Obsessive photo-sharing isn’t new to the social media world. The instinct has long been there; it’s just that it used to require a lot more overhead.
In the 1970s, for example, there was the post-vacation slide show, in which relatives and friends of the lucky travelers had the bad luck to be buttonholed into two hours of photos with lengthy you-had-to-be-there anecdotes.
Then there was the business-guy-with-pictures-of-his-kids-in-his-wallet, something that ingrained itself in my mind so robustly that to this day I think I should be carrying around physical pictures of my son Thomas (as though I don’t have a small metal-and-glass rectangle that contains more photos of Thomas than existed in the universe before 1900).
Two conflicting impulses drove these behaviors. There was the curation and story-sharing involved in the slide show, a way of presenting to a limited audience something that you had experienced — though the audience had little say in how the story was navigated. And in the case of the wallet, there was the simple joy of keeping a physical reminder of a loved one nearby and having a way, at a moment’s notice, to share that joy with others.
While Instagram in particular is often simply a platform for showing off — not quite to “Nosedive” levels, but often close — it also can be a pleasant middle ground between the impulse to create a slide show and the interest of the audience in perusing one. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are also a way of flipping open your wallet to the world and saying, “Here’s my son Thomas, the person who brings me more happiness than I could ever have imagined.”
Growing up, I found family photos corny and rote. After Thomas, they make more sense: I have this amazing thing, this constantly exceptional person, and I cannot keep him to myself. At work, I created a channel on the messaging application Slack where all I do is share photos and videos of Thomas, splashing my love for him onto everyone around me. But it’s opt-in; neither there nor on Twitter does anyone have to look at him. I’m not sitting them down and forcing them to do so. But I can’t not share my pictures of him.
I do so while cognizant of two concerns.
First, I try to be careful not to share anything that seems goofy or might be embarrassing to him in the future. No diapers, no dumb outfits, no messes. Trying to predict what will eventually embarrass someone else is a fool’s errand, of course, but there are obvious guardrails. I try to avoid those photos that Dads of Old would threaten to show future dates to embarrass their kids. No picture of Thomas with a goofy expression in the bath.
Second, I am careful about not showing where we live. This is an effort to keep Thomas safe, certainly, but it’s also an effort to keep my wife and me safe as well. Part of writing about politics for the “mainstream media” in 2018 is the possibility that those not-infrequent threats could result in an actual attempt at confrontation or violence. Pictures of Thomas are taken indoors or in places either so abstract as to be unidentifiable or so popular that it doesn’t matter. This is probably overly cautious, but that’s the thing about being cautious: It’s only unnecessary until it isn’t.
Where things are tricky isn’t in how I approach sharing images of Thomas but in how others do. While social media allows us to share things easily for others to enjoy, it also allows others to post things that we would rather keep private. An unflattering video shared by a relative. A resurfaced photo of the goofy-expression-in-the-bath nature. Even simply appearing in the background of someone else’s photo. By simply existing, much less by sharing images, we are all subject to being integrated into other people’s online slide shows. We are all one another’s pro-bono paparazzi with all of the positive and negative consequences that implies.
Within our house, we can police this to some extent. We ask people not to tag a location when they are taking pictures of Thomas, but it’s harder to ask them not to post images where he looks goofy. Thomas was born into a world where his image was already mostly out of his control.
You are either within range of other people’s Instragram-connected smartphones or you aren’t. You either go out in public or you don’t. My wife and I can control how we present Thomas to the world, but we can’t control how other people do.
I err on the side of sharing my joy with the world. I am luckier than my father and grandfather in that regard: The world with whom they could share their children was limited to who was in visible range of their wallets. I can share Thomas with the planet.