When we had our babies we would often have people ask us to post (lots of) pictures of them babies’ “cute faces” on our Facebook profile pages. We have so far resisted doing so and, though (the rare barb notwithstanding) over time most people have come to tolerate, accept or embrace the fact that we don’t and some even celebrate our self-evident choice, we know some people still wonder why the peculiar decision and so wish to share our reasons. At least, this is my articulation of them; Dan has his own :)
After choosing to keep our pregnancy (especially the twin part!) relatively private – a story for another day – we had initially assumed that we would share our little ones with the world in the usual way once they arrived. Particularly with Dan entering public office, we expected all our lives to become quite public.
This assumption was rudely interrupted by an NPR interview which made the case for parents to be more intentional about preserving and protecting the privacy of their kids, with a view to the future world they are going to live in and how what we share about them may be fodder for everything from businesses to college application reviewers.
The case is simple. We, as parents, got to construct our own digital footprint and largely choose our virtual persona (that is, who we would be on social media based on how we wanted to be perceived by others). For many of us, it wasn’t all deliberate or based on fully conscious, voluntary and informed consent but we still got to exercise a significant degree of volition.
Our children’s generation will not be so lucky; yet their lives will be governed by big data and their digital footprint much more than ours. Hence, even though they will have much less choice (and in many cases absolutely none) the stakes for them of that “choice” are all the greater.
This fascinating segment took me way back… Over a decade ago, I chose to replace one of my undergraduate courses with a supervised independent research study in sociolinguistics, on gender as represented in computer mediated communication (CMC). This was in the early days when many people thought that CMC would largely displace face-to-face communication (FTFC) or, at least, break with it and become independent of it. What I found was that this was not at all the case. CMC replicated many of the patterns (and prejudices) of FTFC. The anonymity it offered even heightened the same. In cyber psychology this is known as the online dis-inhibition effect produced by anonymity and the lack of visual cues etc. when using technology (see Mary Aiken’s The Cyber Effect).
That was just in the day of chat rooms and listservs. Even then people typically used CMC in a way that built upon and sought to integrate or entwine it with their FTF existence. With the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, we now know that people’s lives are lived, and identities built, often almost seamlessly, across platforms. Our FTF realities are largely performed, reproduced and enhanced or magnified online.
Increasingly, such expressions of “who we are” are being purchased and used by all kinds of entities – marketers, potential employers, insurance companies, and government agencies such as law enforcement. As multiple educators have discovered, an offhand remark made to your “friend” universe can lose you your job by someone simply taking a screenshot and sharing it.
So what does this all have to do with our kids?
We want them to get to make their own choices, just as we were able to make ours. Rather than hand them a ready-made digital footprint and online persona built of thousands of photos, stories and impressions of “who they are” (as we, their parents, perceive them) even before they can talk, we want them to get to construct that story and identity for themselves as and when they choose, once they are able.
That is the privacy case. But I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy. For instance, when is blogging about experiences we have with our kids building their online identities over our own? Assuming that front-facing pictures and intimate details of their lives are out of bounds, we apply the test of trying to tell our story as parents and not the stories of our children. There’s plenty of grey to be found there but our intention is to make the effort.
And there has been an interesting (if unanticipated) benefit to our doing so.
How many of us now see the world in social media “value” terms? “That’d make a great profile picture!”, “That’ll get, like, a million likes!”, “Oh, what [my baby] said/did is so cute/ridiculous/cool/awesome… I’ve got to share that!” …
What social media didn’t witness didn’t happen … Or so it sometimes feels.
For us, the unexpected blessing of the choice not to share their lives has been to resist the tyranny of the online stage over how we see, experience and value “real life” (by which I mean our embodied experiences in the material world). With this, we are better able to suppress the urge to perform our babies’ coming into our life, at a time especially when performance is so strongly demanded because political candidates are no longer simply required to show that they are competent but package and present their whole lives for the public on social media to appreciate and approve… or not.
Instead of building a public record of their lives, for our babies, we are building a private one that is governed only by the dictates of what we deem to be important to preserve for them. Not having to think about how we should and will present them to the world, we (mostly) only think of what is important to collect for them and try to remember ourselves.
More importantly, without snapping any pictures for Instagram or experiencing that sinking feeling of disappointment when something spectacular happens and we didn’t catch it on camera to share with the virtual world, we are (mostly) enjoying just being in the moment.
And we are delighted to think that we might also be giving our kiddos the gift of childhood: the innocence of not knowing that there’s a social world out there that is watching and may be judging one’s every move. For isn’t the definition of childhood the freedom to “just be”? Is not the moment we become more concerned about social propriety than about the sheer joy that is to be discovered in every morsel of life the very moment we cease to be children?
All that said, we do not judge anyone who chooses to do differently. We are just choosing to do things in a way that feels right for our family at this time (who knows, our decision may change one day?!). So, to those of you who are happy sharers, please share away!