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By September 26, 2012 One Comment
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I’m going to admit something that’s probably unfashionable for an English professor: I actually like Facebook.

I’ve heard all the critiques—and understand and even agree with some of them. But as someone who moved nine times growing up (and a couple of times as an adult too), I also really appreciate being able to re/connect and keep up with people I’ve known across the years: friends and colleagues and former students and even the random acquaintance. I get a kick out of the haphazard jumble of wall postings—youtube and random news articles and recipes and assorted memes.  Maybe I just have a great group of friends (and I do), but I delight in hearing about shows people are acting in, places people are visiting, and meals they are eating.

And yes, I even like seeing pictures of people’s children.

This last admission doesn’t seem like it would be terribly controversial—indeed, it seems positively innocuous. But of late, it seems like baby pictures have become quite the site of contention. Recently, in the Financial Times magazine, Katie Roiphe, for example, was gravely worried about what she sees as a trend of women using photographs of their children for their own status pictures. Women, Roiphe argues, are “erasing” themselves for their children—an erasure which she sees as emblematic of a larger trend of a generation of overly invested parents who, she finds, are far too worshipful of their children.  She argues,

But this particular form of narcissism, these cherubs trotted out to create a picture of self, is to me more disturbing for the truth it tells. The subliminal equation is clear: I am my children…. Part of what is disturbing about this substitution is how clearly and deliberately it subverts that purpose: this generation leaches itself of sexuality by putting the innocent face of a child in the place of an attractive mother. It telegraphs a discomfort with even a minimal level of vanity. Like wearing sneakers every day or forgetting to cut your hair, it is a way of being dowdy and invisible, and it mirrors a certain mummy culture in which it’s almost a point of pride how little remains of the healthy, worldly, engaged and preening self.  What if Facebook pages are only the beginning? What if passports and driver’s licences are next? What if suddenly the faces of a generation were to disappear, and in their places were beaming toddlers? Who will mourn these vanished ladies, and when will Betty Friedan rest in peace?

Wow—we’re disappointing Betty Friedan and everything.  Who knew? I teach 19th century British literature, so I know me some angels in the house. Not sure this is the same thing.  And I’m not sure either if I’m bothered that my friends are uncomfortable with “even a minimal level of vanity” and are not embracing their “preening sel[ves].” Isn’t that a good thing? One wonders what Roiphe would make of folks whose status picture is a flower or a piece of art or a landscape?

Or for that matter, a snapshot of a pet.  I know I have been guilty of said transgression.  But it turns out that that’s still nowhere nearly as horrific as baby pictures.  In fact, you may have heard (the news has been all over, including in the New York Times) about a new extension for Google’s Chrome browser called Unbaby.me which changes all pictures of babies in your newsfeed to pictures of cats—or dogs or bacon or rainbows or whatever you choose instead.

Has it really come to this?  Have I missed the coercion that is forcing folks to look at pictures of their supposed friends’ children?  Is an irresistible force compelling the hands of all of us to click through to every facebook album?  I understand the implicit critique of an overly infantilized culture, but isn’t it equally immature to only want to see what we want to see?  

A program like Unbaby.me plays into our deepest fantasies of control: if only the world looked like how I wanted it to look.  If only I could block out that annoying person I have to work with, worship with.  If only I could substitute songs I want to sing and in a genre I want to sing them in at church.  Is there an app for that?

One of the great Christian buzzwords of our times is “community.”  It appears we want community, but secretly only in our own super-customizable way.  We want the “friends,” but we don’t really want to know them or their embarrassing predilections: if only our friends weren’t so interested in their children or their dogs or their (say it with me: wrong) politics or their favorite sports team?  Why aren’t they more like us?

Nope, we’d rather just see bacon.  

The way we behave in virtual environments tells us more about ourselves than we’d probably like to acknowledge.  Our impulse to remake the world in our own image, to only hear the things we want to hear, to avoid seeing anything we don’t like is, frankly, deeply fallen.  This isn’t news, but maybe we need a reminder: whether online or in “real time,” the challenge to build community, to fully live into a covenant with one another, is the same–to move beyond statuses and superficialities and to begin to know each other, especially in our annoyances and imperfections.  

Even if we like baby pictures.  

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

One Comment

  • sivvy says:

    I think Unbaby.me is pretty funny and downright tempting, even though I don't like bacon. I would like to follow Katie Roipe's extreme imaginations and have my pet photo on my passport.
    I appreciated the kitty pic to accompany your blog instead of a baby pic. That, coupled with your first paragraph, made me read on. As far as the rest of it, sure!

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