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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

A life less posted

In August 2003 — a few months before we got married — my wife and I went on a backpacking trip through Europe. You may remember that particular summer because it was the biggest European heat wave in a hundred years or something, so there was a lot of media coverage around it. Shops in Paris ran out of fans. Sweaty, half-naked tourists packed the sreets, which I’m sure made the locals even grumpier than usual about having to cede control of their cities to a bunch of foreigners.

It was quite a trip — 8 cities in 30 days. We used a hop-on hop-off bus service and stayed in youth hostels, as you do when you have no money. It was exhausting, wonderful, eye-opening, frustrating, beautiful. I’d love to show you some photos, but that’s going to be difficult because the album is sitting on my bookshelf at home.

Taking photos was different back then. Before the trip I bought 10 rolls of 24+3 Fujifilm ISO 400 film to use with my Nikon SLR. I had to weigh the importance of every photo, because not only was film expensive, we were also going to have to get the damn things developed. Once the trip was over we spent days going through the photos, reliving the moments, carefully picking the ones we deemed worthy of being put in our album.

I page through the album often. It includes some of the best photos I’ve ever taken, during one of the most tumultuous times in my life. My memories of that time are fading slowly along with the photos, but I’ll never forget the feeling of that month.


Last month several of my friends were in Europe on vacation. I know this because I followed their every move on Instagram and Facebook. Sometimes their photos reminded me of places we went on our trip. Sometimes I was jealous. Sometimes I just thought, wow, that’s pretty.


I wonder what it would be like if my wife and I did our backpacking trip now, almost a decade later. I imagine that I’d spend most of my time either taking photos with my phone, or hunting for free wifi with my phone. Because if you don’t post photos of what you’re doing, it didn’t really happen, right?

In a sense I’m glad we did our big Europe trip before social networks existed. We checked our email maybe once in every city — if we could find an Internet cafe. For the most part we were on our own. Just one couple amongst a sea of tourists. There was nothing different about the bottle of wine we had in that one Italian restaurant. Except that it was our bottle of wine, and we shared it just with each other. Not with anyone else. It was a whole month of secret moments in public, and we were just… there. We didn’t check in on Foursquare, we didn’t talk about it on Facebook, we didn’t post any photos anywhere. I now look back and appreciate the incredible freedom we had to live before we all got online and got this idea that the value of a moment is directly proportional to the number of likes it receives.


I woke up yesterday morning to a few Facebook status updates from people who don’t like Halloween, and who would never let their kids participate in the evils of trick-or-treating. I was immediately filled with guilt because I allowed my daughter to enjoy herself so much the previous night by letting her dress up in her self-chosen mermaid/fairy combination.

And then I realized that I feel like that all the time on Facebook. Guilt, anger, envy… Those are the emotions that fuel activity on most social networks, but perhaps Facebook more than the others. They’re the emotions that make us share/like/comment on things. And then I thought about our Europe trip, and how much I long for that time before we became obligated to carry the burden of the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of every single person we’re connected to online. It’s what Frank Chimero once called “huffing the exhaust of other people’s digital lives.”


I’m not saying I’m done with Facebook — and anyway, the public Facebook breakup blog post has become such a cliché that I don’t want this to sound like one. I’m just saying that I don’t like how my Facebook newsfeed makes me feel, so I’m going to “see other people” for a while, and see how that works out. And I’m going to try to rediscover the feeling of that Europe trip from a decade ago in the lives of the people around me.