Childhood is fleeting. I see my 6-month-old daughter, Joni, grow and change daily, and I feel an irresistible urge to document that process.
It's never been easier to satisfy that craving. Smartphones and social networks make it simple to record Joni's special moments and share them immediately. Even far-flung family and friends can keep up with the highs and lows of Joni's life.
But this connectivity also raises troubling questions. Who is seeing all of those images I post to Facebook? How much of my family life do I really want to share with coworkers and people I barely know? Will pictures of a diaper-clad Joni come back to haunt her as a teen?
Burlington dads Jory Raphael and Jackson Latka started grappling with these questions a few years ago. The 34-year-old friends wanted to keep sharing their family lives, but with fewer people.
They're both tech-savvy designers — Raphael focuses on branding and logos; Latka works with user interfaces and product design — so in 2012, they created their own app, Notabli. Parents can use Notabli to post photos, notes, quotes and audio recordings of their kids on a simple, scroll-through time line, which they can then share with a small, curated audience of family and friends.
"I'm only sharing with people I would invite into my living room," Raphael explains. "There's no one I'm sharing with that doesn't have a personal relationship with my children."
Over the past two years, the service has accumulated thousands of users — more than 20,000 in 96 countries so far — and fans. Kids VT Digital Dilemmas columnist Elaine Young is one of them. The Champlain College professor and author of Tuned In Family: How to Cope, Communicate and Connect in a Digital World, doesn't actually use Notabli; she doesn't take as many pictures of her teenage daughter as she used to.
But Young likes the app, which she says resonates with parents because "you ultimately have a great deal of control over who sees your family photos, it has a nice archive option, is ad-free and allows you to share to other social networks if you choose."
In July, Notabli announced some big news: Two new dads — Mike DeCecco and Tom O'Leary — were joining the startup. They both left Dealer.com, a Burlington-based company that creates online marketing solutions for car dealers and recently sold to Dealertrack Technologies for $1 billion.
DeCecco was Dealer's director of business development for 10 years; for the last four, O'Leary was chief customer officer, leading the sales and marketing efforts. The two men brought invaluable experience — and $1 million in investment capital.
With Notabli poised to become even more notable, now seemed like the perfect time for Kids VT to try it out. Designer Brooke Bousquet and I downloaded the free app at the beginning of September and spent the next few weeks posting as often as we could. We wanted to see if we could really use it to create beautiful archives of our children. Did the app's privacy affect what and how we posted? And was it worth the effort, or was it just another social-media time suck?
More Social Media?
When Joni was born last April, I didn't want to be that mom — the one who clogs her friends' Facebook feeds with daily baby pictures.
I aspired to be like my friend Sarah Wylie. She and her husband posted a single photo of their daughter as a birth announcement last December, then vowed to avoid further Facebook postings. They didn't want her to have "a huge online presence before she has a chance to decide for herself what it will look like," Sarah told me. Ten months later, they've stuck to their guns.
Their babe still has a digital footprint, though. Like most modern moms, Sarah takes near daily snaps of her daughter, texts them to the grandparents and posts them on the less-populated Google Plus. "It's a question of which evil corporation you'd rather [give] access to your kid's photos," she joked.
Sarah hasn't tried Notabli yet, but said she'd be open to it. "I like the idea of an app where people decide if they want to join. The reason people [friended me on] Facebook was to keep up with my life. It was not to see pictures of my child."
Kids VT designer Brooke Bousquet is an Instagram lover. She uses its Sticky9 feature to print favorite photos of her sons Noah, 6, and Henry, 3, as refrigerator magnets. She tries (with some success) to post more sparingly on Facebook. "I would hate to be someone's 'scroll-through,'" she says.
Brooke, who has been using Notabli for about a month, likes it because "it's almost like a journal that I can refer to." And because there are only a couple of people in her network, she said, "I'm not sanitizing what I post."
In early September, Brooke posted this note:
"I don't want everyone on Facebook to know that I dye my hair at home," says Brooke, who was OK with the Kids VT readership knowing her dirty little secret.
Unlike Brooke, I'm an over-sharer. And unlike Sarah, I have minimal willpower. After about a week of trying to explain to my parents why I didn't want them to post pictures of Joni on Facebook, I caved. Now, the Jonester has an undeniable social-media presence. I try not to post more than once a week, but I'm tempted daily.
Which is why I took quickly to Notabli. I could post about my baby as much as I wanted without annoying anybody.
What to Post?
I started using Notabli at the beginning of what might have been our worst week as a family so far. Joni had her first cold, and my husband, Daniel, and I had it, too. The three of us spent 10 miserable days sniffling, snorting, hacking phlegm and definitely not sleeping. So much for creating a beautiful catalogue of Joni's childhood.
But, hey, this wasn't Facebook; maybe I didn't have to make our lives look rosy. I could use Notabli to present the cold, hard truth of parenting: Sometimes it sucks.
I posted a photo from bed, Joni's face looking oddly swollen, Daniel collapsed on the mattress behind her. I snapped a pic of Joni staring at me with a glazed-over look at the crack of dawn after another sleepless night. If I'd used a better camera, you might be able to see the dried mucus crusted around her eyes and nostrils.
Don't get me wrong, my Notabli feed wasn't all doom and gloom. I posted a pic of Joni sitting on the kitchen table while I rolled out homemade pizza dough. And I took advantage of my favorite Notabli feature: the audio recorder. I recorded Joni laugh-squealing and cooing, sounds I love so much I'd like to listen to them on repeat for the rest of my life.
I decided not to record her blood-curdling bedtime screams.
Notabli also allows you to post written quotes and notes, which I didn't try since Joni's not speaking her mind quite yet.
But Brooke tried it. "The quote thing is my favorite because I feel those are the moments that you forget," she told me. "You could easily take a picture of a moment, but you forget the ridiculous stuff that comes out of your kids' mouths."
Great, right? But did the moments we'd captured have an audience?
The Notabli app is intuitive once you get going, but I had a tough time setting it up. You can view the time lines of kids you follow on the web on a laptop or desktop computer, but you can only post from a mobile device. Notabli plans to fix this: Raphael says developers are currently rebuilding the web version so users can add content from any device.
When I attempted to download the app, I discovered it would only run on the iPhone operating system iOS 7, which I didn't have.
It took me longer than I care to admit — and the help of a patient coworker — to figure out how to update my OS. Once that was in place, I downloaded the app.
But then I hit a snag. Notabli is a private network; users must invite everyone they want to have access. You can send invites via text, email or your phone's contacts. I chose email. I added about a dozen addresses — mostly relatives and a few close friends — to the invite. I was excited to start sharing.
Minutes later, I heard back from my mom. "Cool!" she wrote. "I'm signed up!" But then I started hearing from everyone else. A friend responded, "So, I accepted your invitation and created an account but I can't figure out how to see any pictures." Another wrote, "Am I being dumb? When I click on the link, it asks me to sign in, and that confuses me." My aunt chimed in, "It says Notabli requires iTunes and I have a Samsung, not an iPhone."
I passed this feedback on to Raphael. "So, it looks like you may have sent the same invitation to multiple people," he said. Invitations are intentionally one-use-only to keep Notabli as secure as possible.
Still, he acknowledged that this is "a bit of a bug in our invitation process," and added that they've recently addressed the issue. Now, when you choose the invite-by-email option, you are told to invite only one person at a time.
And yes, he said, the app is currently only available on Apple devices. An Android version is in the works and should debut by the end of the year. Also in the works: a way to monetize the app, likely through creating various levels of service.
I resent my invites individually, and, this time, it worked. One friend immediately started "hearting" my entries and commenting on all my photos. "This is so fun," she wrote. "Joni in my pocket!"
At least for now, my Samsung-toting aunt will wait until the Android version launches to follow Joni's feed.
After a few weeks, both Brooke and I felt confident we'd continue to use Notabli, even though neither of us could convince more than a handful of people to follow our kids.
"I'm OK with that," Brooke told me. "I found it was more for me. And someday, I'd love to put it in book form."
I loved scrapbooking Joni's life on Notabli. But it brought up another issue for me: I noticed that Joni looked at me differently when I pointed an iPhone at her. If she was smiling at me seconds before, she stopped when I lifted the phone. She seemed to know I was distracted. I worry that I'm teaching her that capturing the moment is more important than experiencing it.
And sometimes scrapbooking isn't enough. When the whole family is sick and sleepless, it helps to throw a line to the wider world, which is where Facebook comes in.
I reposted one of my sick-Joni pics there and instantly felt buoyed by the feedback. It helped to hear from people — even those I hardly speak to in person — that they'd been there, too, and that we'd survive.
And, yeah, I'll admit it: that my baby is pretty darn adorable.
Notabli's four partners — Jackson Latka, Jory Raphael, Tom O'Leary and Mike DeCecco — agree that using their app has changed the way they approach documenting their kids' lives. "For me, the biggest change that's come out of using Notabli is consciously curating this archive of my son's childhood, and thinking about building something for him that he can look back on," says 39-year-old DeCecco, whose son, Dominick, is 2. "It's not about the now, it's about the future."
DeCecco's octogenarian dad keeps up with Dominick through Notabli's email digests; users are given the option of receiving email versions of the updates to their favorite kids' time lines. "Every time I talk with my father, he already knows what my son did that week," says DeCecco.
"One thing that I was surprised at is how much I love keeping up with my friends' kids," says Latka. "Many of my friends are going through the same stage in life, and we get to experience the same things through the app." His two sons, ages 4 and 18 months, seem to like it, too. "Our older son asks for moments to be added and can't get enough of keeping up with his cousins and friends."
O'Leary, 45, loves capturing his 8-year-old daughter's priceless quotes, such as this gem during a recent chess game with him: "Bye-bye, horsey! Now you know what the meaning of revenge is!"
If he'd shared that on Facebook, he'd have probably gotten an ego boost from making his friends LOL. But posting it on Notabli is different, he says. "The act of sharing is less about you as a parent."
Raphael agrees. "It's been nice to take the ego out of posting," he says. And the pressure is off to share just parenting highlights. "We're trying to capture a representation of childhood," he says, "good and bad."