One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts a frazzled-looking man at a computer saying to his wife, who is calling him to bed, “One minute, I have to correct a mistake on the Internet.” I sometimes think the very act of reading, browsing, or “surfing” the Internet is motivated by the wish to feel indignant about something. These moments of indignation are a bit like some bodily function one should aspire to not do in public. Nevertheless, there is something so perverse about the recent article in Slate encouraging parents to abstain from posting photographs of their children on the Internet, that I want to offer my one cent.
But first, kudos to Slate and its editors for further refining one of the great behaviorist experiments of our era — the quest to provoke parents to cry out. Whether it’s caused by outrage, shame, grief, or hilarity does not matter. Agitating parents is the marketing tool of the current Internet age, our great advancement from cat videos.
The article argues against putting a child’s picture online. At first glance, I am sympathetic to this. I feel I probably should not be putting any photographs of my kid online. The reasons for feeling this way are ones I don’t even want to examine too closely or articulate. Suffice it to say that if you let every gruesome, paranoid thought that crosses your mind — such as, to take some far-fetched example, the idea that every single thing you say or write is recorded and retrievable without your knowing it — influence your behavior, then, as we used say, “The terrorists have won.”
My own rationalizations on this matter are especially nonsensical — if you wanted to show people pictures of your kids, but wanted to prevent absolutely anyone from seeing them, the place to do this is presumably Facebook, with its privacy options. Facebook is the hub of kid pictures on the Internet. What I have decided to do is never post pictures of my kids to Facebook but include them sometimes in my blog posts about family life, which are web pages that are out on the veld, unprotected and available for any searcher, or indexing bot, to see. My reason for this, if you can call it a reason, is that I came late to Facebook and feel resentful of its appropriation of the word “Friend.” I refuse to take this word seriously in the Facebook context because I take it seriously in that other context. The one which I want to call “real life.”
But we know this is a false dichotomy — our Internet activities are very much part of our real lives. The question Amy Webb poses on Slate is to what extent this should be equally true in reverse — how much of our real life should be on the Internet? This takes us straight to the realest part of our real lives, our children. She has opted out of posting pics of her child to the Internet — she speaks of this mostly in terms of Facebook, but it applies across the board — and she goes into the detail not just of the why, but also the how. This is where things get weird.
She speaks of creating a “digital trust” for her child. She does not say “Digital Trust Fund,” but that is the implication. She and her husband planned it out before the birth. Their research was intended to create and stake out a digital identity for their child that would belong entirely to the kid. The research influenced their choice of name — it was taken into account. A website used by people seeking to establish brands was consulted. Once the name was decided on, Gmail accounts were created, along with accounts on all the familiar social networks. The goal, it becomes clear, is not to protect the child’s privacy, but to give her, as a kind if inheritance, a digital “identity.” In other words, the kid is going to be positioned to be a unique brand if and when she should decide to sell herself as one.
There is a remarkable amount of faith and naiveté in the assumption that a Twitter or Facebook account will have the same value in eighteen, or even eight years, as they do today. Whether or not they do, I found this kind of touching and hopeful and real in the way many things we do for our children are kind of batty. I may rush off and reserve some CB radio handles for my kids right now.
What is hilarious and sad about the piece is the earnest business advice being offered in the guise of protecting a child.
“A Man’s life is not a business!” laments Herzog in Saul Bellow’s novel of the same name. I have always obsessed over this remark, in part because of how true it is, and in part because if you are a writer — as I am, and as Bellow obviously was — this is also a false statement. To the extent that your life influences your work, and your work is your business, these categories are confused. Testimony to this can be found in the memoirs of the children of writers like John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, William Styron, and Bellow himself. Herzog’s lament is an Eisenhower-era lament. He is upset about changes in the tax code.
In our era today, this distinction has become ever more blurred. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision established that, regardless of Herzog’s lament for the division between the act of selling and a person’s soul, businesses are people, too. Wackadoo Wackadoo Wackadoo. (I was once an audience member on this show and I looked, in clothes and haircut, more or less exactly like all the kids in the audience.)
I would never try and persuade someone to put photographs of their children online, or to participate in social media (just think of how many people do not!). But Webb’s argument against doing this seems a bit perverse. You could just as accurately title the piece, “How to Sell Your Babies Before They Are Even Born!”