It’s rare, in 2018, to be on the internet for even a few hours without encountering some new sign or screed that social media will bring about the end of days. If it’s not Facebook’s crypto-fascist surveillance or some onslught of selfies, then it’s my old co-worker inviting me to a Facebook live stream to hear more about her multi-level marketing business selling nail appliqués that look like sushi. Or it’s 4chan. Whatever the culprit, there are now so many omens and think pieces about the offensive emptiness of our 21st century digital presences that I’d actually be more interested in someone plumbing the unseen meaning of using the puppy filter or watching girls with lip injections fix their hair on Instagram live than hear one more person complain about them.
But you can’t always get what you want. This week, the internet aimed its ire at a new target: a recent, since-archived Instagram post from the “lifestyle bloggers” behind the home-renovation-slash-family-website BowerPowerBlog.com. The photo and its caption are worth a second look, in part because it’s rare that anything lays bare the spectacular nullity of late-capitalist life so neatly. But also because they crystallize some of the moral questions undergirding our culture’s impulse toward constant online sharing.
Bower Power is the brainchild of a metro-Atlanta mother, Katie Bower, her husband, Jeremy Bower, and their five kids. The website—a sleek minimalist template devoted to decorating the family’s two houses and celebrating age milestones of their picturesque, homeschooled children—touts itself as “the blog about nothing and about everything.” As far as slogans go, Bower Power’s is pretty on the nose. It is the Seinfeld of suburban lifestyle blogging: at once insistently void of conflict, plot, or message, while somehow documenting every aspect of upper-middle class white existence with admirable attention to detail—from tips on carpet removal to DIY faux-wood laminate backsplash instructions to Instagram-inspired Halloween costume ideas—all delivered with the comedic repartee of a quirky shampoo ad.
The website spans several subjects, from decor ideas to DIY hacks to holiday gift guides. But in the background of the Bowers’ quotidian advice on wealthy everyday realities, what emerges is a thorough portrait of their family life. You can see day-by-day posts on the lead-up to Jeremy and Katie’s marriage, the births of their children, meticulous documentation of Lightning-McQueen-themed birthday parties, alongside annual musings on Christmas cards, Christmas presents, and Christmas decorations. It reads almost like the outline of a reality series, if one where wine-glass-throwing gets swapped out for the occasional Christian parable.
One drawback of broadcasting your kids on the internet, it seems, is that it comes with the inevitable responses, or lack thereof, from other users. That appears to be what led the Bowers to upload a photo on Instagram Monday morning, first spotted by Buzzfeed’s Stephanie McNeal, of their second son, whose name has been redacted because he is a minor, on the occasion of his sixth birthday. The caption starts off somewhat standard.
Thankful for [redacted] today. My [redacted] was just the best baby….cuddly and easy...a hard toddler...always on the move and slow to talk which led to lots of crying...and one of the most helpful and sweet hearted little boys. He’s quiet except when he’s not...overflowing with unique personality. He hates the car and is a complete homebody. He loves art and sports and is quick with a joke. He loves organizing and quality time and says one day he is gonna be a daddy to one hundred babies. And when he hugs and kisses you, you believe it. <3 <3 <3.
Then, beneath Bower’s colorful and clearly warm sketch of her son, the post takes a bleak left turn, dissolving into a bizarre jeremiad about how photos of this particular kid get fewer “likes” than those of her other children.
Guys I am gonna be perfectly honest...Instagram never liked my Munchkin and it killed me inside. His photos never got as many likes. Never got comments. From a statistical point of view, he wasn’t as popular with everyone out there.
Bower had some theories about the discrepancy—algorithm bias, middle child syndrome, her failings as a mother, his “squinty eyes”—but she lands on a call to action to her followers: help this kid get more likes.
Maybe part of that was the pictures just never hit the algorithm right. Part might be because he was the baby for a very short amount of time before [another child’s name] came along...and then [another child’s name] and then [another child’s name]. And people like babies. I say all that because I want to believe that it wasn’t him...that it was on me. My insufficiency caused this statistical deficit because obviously my Munch should get ALL the love and squinty eyes are totally adorable. So can we do this right? Because I truly KNOW that my Munch deserves alllllll the likes...whether or not a stranger gives it to them. And on his sixth birthday I am thankful that I know that...that no matter what other people think of me or my kids or my marriage or my house or my life or my everything...that they are 1000000000x better in real life than any tiny little picture could hold.
The post got some positive feedback. Before it was removed, the photo had racked in upwards of 6,000 likes and 500-some comments. But pushback posts followed immediately and, at least as far as algorithms are concerned, far outperformed the original. McNeal’s tweet about the Bower Power photo racked in over 35,000 favorites and nearly 7,000 retweets—enough statistical unpopularity to make Bower reconsider the photo and archive it.
The “mommy blog” is an odd phenomenon and one which, in some ways, ties together so many of the ethical dilemmas of the modern extremely-online age. It is, on the one hand, a somewhat radical way of monetizing motherhood and homemaking—a kind of domestic labor that has, for centuries, gone unpaid and uncelebrated. When Melinda Roberts founded the first mommy blog—called simply “The Mommy Blog”—in 2002, it represented an unusual injection of the domestic, feminine-coded sphere into the previously male-dominated arena of the internet. When Ayelet Waldman wrote her own blog, “Bad Mom,” just two years later, she used motherhood as a storytelling mechanism to address subjects like sexuality, mental illness, and the wracking guilt of not always loving her kids—sentiments that many people, both men and women, had experienced, but few had openly articulated.
But by the late 2000s, mommy blogging had become a booming business, one whose rampant popularity posed questions about the ethics of turning kids into commodities. In an Atlantic article on the genre, Phoebe Maltz Bovy wrote that the problem lay in something she termed “parental overshare.” Parental overshare had become problematic, Bovy argued, because it involved exposing kids’ privacy before they were old enough to understand what that might mean.
“Parental overshare, as I define it, does not refer to parents discussing their kids with friends and family,” she wrote. “Private or anonymous communication doesn’t count, even if in this day and age, everything could theoretically reach a mass audience. Nor does fiction. Two criteria must be present: First, the children need to be identifiable. That does not necessarily mean full names. The author’s full name is plenty, even if the children have a different (i.e. their father’s) last name. Next, there needs to be ambition to reach a mass audience.”
By Bovy’s definition, Bower Power fits the bill. The Bower kids’ lives are documented down to their haircuts, but they don’t fully get why. In a statement to the Daily Beast, Bower wrote that her children “don’t know what social media is,” though they “understand that we do projects and take photos for my job…[and] that we have friends all over the world that we haven’t met yet and that send us Christmas cards.” Even still, the Bower kids have not only reached a mass audience—the blog has over 53,000 followers on Instagram—they have become the fuel in Bower’s campaign to reach an even bigger one.
Bower, on the other hand, maintains that the purpose of her post was not to celebrate analytics as the arbiter of self worth, but to expose their meaninglessness.
“I decided to talk about it because over the years I have learned a valuable lesson...that our value doesn’t depend on someone else seeing our worth,” she told the Daily Beast. “Numbers are public already. Everyone can see the likes and comments. And as a parent, those numbers mean absolutely nothing. Nothing can change the fact that ALL children are special and unique and deserve love. The numbers have zero meaning.”
It’s the business of the thing that’s the problem, she says: “Unfortunately from a business side, we hear ‘keep posting the content that brings in the most engagement,’”—which, as far as analytics are concerned, does not include her second son.
It strikes me as somewhat unlikely that a kid would look back at old pictures of themselves and worry about their online performance. But even if they did, it seems far better to see it for oneself than to realize one’s mother noticed and cared enough to comment on it. Still, in her own weird way, Bower’s commitment to exposing her children equally is somewhat touching, in a grim, dystopian sort of way. “I personally hope my actions show that 1. I am gonna keep posting what I love no matter the numbers,” she wrote to the Daily Beast, “and 2. as a parent we are gonna have to teach our kids that their value isn't in online approval and 3. our real lives are 1000% better than a tiny photo can portray.”