"When do you become a brand?" asks Darren Rovell in a Wednesday trend story for New York. "Some people say it's for people who achieved something. I would argue that in some sense you become a brand the second you're born." As someone who has lived four decades and is fully confident she still doesn't qualify as a "brand," I would argue, whaaaa? But Rovell, an ESPN sports business reporter, ABC News correspondent and NY mag-described "media elite," clearly knows about branding. And so does his 18-month-old daughter.
Along with a handful of other self-aware, social media-savvy public figures, Rovell has already begun managing his child's online persona. "Before I announced her name to the select people — before maybe it could get out — I locked down her name at Gmail, her dot-com, her Twitter handle," he explains warmly. "It was just an intellectual capital investment." It's a sentiment ABC Nightline anchor Dan Abrams echoes. "At first we thought it would be nice for him to own the URL for his name and his Twitter handle," he says of his 1-year-old's account. "Then we got carried away and started tweeting sometimes inane stuff including at other babies." And 2-week-old Harper, the daughter of journalists Jenna Wolfe and Stephanie Gosk, already has over 6,000 Twitter followers tracking her defecatory habits. (Sample post: "Pooped AND pee'd on Dr's changing table. Everyone laughed. Will have to try that again tmrw at home.")
A piece on a few personalities fancifully sharing their babies' lives may seem little more than a roundup of something the media elite do to pass the time while they're in the makeup chair. But as anyone with a social media stream can attest, parents are putting words in their baby's mouths all over the damn place. Like you, I know plenty of families with Facebook accounts, blogs and Instagrams just for their kids. And behold the most popular, greatest post ever on STFU, Parents, the shudderingly self-explanatory "Hi Mommy!! You're pretty!!" It's like one day we all woke up in a mass version of "Look Who's Talking."
It's easy enough for those of us who don't wish to be privy to the imagined musings of other people's babies to avoid them. Yet the fact that they're so prevalent bears examination – of both the cutthroat online land grab mentality and the perils of sheer parental ego. Sure, there may be future value in "locking down" a domain or handle for one's offspring, in staking some Internet real estate for future use. I have pals in the tech world who'd secured their children's domains when the kids were still zygotes. But the frantic sense that one must, just as one must get a tutor to get on the right private preschool track, speaks to the most hypercompetitive aspects of modern parenting. Oh, your baby doesn't have a Web page yet? She probably isn't reading in French yet either, I suppose. You know, by the time she's 2, all the good Twitter handles are going to be gone, just like all the spots at Camp Matoaka. All I'm saying is, there are greater shames in life than having a child whose "brand" is tainted by email address like Olivia5687. Let it go.
More troubling, though, is the increasingly widespread assumption that one's children are, from the womb, part of one's own public persona, there for the entertainment of the world. People make funny accounts for their cats too but guess what? Your cat isn't your child. And your child is not your witty accessory. Your cat isn't going to grow up to someday articulate her own thoughts and feelings. Tiny and gurgling and full of poo though your baby may be, that child is still an individual, distinct from you. So why start the kid out in life as your clever punch line? Why, furthermore, confine the kid to a sandbox of your creating?
I have an acquaintance who began blogging on his daughter's behalf before she was even born. As she grew, he moved on from posting her adorable quotes to letting her take over the accounts he'd created for her. She is now a teenager and thoroughly unbearable. Granted, being unbearable is a pretty common adolescent trait. But this young person who's grown up assuming she was a minor Internet celebrity now lives like one, with no life experience un-tweeted and un-Instagrammed -- a girl who treats the relative coolness of her chai teas as newsworthy dispatches. And what makes me sad for her is that she's had so little chance in her short life to suss out for herself what she really wants to share, when so much has been shared for her, and for so long.
On the other end of the sharing spectrum, Slate writer Amy Webb on Wednesday wrote a provocative piece on how "We Post Nothing About Our Daughter Online." In it, she explains that before the child was born, she and her husband "spent several hours registering her URL and a vast array of social media sites" including Facebook and Twitter, but that they are keeping these private until "she's mature enough" for them. They've done it, she says, to avoid "robbing her of a digital adulthood that’s free of bias and presupposition."
My own daughters, aged 13 and 9, came into the world before much of the social media sites their parents now regularly use even existed. As they've grown, I've helped them to negotiate the online basics of setting up email accounts, or joining the sites that interest them and are appropriate for their ages. But in my own travels, I try to be circumspect about their personal lives, and I generally stay out of the spaces that are theirs. I consult with them before I write about them, and I don't post their photographs.
Our kids are so profoundly a part of our lives, it's nearly impossible to share our own experiences without making them part of the narrative. I fully get that. And I am happy to share in the joys of dance recitals and family vacations. But I don't want to watch a whole generation grow up with the unasked-for burden of being the stars of their parents' online reality shows. Instead, I want them to enjoy that rarest of 21st century commodities – privacy – for as long as possible.