Baby Photos and Clinging to My Principles

By Alexis C. Madrigal

I had a strict rule when our son was born last summer: I wouldn't post any photos of him in public settings. 

It made sense to me at the time. I live a pretty public life, and the decision to keep him off my Twitter feed and this space felt like asserting that I had a right to privacy. Really, I'd already been in the digital media game for so long that I needed to give permission to myself not to share. Living an intellectual life online, sharing becomes the default. Do thing, share thing. 

But everything about my wife's pregnancy and then the birth of our child did not feel like a part of the digital realm. No experience has ever grounded me more in the physical fact of our existence than watching the kid grow from a finger of a fetus into the baby that emerged in August, and then onward as he's grown up and looked out.

He has to learn every single physical thing. The thought that circles my brain as I watch him squat and stand and clap and wave is that there are so many ways to not walk and yet almost all kids converge on the same locomotive solution eventually. It's such a fascinating lesson in humanness, all these people walking and no one thinking anything about the fact that we're all doing it the same way. It's not exactly that we're all born the same, but rather, given the basic constraints of the human form and the dictates of physical reality and the modern world, we all must figure out how to walk, and we do. 

So, hurrah for physicality, for bodies in space. That's been one lesson of this first year.

Hurrah for closed social networks, too. The grandparents get the full, raw feed. And for friends, I feel comfortable (or a reasonable facsimile of comfortable) sharing on Instagram because I know every single person who follows me there. And it's 400 people instead of thousands: more than Dunbar's number, but easy enough to imagine as a global village.

Everything's good, then. Baby O suddenly has toddler written all over him. He's healthy and he has very sparkly eyes that he flashes at grandmas in the street until they come over and start blowing him kisses and cooing. He loves dogs. A lot. Especially golden retrievers. And some days, all it takes to make him happy is to let him parade through the streets of Oakland holding not one but two pinwheels, spinning gently in the breeze. One time he even slept through the night. And we have a great record of this adventure of coming to know our child, shared with only a select group of people, people we know care about him. 

And yet. Some part of me feels like I really want to share him—or his digital representation, at least—with the broader world. 

For one, he is so damn cute. You should see the little curls he's developed behind his ears... [parental fawning] ...

I spared you that paragraph. But he really is. But also, over the years—and it is many years now, on Twitter—I've built a kind of connection that's hard to define. It's a long-term loose tie. I know thousands of people by their work or a few nice exchanges we had one time about food carts or geology or tensile strength or water heaters or HTML. And I've learned so much from these people, been pointed to so many interesting resources, peeked in on so many different lives and minds.

It's not as Dave Eggers would have it in his book The Circle that "Not sharing is stealing." It's not exactly Fear of Missing Out. It's something more subtle: the dawning realization not that my relationships with these invisible figures don't exist or aren't important, but that they do and are. It's not a particular person, but all the people put together, the melange, who can deliver thoughts from outside the temporal, geographic, demographic, and work bubbles in which I exist. 

When I used to see parents post photographs of their babies on Twitter, I'd cringe, imagining the facial recognition algorithms as laser beams scanning their child's still unformed features. Now, I'm like, "Awwwww"—not just because all kids are now cute to me and this is a legally required reaction—but because I'm jealous that they feel comfortable popping the kid out there. 

It's almost the same feeling I get when two kids are doing something in a park that may or may not be very mildly dangerous. Do you want to be the twitchy, hovery parent who is narrating possible disaster—"Watch out honey! Hey, that can tip! Don't touch that! It's heavy!"—or do you want to be the parent who is clearly optimizing for risk-tolerance, sitting there on the grass, cool and French-like, watchful but with a wide behavioral envelope. 

I'd like to imagine I'm closer to the latter, but I am almost certainly near the caricature of the former. And so it goes with baby photos. Whatever minor risk it represents to post pictures of O on Twitter wins out over my desire to tap the network's edges. 

Recently, I've gotten up close to the line. I post observations about him. Or I have even posted a photo or two, but cropped so as to leave out his face. And that feels like enough for now. But who knows if that'll change. If there's anything I've learned in 10 months of fatherhood, it's that the principles I held so dearly before I was a dad require new kinds of flexibility. Pragmatism is the rule.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/baby-photos-and-clinging-to-my-principles/374679/