow, Facebook is full of everything weird and annoying and funny and great that makes us human. And also: have we ever done so much writing, as a species? I mean, if historians could find a Facebook of Rome or Elizabethan England or something, they'd combust with glee.

And yet this past year, in the long Trumpian pause from Facebook, it's been pretty obvious that we wasted so much time scrolling, friending, liking, tagging and culling. So many nights vacuumed up into the abyss. So much anxiety - even about our own anxiety, for pete's sake ("How to be mindful in two minutes per day", "Five ways your addiction to your phone is killing you", "How to stop fretting and ask for a raise in 2017" - remember all that?)

We just needed Facebook too bad. We yoked ourselves to Facebook, like we yoked ourselves to our phones more generally. (Yes, they too have been taken off us). Jerry Seinfeld knew it, and we did too, deep in our hearts, far below our faces.

We gave in to Facebook's seduction - that it might throw up something truly rewarding, truly dazzling, even though it seldom did, and even though we stopped reading everything else that more reliably would have.

Since Facebook left, it's not like we've become a pre-revolution French coffee salon, but there seems to be a bit of life in the old citizenry left. We're less hooked on checking in, and more motivated to just do stuff - like building that big pile of solar-powered, cheap, sweet, semi-communal houses that someone put up in Wellington, years after house prices turned scandalous here; or opening that second decent bookshop in town, like someone else did (books are back!); or putting up a new honeycomb-shaped Parliament to accompany the Beehive, as the MPs decided was necessary. (Ambitious civic monstrosities are back!)

A few things are more difficult, true. Hand-delivering invites to your housewarming party is a drag. Having to verbally inquire about your friends' relationship status can be awkward. Saying Happy Birthday to more-or-less complete strangers doesn't go down too well. And peering deep into the embarrassing personal histories of prospective new friends, babysitters or employees is far more difficult than it was. (Private detectives are back!)


But mostly the end of Facebook has been a liberation. The end of Facebook's endlessness freed us to think about what mattered. And the end of Facebook's deep social hold on us freed us to think for ourselves.

Without Facebook, or Google, or Snapchat, or email, or reliable electricity, we've gone back to basics, learned to till the land again, sustained ourselves on a diet of formerly frivolous, now crucial, artisanal hobbies such as making sourdough bread and kombucha - and we've thrived. Life expectancy is down to the mid-40s again, but we're happy.

And anyway, for those desperate enough for a social fix, we're assured there are new pieces of software being developed right now. TrumpFace sounds promising enough. But I have a feeling that Winstagram, an artfully curated feed of photographs of Prime Minister Peters visiting schools, beaches and even mines - well, that sounds like something I could lose myself in.

 - Stuff


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