Instagram is a way to always recall the tiniest details of my kids' lives, not to get 'likes'

Social media gets a bad rap, but it's allowed me to make memories in which my entire family can share.
Image: Three daughters in a field
The author's three daughters in a field near their home in Utah.Daryl Austin
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By Daryl Austin

Whether writing in a journal, putting photos in albums, making videos or even using an Excel spreadsheet to document every utterance of our kids (like this dad does), almost all of us value preserving our experiences in a less-ephemeral form than our faulty memories — and have for generations. It's just, in this day and age, most people use social media.

That has spawned a sort of cottage industry in hand-wringing: Aren't you worried that oversharing will annoy your friends and followers? What about privacy concerns? Why not simply save your photographs on your phone instead of posting them to Instagram? Why not live in the moment instead of trying to capture it by taking pictures?

Those are valid concerns, but focusing on how other people consume our posts — as though our parents or grandparents never subjected dinner guests to vacation slideshows — means that we are missing the advantages of preserving memories via social media. Sure, it’s fun to read comments from grandma, siblings and close friends, but that’s not what motivates me to catalog the goings-on of my little family on Instagram: I do it to keep my own memories close, not just to share them with others, and I'm not the only one.

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The method that works best for me is to use my Instagram account as a captioned photo-journal that my whole family can enjoy. I take new pictures (or videos) of my family every few days and post them to Instagram with a few words about the moment.

I can’t overstate the benefit of a good caption when you're looking back on your kids' lives: Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but those words are necessary to understand why a memory was worth safeguarding in the first place. Captions are the only way to say when and where and how something happened — to know who said and did what during the captured moment. Captions turn pictures into stories, the same way that the words of a children’s book add to the illustrations on each page. It’s hard for me to imagine one without the other.

In addition, each image I post is automatically uploaded to an online photo-book service I use. For a nominal fee, they compile all of my Instagram pictures and captions in chronological order and mail me a new bound volume every month or two. Our photo-book collection is one of my most valuable possessions, and my wife and I spend a lot of time looking through them with our children and reminiscing about our favorite memories. (It also means that, if the social media company I use now fades into the ether like LiveJournal or MySpace, I haven't lost a thing.)

I adopted this method strictly for the sake of simplicity: As a small-business owner, I don’t have the time to write daily summaries in a journal or to compile end-of-year scrapbooks and videos.

And to the doubters who say I need to live in the moment instead of trying to capture it, my response is that it’s possible to do both. Because the camera on my smartphone is always nearby, I get to live my life as I likely would have anyway, and fully immerse myself in each experience and interaction while cultivating the habit of taking a picture or two — hardly obsessive documentation, especially compared to the clunky cameras and video cameras of yore — from time to time so that I can enjoy special memories again later. Being present in the moment doesn't mean I can't ever capture the moment.

When it comes to privacy concerns, I’m certainly not someone who believes in putting images of my four young children online that just anyone can see. I keep my Instagram profile set to private and strictly limit the people that I let follow me to family and close friends.

Beyond taking these steps, however, I have to accept that I live in the digital age with all the benefits and risks that come with it. Every modern method of storing images, whether keeping photos on my phone and computer or uploading them to the cloud, still leaves me vulnerable to hackers. That reality doesn’t change when I post images to a private Instagram account, which is why I’m always careful what pictures I take in the first place and what details I choose to share.

I've made peace with the digital world in which I live while being grateful that I'm giving my children access to their childhood memories using a method that won't require them to sort through piles of faded photographs and negatives with little or no semblance of order and no idea what I was thinking about when I took them.

Photo-journaling by way of Instagram works for me and my family, but I understand that it isn’t for everyone. Nobody’s record-keeping methods have to be the same as anyone else's (and I’m always on the lookout for a better way to do anything). For now, though, it’s hard to beat the convenience and satisfaction I get from holding onto my family's memories — and my own — this way.