9 Apr 2018

What if there was no Facebook?

12:33 pm on 9 April 2018

Utopia? Or dystopia?


Unavailable: What if there was no Facebook?

Unavailable: What if there was no Facebook? Photo: Image: The Wireless/Luke McPake

Facebook’s not having the best time of it at the moment.

Just yesterday, the social media platform admitted nearly 64,000 New Zealanders are estimated to have had their data collected and used by Cambridge Analytica - the data mining British political consulting firm.

The personal data was apparently obtained via a personality test, and included information about users “likes”.

About 87 million people are estimated to have been affected by the data misuse scandal worldwide. Cambridge Analytica is accused of selling the personal information to influence the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum.

Millions of users have deactivated their Facebook accounts or completely deleted them, while the company’s share price has fallen sharply in the past three-and-a-half weeks.

We asked five people: the Privacy Commissioner, a young activist, a student, a new media lecturer and a Wireless teammate to imagine a world without Facebook.

What if everyone decided to deactivate their accounts. Or, what if Facebook was completely wiped from the internet?


The Privacy Commissioner of New Zealand. Two weeks ago, Edwards publicly announced he had deactivated the app because it wasn’t congruent with the Privacy Act.

The revolution may not be televised, but it will almost certainly be on Facebook - unless the platform itself becomes a casualty of the revolution. We’ve seen it before, and it can happen again. Remember Bebo and MySpace?

The very existence of Facebook and others depends on your personal data. Without your information, these services would cease to exist. For the purposes of this thought experiment, what might come next?

John Edwards.

John Edwards. Photo: Supplied

The next generation of social media will use technological innovations in both hardware and software that were I able to anticipate, I would be rich. I can’t, and I’m not.

What we do know is that building and maintaining trust will be a precondition of the new business model. That trust, squandered by Facebook and others through misuse of data and failures of security, will be the new market differentiator, and respect for users’ privacy, and individual autonomy and control, will be at the heart of that rebuilding.

Clearing the slate and removing your data from existing compromised platforms is an expression of that autonomy and control. It’s a way of expressing your autonomy when using online services.

With hindsight and luck, new online networks would rush to embrace a post-Facebook world. The most effective way to do this is by putting you at the centre of your own privacy and information.


A Journalist at The Wireless.

I can remember a time when all my friends and I were on Bebo. I can’t recall much about the way it worked, but I do know that it was really cool to write in mixed-case LeTtErInG. Then there was MySpace, where everyone agonised about the song that would play when people visited their page, and where the high-angle selfie grew to prominence.

Mava Enoka.

Mava Enoka. Photo: The Wireless/Alex Robertson

Now I use Facebook incessantly: for work, for selling things, and to keep updated with news. But perhaps most importantly, to keep in touch with my family abroad. Ninety-nine percent of my family live outside of New Zealand, including my parents. I talk to them every few days and share photos of my son via Messenger. I remember my mum saying that if it wasn’t for the distance-erasing nature of social media, she would never be able to cope with living so far away.

For nearly 20 years, social media platforms have been ingrained in our social fabric and so integral to the way we keep connected to others, that it’s difficult to imagine a world without them. It would be safe to say that if Facebook disappeared, another platform would quickly take its place - just as Facebook sprung out of their ashes of Bebo and MySpace.

But even though it might be harder to keep in touch with my mum and dad, a part of me would breathe a sigh of relief if Facebook was wiped from existence. I think my mental health would be better for it. There is something truly anxiety-inducing about the way Facebook vies for likes and comments, leaving people craving the validation of others.

Facebook often leaves me feeling empty and dissatisfied. I find myself trying to curate my online image and judging others for doing the same. I would love to deactivate my account and never look back, but I did that once and just felt really left out.

As I read once (probably on Facebook), it’s hard to be satisfied with your own life when you’re constantly comparing your “behind-the-scenes” to everyone else’s “showreels.”


A Senior Lecturer teaching a Masters degree in English and New Media at AUT’s School of Language and Culture.

Philippa Smith.

Philippa Smith. Photo: Supplied

If we woke up one morning to find that Facebook had disappeared, I’ve no doubt all hell would break loose and many would see the disappearance of their pages and profiles as apocalyptic.

It’s a question I put to my new media students at AUT who, on the whole, seem bewildered by and concerned about how much they had to lose. Some have spent years using Facebook as a communication tool where they house their contacts lists, message each other and upload and share content on a daily basis, and access other apps.

But perhaps more importantly, Facebook is a record of people’s lives going back years, and given that hard copy photo albums, diaries and address books have taken a back seat to social media platforms - there’s a sense that the social impact of losing this personal information would be devastating. There’s a real emotional impact here. As one student commented: “we’re in too deep, it’s too late.”

You see, the term “social media” doesn’t include the word “social” for nothing. Humans are social in nature - we crave a sense of belonging and wish to be connected with others, whether this is in ‘real’ life or online.

And like it or not, Facebook has fed this need, which has enhanced a participatory culture. Each user has been able to create their own social network so they not only have a sense of community, but the ability to create their own identity (real or otherwise).

And there is no doubt there is a great deal of psychology behind being a member of a vast social network. Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker once admitted that giving users “a little dopamine hit” through features such as the “like” button was a way to keep them engaged as content creators.

For better or for worse, many people live their lives through Facebook - and it’s no secret that this has come at a cost of loss of privacy. There will always be new and evolving ways of communicating and keeping social networks alive. Virtual reality, for example, is the latest developing technology to keep an eye on. In the meantime, it might pay to download your Facebook data, just in case it disappears from cyberspace tomorrow.


The founder of GirlBoss New Zealand - a social enterprise focused on empowering young women. Facebook has been an important tool GirlBoss has used to promote its message.

Alexia Hilbertidou.

Alexia Hilbertidou. Photo: Supplied

Social media platforms such as Facebook are powerful tools to evoke change. It has galvanised communities to change public opinion, mobilise activists, and shape public policy - if Facebook was deleted tomorrow I imagine it would be harder for communities to organise and protest.

In the past, political posts on social media were vilified for "slactivism" - for creating noise but no substantial change.  But successful popular movements now show a different reality - the four biggest protests in American history have happened in the past 2 years - these protests were made possible because they were organised and promoted largely on social media.

Social media shifts and expands thinking - many of the young women I work with have been informed of social issues through articles and content shared on Facebook.

Unlike traditional media, social media allows anyone to share their message and build an audience for their ideas - 18 year old Parkland shooting survivor Emma González now has more followers than the NRA. Facebook and similar platforms give youth a voice, and if it was deleted tomorrow, I fear that voice could be lost.


A student teacher in Auckland.

Because of my studies, I have very little spare time to visit friends or family and Facebook helps me keep in touch with them, and makes it easier to organise study sessions, for example. It also collates a lot of news and content that I want to read. My friends are also always sharing content that definitely broaden my horizons.

If Facebook were to disappear, I would probably have to spend a lot more time finding my news. Unfortunately, I think I would also probably forget about keeping up with some of my acquaintances.

Robert Bradford.

Robert Bradford. Photo: Supplied

I understand that Facebook collects and exploits my personal information, and at a conscious level I dislike it, but deep down I don’t really care. I would like the personal information shenanigans to stop, but I also like being able to easily catch up with my mum - who is half-a-country away - or see updates from distant family and friends and hear they’re doing well.

It’s not like I think Facebook’s disappearance would cause an internet apocalypse - there are already existing alternatives like Google’s failed attempt (Google+). But in the short term, I think you would either see a multitude of competitors appear, or another Facebook-sized behemoth.

The cynic in me says that any replacement of Facebook will likely be as bad as Facebook - it seems every business has a product, and personal information is often that product.