In 2012, thousands of beleaguered Facebook users sick of baby pictures found their tonic: an extension for Google’s Chrome browser called UnBaby.me. The technology scanned a user’s news feed for the sort of phrase that might accompany a photo of a baby. And shazam! The annoying cherub under the caption “Little pumpkin’s first birthday!” was magically replaced with Benedict Cumberbatch or animals wearing clothes or Justin Bieber’s mug shot.
Dozens of media outlets, including Slate, covered the launch. The tool won a 2013 Webby Award and now boasts some 200,000 users. In a post titled “Thank God for Unbaby.me,” a Vice blogger’s only complaint was that he couldn’t replace baby pictures with porn. (Unbaby.me has since given birth to Rather, which allows you to replace anything you hate on social media with something you’d rather see. Given Facebook’s posting policies, porn is probably still not an option.)
Unbaby.me co-creator Chris Baker had been baffled by what he perceived as an onslaught of baby pics in his Facebook feed. “It’s like a certain part of the brain gets activated where they feel this crushing desire to share with the world their little creations,” he told the New York Times. Blogs like STFU Parents confirmed the problem: New parents were oversharing on social media, and their childless friends had had it.
But a new study suggests that a Facebook algorithm, not new parents, may be to blame. The research, published this month in the Proceedings of CSCW, is based on surveys from 412 new mothers as well as the content of many of their Facebook timelines. The paper concludes that mothers of young children post to Facebook far less often than they did before their child’s birth, and much of what they do post doesn’t refer to the child. Plus, the proportion of posts mentioning the baby drops off sharply after the first month, continuing to fall as the kid ages.
“I think there’s a sense in the popular media that it’s just all babies, babies, babies,” says computer scientist Meredith Ringel Morris, the study’s author and the mother of two young children. “But, in fact, posting about the baby is only a relatively small portion of what mothers are doing.”
Morris found that the baby posts new moms do put on Facebook tend to get many more “likes” and comments than other posts (presumably not from “friends” who’ve subbed in a cat photo). While Facebook is cagey about its algorithms, Morris believes that popularity is almost certainly a factor in whether a post gets top billing.
“As an educated guess, the more likes and comments a post gathers, the higher probability there is that that post will appear in other people’s news feeds,” she says. So even Facebook users who couldn’t care less about the trials of potty training get to hear all about it anyway.
The study has its shortcomings. Dads aren’t included; affluent, white women are overrepresented. To identify baby-related posts, Morris simply tracked mentions of the child’s name. (I’m a new mom myself, and I often post stuff about my kid without using his name.) But it’s the first study into how mothers of young children use social media. Even with its limitations, Morris’ research suggests that new moms are not as overbearing as popular culture seems to believe—at least not on Facebook.