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 newsfeed 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.)
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The tool's 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. Several blogs confirmed the problem: New parents were over-sharing 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 (Computer-Supported Cooperative Work), 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 or not a post gets top billing.