Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Is it right to decide to make your children famous?

Will Richardson shared numerous thought provoking ideas as well as article and book recommendations in his presentation in Amarillo today, “Learning in a Networked World: For Our Students and For Ourselves.” One of the standouts which I read after his presentation, waiting here in the Amarillo airport for my flight home, is Steven Johnson’s May 2010 article for Time Magazine, “Web Privacy: In Praise of Oversharing.” This is the specific paragraph which really got my attention:

The fascinating and troublesome thing about the valley [the space where online strangers meet via social networking platforms] is that the rules of engagement there are not clearly defined, and it’s likely that they will stay undefined. Some of us talk about our relationships online; some allude to them indirectly; some keep them behind a cone of silence. [Jeff] Jarvis was so eager to blog about his cancer diagnosis that he felt almost restricted when he had to wait for his son to return from camp so he didn’t find out via a tweet that his dad was sick… In our house, we have built a set of improvised rules about how much of family life to make public; I tweet or blog little anecdotes about the kids, but don’t mention them by name. We never post pictures of them, except to our inner circle of friends on Facebook. When they’re old enough for their own Facebook account, we’ll let them decide for themselves how public they want to be with their lives.

I don’t have the definitive answers on this topic, but I certainly have questions. It wasn’t that long ago that we NEVER published any photographs of our kids and family on the public web: All of them were “locked” up on my Mobile Me (then .Mac) website on pages which required a password to access. I emailed out updates to a list of friends and family, with a password they could use to see not only photos but also family videos. Over time, my disclosure of our family’s activities via media has undergone significant changes. Today, I publish most of our personal, family photos to Flickr and occasionally to Facebook. I can point to a specific moment in time when my personal behaviors about sharing family photos changed: It was the “Getting a New Haircut” VoiceThread digital story which I published about our then 3 year old, Rachel. I published that for the first time on August 15, 2007. Since then (at my encouragement and with my support) my kids have gone on to publish a series of cooking videos on YouTube and elsewhere, start their own “iCarly style” webshow, go on Twitter, start a 365 photo project, and present with me at technology conferences at least a few times a year.

One of the questions which Steven Johnson inspires me to ask, after reading his article, is the title of this post: Is it right for me (as a parent) to decide to make my children famous?

Now, “famous” is a relative word. What does it mean to be famous? I continue to be honored and humbled by the fact that lots of people read my blog and follow me on Twitter, but there is a difference between being “famous” on mainstream media and being digitally connected to a lot of people. I’m not a celebrity and neither are my children, and judging by what I’ve heard about “celebrity” (and the limitations it imposes upon your life) I’d say that’s a great thing. However, I’m very aware of the fact that any of us are just a breath away from mainstream media attention. The close-to-home example of 12 year old Greyson Chance provides a case in point. It’s a remarkable and unique situation, to be sure, but still one that happened last year in our hometown. What are the responsibilities of parents in our digital age when it comes to sharing images and/or video and potentially placing members of our families into the spotlight of media attention… Whether that attention is limited to the social media arena or “crosses-over” into the realm of mainstream media? There is not a class on this at our local community college or our church. The “rules” aren’t written. We’re figuring this out as we go along. And I’d like to get it right. I don’t want to mess up. These are important questions and issues, because these are our/my kids and our/my family. I could mess up a lot of things, but I don’t want to mess up on things that could dramatically affect their lives.

This world of “living online” can be crazy. Who would have thought the parent who posted the viral YouTube video “David After Dentist” would quit his job and rake in over $150,000 since January 2009? That father now has a website ( and you can read his story on the site’s “about” page. Are many parents likely to have a YouTube ad revenue windfall come their way because of sharing online media about their kids? No, probably not. But are many parents even thinking or considering what online fame could mean for their family or their child / children? Probably not nearly long enough. (I wrote a bit more about this in April 2010.)

Among other things I shared with educators in Amarillo today, I asked them to write down the statement, “Do not share anything online when you are emotional.” There are so many stories today of people who overshare when they shouldn’t… When they are angry, frustrated, tired, inebriated, or simply not acting thoughtfully. The digital world is increasingly perilous for the impulsive.

Port-42photo © 2007 Victor Bezrukov | more info (via: Wylio)

What lines should we be drawing as parents when we choose to share (or not share) images and media of our own children online? Even sharing images on Facebook to a “relatively” small number of “friends” can result in widespread sharing and distribution of a media image.

Just when I question whether or not it’s wise to share and amplify the ideas and work of my own children online, I’m reminded (mainly thanks to Bob Sprankle) of the amazing work of students showcased at TEDxRedmond. It’s amazing to see and hear about what these young people are doing and have done to make the world a better place. Many of them are using social media to assist in that process. I want my own children to learn these lessons, and to have the best opportunities possible to “be all they can be” in this digitally connected world. I don’t want them to be hurt, I don’t want them to be exploited, but I also don’t think hiding them from the spotlight of online recognition is the best path forward.

This is messy and complicated. I don’t have the answers. I certainly do, however, have a lot of questions.

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9 responses to “Is it right to decide to make your children famous?”

  1. Barry Dahl Avatar

    Interesting questions, but I’m not here to give any answers. The impression I get is that you do not have Lisa’s permission to post her photo on your site. Maybe you do and just didn’t say it. Regardless of whether the photo is viewable by the public on her site, all rights reserved means that you should not post it on your site (without permission). Or am I missing something here? Not trying to start a big controversy, but definitely curious.

  2. Lisa Parisi Avatar

    Well, since you posted my daughter’s picture online, I guess I should respond (and, no, Barry, he did not ask permission).

    Steve Dembo spoke at a conference this summer reminding me that what is being created for our children now is their portfolio. My daughter does not use her real name when posting art work or blogs, no matter how many times I tell her to tag it Ali Parisi. She does have a facebook page with her name. I check it often to make sure that all pictures would be acceptable for any college or job application. After all, they will most likely be checking her online profile before approving her for any school or position.

    In the meantime, I post pictures of her and her artwork that I like. I always ask her permission first. Sometimes, as is the case in this picture, she tells me I can post it but I can’t tag it. But all artwork I post gets tagged.

    By the time your children are out of school, their whole lives will be online. They will be placing it there themselves. For now, we guide them into posting appropriate pictures, videos, and blogs. That’s the best we can do.

  3. Lee Kolbert Avatar

    First, I’d like to say that Wes knows better than to post a pic that says “All Rights Reserved,” but I’m taking a leap that he posted it knowing Lisa and knowing that his point will be well taken. Also, I’ve seen Wes present and he takes great pains to mark every image with the CC credits it deserves. So, that’s my take on Lisa’s daughter’s beautiful photo.

    Now, as for what we choose for our children…. we make choices for our children all the time. Do we have the right to choose their religion? What about their schools? How about who they associate with? I believe we really do control most of what our children do until they grow to the age(s) where they can take on the decisions themselves. At that point, we’ve hopefully set the tone for our values, standards and expectations.

    Do we have the right to make our children public? There’s a fine line where too much exposure can create a potentially embarrassing situation for our children.

    Here’s a scenario to consider:
    Imagine you are 12 years old and your parents are telling their friends about the time you were 6 and you smeared cake all over your face at your 6th birthday party. The adults in the conversation thought it was sweet, they laughed and you felt a little embarrassed but you understood that there was no harm done. And it was over after the conversation stopped. Now, that same conversation continues on into perpetuity when those same parents tell their friends the same story via a social network. You’re now 15 and that same photo of you at your 6th birthday party is on the web and all your friends are laughing. Now they are taking screenshots and putting captions on your photo and sharing it on FB. Your parents meant well and you even asked them to take the photos off the web, but they can’t remember how to log in to their accounts anymore.

    I have come to be extremely comfortable on the Internet, and yet I am guilty of making assumptions about how my own children will feel about the same level of exposure. I think we all need a little reminder once in awhile.

    This is a great post and is a terrific reminder to all of us that what we say and do online is forever (and doesn’t just impact ourselves).


  4. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    My understanding of “fair use” is that it is fine to copy and use excerpts of other people’s copyrighted works, without advance permission, when offering opinion or critique.

    That said, Lisa I am glad to remove the photo if you want and use a different visual example.

    I agree that our kids are growing up online and conceptions of privacy have radically changed. This article did get me thinking of the whole idea of “permission” when posting photos of my kids online… and what sorts of guidelines we should have as a family. We have had some conversations about this, but it’s certainly not a one time conversation.

    I agree 100% guiding our children to post and share appropriate photos / with responsibility is key. In some ways perhaps that is easier when kids are teens than when they are younger. I never asked Rachel if I could post photos of her online when she was 3. She wasn’t at a developmental level where she could make that decision for herself, so I made it for her. I think it was a good decision, but this article has me thinking about where those boundaries are and where they should be.

  5. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Lee: You’re right I try to use mainly Creative Commons images in my presentations and always include attribution links on the slides, as required by the licenses. That avoids the need to worry about ‘fair use.’ I do sometimes, however, (as I did in this post) use copyrighted materials not shared under CC licenses, to make a point or offer an opinion. I’m not commercializing this use (which is one of the four elements of a fair use determination under US copyright law) and am arguably making use of a limited part of the media in this case. (Perhaps we could say that is the Flickr set that was shared.) I didn’t anticipate this post inviting discussion about fair use, but all of these issues are definitely worth exploring and discussing. As with many issues it’s entirely possible I’m incorrect!

    Your scenario is a good one to consider… the idea of “losing control” of images we post online is very real, and not just on Facebook. A year and a half ago when my then-4th grader posted that response video to our President’s speech to students, one of the things I had to respond to formally on YouTube with a take-down notice was a sexually explicitly and harassing response video which someone posted online– who was made I hadn’t approved their profane comments on the discussion thread for Sarah’s video. That situation, even more than this article today, really got me thinking about the potential risks as well as benefits of sharing my kids’ photos online.

    I think your point about parents making all kinds of decisions for their children is a good one. We do this in many contexts. While there are some folks who protest against this (I’ve read some posts in recent months arguing parents should never take their kids to church, for instance, because kids should make up their own minds about faith– that’s not a position I agree with, btw) I agree this is an aspect of parenting. Deciding what to share digitally about your own kids is a relatively “new” decision that parents need to make today, esp given the ease of photosharing on Facebook and the size of the network.

    My sense is there are plenty of benefits to sharing appropriate media about our families, and relatively few drawbacks – but like many things the drawback situations are going to get the most press coverage.

  6. Sam Avatar

    A thought-provoking Article, Wes…thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject…

  7. Lisa Parisi Avatar
    Lisa Parisi

    Please remove my daughter’s picture from your blog. You did DM me to ask if I wanted it off. Why bother if you weren’t going to remove it? She would be very upset to find her picture here and she is old enough to make those decisions now. She allowed me to post it on Facebook but did not allow me to tag it. This is her choice. Thank you.

  8. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Lisa: I did remove the photo the day I received your tweet asking me to. I apologize I didn’t see this comment until now… I activated this new “Discus” commenting system and hadn’t realized the comment queue for moderation doesn’t show up the same as it did previously in “regular” WordPress commenting.

    I’m glad to respect your wishes regarding my cross-posting of this photo, of course. I would suggest, however, if she (and you) want to limit distribution of the image you remove it from Flickr, or mark it private, or mark it for friends/family only. I have had some experiences with people using photos I’ve posted to Flickr without permission and re-posting them to YouTube in videos which were offensive (this happened to photos of my daughter during the Obama speech to students response video episode) and one of my takeaways was, if I don’t want others to potentially re-use an image, it’s best to not put it on the public web at all.

  9. Melainie Avatar

    This is a question that popped in my mind one day when I was entering my baby in a photo contest. I thought, is this the beginning of baby beauty pageants? It made me a little concerned that I was using her, and I decided not to enter her into any more contests after that.