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Baby Book 2.0: Sharing baby photos in a digital age

Parents no longer just take pictures of their kids to mail with holiday cards or hang in a frame on the wall. Now parents document nearly every moment of their babies' young lives. 

Bruce Lipsky/Florida Times-Union/AP
Tucker Duncan, 16 months, does a little dance for Mike Guo, of Miami, before sprinting off of the backdrop Sunday March 16, 2014, at the Jacksonville Marriott in Jacksonville, Fla. Mothers and grandmothers cajoled their adorable tykes to smile, pose, dance, twirl, or just stay on the white backdrop for photographer Mike Guo during the second day of shooting for Jacksonville's Most Photogenic Babies of 2014.

The Observer Effect suggests that when you observe something, you change it. You can't merely study or measure a thing and take a precisely accurate picture – because by looking at it, you've changed it. It works for particle physics, it plays a role in quantum mechanics, and it's definitely a factor when it comes to raising babies.

The modern parent doesn't merely feed, clothe, and house a baby – he or she now takes on the role of stylist, image caretaker, PR agent, and chief marketing officer. 

Even the decision not to document every milestone and daily event is a decision that, 25 years ago, would have seemed absurd to discuss, because, yes, of course, most of what you're doing when you raise a baby is raising a baby, not electronically monitoring, capturing, manipulating, and disseminating that baby.

The ways in which we document our offspring vary as wildly as our motivations for doing so. We make videos of them, post them to Instagram and Facebook, create albums both virtual and real, write paragraphs about them in holiday letters, tweet about them, blog about them, and create Tumblr posts about them. 

We also get started early. A Microsoft Research-produced paper published in 2014 looked at the way mothers of children ages 0-3 used social networks. According to the report, within two days of giving birth, "61.5% shared a traditional text-based status update, 33.6% shared a photo, 3.5% shared a link, and 1.3% shared a video." 

Sharing goes up from there – 96.5 percent of the mothers in the study said they posted photos of their child to Facebook. Granted that these moms opted into the study (for privacy reasons), but surely we've all felt at one time or another as though we're drowning under a river of baby pictures in our Facebook feed.

The reasons we share are many: We do it to show them what they were like when they were little, to appease grandparents, to impress friends, to memorialize our own precious lives as they slip through our fingertips, and, sometimes, to feel like the whole messy process of raising children has some immediate payback. 

The house may be covered in a fine layer of drool and crushed puffed cereal, but at least we've posted a new album of cute photos to Facebook and garnered 107 likes. 

In a series of articles – a look at what we'll call today’s "Baby Book 2.0" culture – we’ll explore some of the ways we document, and over document, our kids. It's a topic I feel comfortable tackling, as my 10-month-old has already begun to identify the iPhone as an object of power to be clamored for, and loves nothing more than to crawl at high speeds toward his own image captured and played back through the phone. 

Among our friends, we're reasonably sparing in the way we document our son; although compared to parents from the '80s (or even '90s, when digital cameras were commonplace), we're obsessive documentarians. 

The technology has changed radically, and so, in response, the culture itself has changed radically, in ways that are difficult to measure while we're living through the shifts.

The reality of modern technology, chiefly the smart phone, is that all of us are faced with a constant choice: we can talk to our kids, and we can play with them, or we can document them. Anywhere we go, anything we do, there's always the option: pull out the camera and start shooting, and be rewarded with instant gratification.

A modern smart phone is to the traditional shoot-and-develop film camera what a Maserati is to a Roman donkey cart. Both of them can transport people and material over land, but they're otherwise light years apart.

Arguably, the ubiquitous nature of the camera phone is a plus. Here's a quote from the introduction to a Babble post rounding up cellphone photos of babies:

DSLR’s are great and take amazing photos, but the problem is they’re bulky and not practical for a parent who’s already toting around a baby, a diaper bag (and probably a laundry list of other items) to add to her list of things to bring.

So, how do parents capture these precious moments? Via their camera phones!

So, in short: a parent (mom, of course, as it seems to be assumed in Babble’s case) no longer needs to feel as though she has to lug around a $2,000 camera to document her baby – just add "take photos with my phone" to the giant list and be done with it. Is this truly emancipation, or another link in the chain of parental responsibility?

And of course, as the photos stack up, their utility starts to diminish. If you've got a snapshot of someone you love, it becomes a precious possession. If you've got 1,000 pictures of someone you love, they become a millstone, un-displayable, and difficult even to shuffle through on a computer. 

Comedian Jim Gaffigan puts a fine point on it in this interview with Conan O'Brien: "We have all these photos now, and I don't know what we're supposed to do with them, other than make our computers run slow. I have more pictures of my children than my father ever looked at me," Mr. Gaffigan riffed. "And I keep taking them. We used to have boxes of photos in our closets. Now it's just old computers."

Editor's Note: As our "Baby Book 2.0" series moves forward, we'll look at the highs and lows of documenting kids with Facebook, blogs, Youtube, and physical albums designed with new software, as well as the double-edged sword of kids documenting themselves.


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