Once upon a time, we pasted photos of our babies and kids into scrapbooks. The scrapbook has increasingly moved online – in many cases onto social media sites such as Facebook – and the ease of filling up virtual page after virtual page is hard to overstate. This is not without consequences, of course.
These days, parents need to develop a strategy – either through forethought or facts on the ground – in order to use social media services such as Facebook as a way to document and share the moments of their kids' lives. Err too far toward conservatism, and you lose a sense of community (and irritate the grandparents). Err too far in the other way, and some of your friends may view you as the equivalent of a polluter, clogging up their news feed with baby photo after baby photo.
"... baby pictures." says my friend Eric Oehler, responding to my query on Facebook. I was looking for comment about using the ubiquitous social media site as a way to share images of infants and older kids.
"A few is fine," Mr. Oehler continues. "I get it, it's an important lifestyle thing. But essentially live-blogging your child does everyone a disservice... Go forth and enjoy your child, and stop obsessing about just the right Instagram filter for today's photo #15."
Oehler is not alone – a Web tool called getrather.com (formerly "unbaby.me") was originally launched for the sole purpose of evicting babies from people's Facebook feeds and replacing them with desirable images – such as cats or bacon.
On the other side of the spectrum are family members of the photographed children – notably the grandparents – for whom almost no amount of photos would be considered sufficient.
So when parents post their kids to Facebook, they're working on creating a digital family album. They're appeasing their own parents. They're negotiating between celebrating a young life and protecting future privacy. And they're having an effect on their friends, with kids – and without.
"I don't mind seeing pictures of your kids. I just would rather not see ONLY pictures of your kids," says my (currently child-free) friend Lindsay Christians on Facebook. "Because, yes, your/her child is adorable. I love the little ear-flap hats and tiny shoes and goofy behavior as much as anyone else. But I also like YOU, the friend I made in college … and I would love a tiny bit of reassurance that after you put the kid(s) down for a nap, that person is still there, and might even want to hang out with me again. Someday."
Anthony Sansone, a new father at 42, works as a technical writer for a software company in Chicago. When his daughter was born two months ago, he and his wife instituted a veritable regime of online behavior designed to share their family's highlights while preserving their daughter's privacy.
"We try not to publicly identify her by name on Facebook and other public stuff like that," says Mr. Sansone. "It came from a combination of things. People who don't want to have their kids bothered give them pseudonyms online. I'm not proclaiming myself to be famous, but people do hassle me online. We've used her name once or twice online, but otherwise we refer to her as 'Kick,' which gives her some anonymity. She can always claim it wasn't her. She could lie and say it's a younger sister."
Kick's adventures go out to a select group of the family's Facebook friends. "I created a group that's friends who are parents and most of the stuff is posted to that group," says Sansone. "They get it. And they might be able to throw out a comment that would be helpful."
"We're also aiming not to annoy people," he adds. He and his wife tried unsuccessfully to have a child for six years. During that time, "it was horribly painful to see anybody else put pictures of their kids online. We didn't say anything at the time, because they have the right to do what they want to. But we were both very sensitive on the topic."
I asked Sansone about the idea of Facebook as baby book – a repository for memories of the present, preserved for the future. He says he's put off by Facebook's proprietary approach to user-generated content. Instead, most of tomorrow's memories are being banked in file storage services such as Dropbox and Flickr – and in his daughter's e-mail address, which he obtained and "locked down six ways to Sunday."
"I write her an email every night, just saying how she was that day, what she did, what we did," he says. "Sometimes we get into family history. That way when she gets older, we can just turn over the keys to her and say: 'You want to know what you were like? And what we were like? And what the family's about? Here, you can read this.' I started about a month before she was born.”