Recently, Meredith Ringel Morris—a computer scientist at Microsoft Research—gathered data on what new moms actually do online. She persuaded more than 200 of them to let her scrape their Facebook accounts and found the precise opposite of the UnBaby.Me libel. After a child is born, Morris discovered, new mothers post less than half as often. When they do post, fewer than 30 percent of the updates mention the baby by name early on, plummeting to not quite 10 percent by the end of the first year. Photos grow as a chunk of all postings, sure—but since new moms are so much less active on Facebook, it hardly matters. New moms aren’t oversharers. Indeed, they’re probably undersharers. “The total quantity of Facebook posting is lower,” Morris says.
And therein lies an interesting lesson about our supposed age of oversharing. If new moms don’t actually deluge the Internet with baby talk, why does it seem to so many of us that they do? Morris thinks algorithms explain some of it. Her research also found that viewers disproportionately “like” postings that mention new babies. This, she says, could result in Facebook ranking those postings more prominently in the News Feed, making mothers look more baby-obsessed.
And a reminder of how we could see beyond our personal experiences and anecdotes and look at the bigger picture:
I have another theory: It’s a perceptual quirk called a frequency illusion. Once we notice something that annoys or surprises or pleases us—or something that’s just novel—we tend to suddenly notice it more. We overweight its frequency in everyday life. For instance, if you’ve decided that fedoras are a ridiculous hipster fashion choice, even if they’re comparatively rare in everyday life, you’re more likely to notice them. And pretty soon you’re wondering, why is everyone wearing fedoras now? Curse you, hipsters!…
The way we observe the world is deeply unstatistical, which is why Morris’ work is so useful. It reminds us of the value of observing the world around us like a scientist—to see what’s actually going on instead of what just happens to gall (or please) us. I’d hazard that perceptual illusions lead us to overamplify the incidence of all sorts of ostensibly annoying behavior: selfies on Instagram, people ignoring one another in favor of their phones, Google Glass. We don’t have a plague of oversharing. We have a plague of over-noticing. It’s time to reboot our eyes.
This study suggests the mothers themselves are not at fault but the flip side of this study would seem to be to then study the news feeds of friends of new mothers to see how often these pictures and posts show up (and how algorithms might be pushing this). And who are the people more likely to like such posts and pictures? This study may have revealed the supply side of the equation but there is more to explore.