“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.