"Babies are brilliant!": what's behind the increasing trend of social media baby bragging?

Why do we feel the need to "share" pictures of children for others to gawp at on social media? Lulu Le Vay argues that there's more to this smug hollering about our reproductive successes than meets the eye.

"Babies are brilliant!" screeches the Facebook status update of a suspiciously over-enthusiastic new mother. This woman is, by my own click-of-acceptance, a member of my online social circle - an ex-colleague from a decade ago. Attached to this slightly manic declaration is a gurgling grinning small bald human being. The sex of this generic-looking subject seems to be irrelevant. It also doesn’t appear to have a name.

Babies being "brilliant" in the context of this statement seems to be referring to all babies ever born. And not about this particular child in question. There was a moment when I started to suspect a pro-life subtext hidden beneath what would initially appear an innocent sharing of a mother’s pride. A form of subtle family propaganda. With the internet, surely anything is possible.

Paranoid conspiracy theories aside, this woman, evidently, isn’t the only person on Facebook who thinks "babies are brilliant!". Our news feeds are flooded with photos of our "friends'" gorgeous little sprogs. We are able to share in the social mediated flow of their offspring’s development - from seeing them fresh and wrinkly straight out of the oven and embarking on their first crawl, through to their fancy dress party debut. And so it continues. Now, even foetal scans are starting to make a regular appearance. What’s next? Front row seats to the act of conception? And how can we omit the status updates that guide us through the exploding nappies, baby pukes and debut potty poops, which the majority of us have no interest in whatsoever? Don’t get me wrong, we wish these young families well, but really, is there nothing else to talk about? I’m not a baby hater. I like them. And they like me. In the real world I’m the first to grab one for a cuddle. With parental permission, that is.

These brilliant babies, these symbolic objects - and all of their actions - are  hoisted up online, shoved in our Facebook faces, whether we like it or not. Social media news portal Mashable ranked gurgling baby pics and the associated running commentary as the most annoying Facebook update out of their 20 Things Your Annoying Friends Do On Facebook article, which has now motivated 25k shares. And this swelling irritant hasn’t gone without provoking some digital revolt. Last year New York writer and internet enthusiast Chris Baker created Webby winner Unbaby.me, a browser extension for Facebook that replaces your friends’ baby snaps with more digestible images such as puppies or slices of bacon. A digital countercultural solution to the baby photo epidemic has arrived, to unanimous media and punter applause. Since its launch the site has received surging global press coverage; 105k Facebook "likes"; 10 million website hits, and most significantly, over 3.3 million (and rapidly growing) pictures of babies have now been replaced. A nappy slapping backlash is on the rise. And last week Baker launched Unwhatever.me, to eradicate all the other annoying updates that make you want to throw your laptop out of the window. 

But why the need to post up baby pictures in the first place? There have been a number of sociological studies of Facebook users’ behavioural patterns. Some show that those with low self-esteem "feel better" with a boost to one’s self-worth, through the lens of self-affirmation theory - which does-what-it-says-on-the-academic-tin - when they project, via their status updates and Facebook profile, carefully curated snapshots of their lives. "Status" is updated not just online, but on the social hierarchical ladder. Those too-cute-to-possibly-be-true kiddie pics and blemish-free images of family life ("Look at us! We’re on a picnic and although we really want to smother our kids’ faces in coleslaw and leave them behind, we’re having the best time ever! Yay!") gives the individual validation of their life choices, thus making them feel more at ease in their offline world, nested safely within the comfy folds of societal norms.

Other studies argue that the more time spent "sharing" and exploring (cough, stalking) other people’s Facebook profiles and status updates can lead to decreased feelings of self-worth, particularly among women. So herein lies another concern. The haves and the havenots. The mums and the mumsnot. The smug hollering of updates such as "babies are brilliant!" that echo across one’s online social circle could be considered nothing short of cyber bullying towards those in the so-called "friendship" network who might be unhappily childless, or struggling to cope with parental pressures. As if Mumsnet wasn’t doing enough of that already.

Baby bragging, it thus appears, is big in the Facebook world - a world that now boasts 1.1 billion members who exhaust a minimum of 700 minutes on it per month. People are pushing their baby shaped valued objects - one’s social and symbolic capital (we can thank the media coverage of celebrity parents and their spawn for this) - by holding up their little pukey, pooey treasures to their online network for what they hope will receive a flurry of "likes" and a bubbling stream of positive comments; online fuel to the stoke those needy flames of self-affirmation.

In the digital world - so instant and accessible - we can’t help but show off. We use symbols of societal value (if not babies, then holidays, posh dinners, engagement rings, sporting updates, body shots - none of us are exempt) to assert a power over others; to seek legitimization by our peer groups.

Whatever academic theories there are available to try and make sense of all of this, this interaction with the online social world is simply yet another aspect of modern life which is becoming increasingly disturbing.

Babies become symbolic objects, and sharing photos of them is a way of projecting a version of your life. Photo: Getty

Lulu LeVay is a sociologist, feminist, writer, DJ and fitness fanatic.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear