Saturday, September 13, 2008

I'll Have My People Call Your People

This weekend the New York Times explains in "Twittering from the Cradle" that some parents are actually maintaining updates on social network sites that are designed for babies and toddlers on places like Kidmondo and Totspot. Many things in the story are clearly designed to shock traditionalists and to activate fears that children's privacy is being violated, that cloud computing is a lousy place for keepsakes, or that social network sites are forcing the young to grow up far too soon.

But the thing that I find most disturbing about this story, as a rhetorician, is the way that these parents are appropriating their kids' voices and speaking as if the children are the ones recording the events in their own lives. One parent even expresses the fallacy that a child would want to pick up seemlessly from the discourse of the parent: 'Knowing his daddy, it won’t be long before he’s blogging about himself anyway,' she said." And clearly even the parents that who claim that their kids love such sites are missing the fact that their offspring are expressing concerns about questions of self-representation:

Daniel Hallac and his wife Carole, co-founders of Kidmondo, believe that someday children themselves will go to the site. “Our son Shaun is only a year and a half so he’s not all that interested yet,” Mr. Hallac said. “But we have a page on our site for our older son Davide, who is 6. He checks up on it a lot and loves to read his story. Sometimes he’ll say something like ‘How come you didn’t write about my baseball game yesterday?’”

On the other hand, as someone who utterly failed to keep a physical baby book for my own two children, despite my very best intentions, I can actually understand the appeal of a virtual one. I've never been very good at the material culture of print literacy, whether it involves keeping a longhand journal or sending thank you notes with stamps or filling in the spaces to balance my checkbook, so for me computer-mediated communication has been a godsend.

The baby book my mother kept about me used a standard template with none of the DIY charm (or insane investment of time) that I associate with the current scrapbooking movement. But the existence of this artifact does give her a sense of remembering time in her life that would otherwise be lost in a fog of sleep deprivation, and it gives me minute information about my growth and development that is useful for understanding my own children's milestones. In particular, I was impressed by her conscientious recording of the catalog of words that I uttered at different ages and how that list reflects where my own weird personal lexicon began.

Yet I will also confess to looking at my baby book and seeing a person I don't recognize: someone cute rather than critical, someone precocious rather than slow to judge, someone who wins prizes rather than gives them to others. Perhaps this person is someone that certain kinds of parents might wish for a child to remain rather than enter the perpetual adolescence in which we all eventually find ourselves.

Given my own experiences, I wonder how the children in this article will look back at their electronic baby books in time.

Thanks to Elayne Zalis for the link.

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