Remember when Facebook’s first users decided it wasn’t cool anymore after their parents joined? How could users bitch about school or invite their followers to weeknight keggers if mom and dad or Uncle Mark are now sending friend requests? What could possibly be more embarrassing than that?
My how times have changed. Now, social media is basically a showcase for families, with Instagram-families being a major trend. Moms and dads amass thousands and thousands of followers by posting pics of their families. Their Internet devotees are given — filtered photo by filtered photo — a window into the lives of the ideal family. An ideal, one would assume, that becomes more curated as the family-in-question moves further and further into the public eye. (Which lunchbox shot is best? Do I post this slip ‘n slide photo or that?) This forces them to hone in on what people seem to like about them, highlight those elements, and discard the rest. If zany family photos are liked, shared, and written about more, then zany family photos are what show up more. The family in question then becomes the zany family because that’s what followers respond to. And why not give the people what they want?
But, especially given how often such accounts draw consumers towards the parent or parents’ primary hustle, what kind of effect does this approach to social media have on a family dynamic as a whole? For better or worse, it’s well, better or worse. Sometimes it’s fine. Other times, not so much.
If anything becomes a front for the public, “everything is a front for the public.”
Take this example, from both Insta-famous and regular-famous person Anna Faris. “We intentionally cultivated this idea of like, ‘Look at this beautiful family,’” Faris told Dax Shephard for his Armchair Expert podcast, referring to the one-sided nature of her and then-husband Chris Pratt’s family social media presence. “There were so many moments that were like that but like anything on social media, you don’t post like, ‘Where the f—k is the toilet paper?!’ or whatever.” People responded most positively when the couple posted happy, adorable photos. So, that’s what the celebrity couple posted. But, as Faris lamented, that wasn’t their real life. How could it have been?
The performative nature of these accounts strikes at the heart of a hotly contested subject: brands. To be honest, as a buzzword, “brand” has been used so frequently and with so many varying degrees of irony that it can seem stripped of all meaning. But it does have a meaning, a very powerful one. And when parents view their family through the prism of a brand, it’s not the best idea.
In a nutshell, a brand, per personal brand consultant Richard Janes, is a set of distinguishing marks or attributes that set something out as different from everything else. The best brands live within the constraints that define them. “When it comes to a family brand, your family has a brand whether you like it or not, a set of attributes that people associate with your family both good and bad,” he says. In other words, it’s a thin line between a brand and a collective identity.
By the above definition, which Janes says is critical to our “ability to form and maintain groups,” a brand effectively boils down to a method by which a family can rally around a common goal, and a reason for its individual members to voice their own perspective on what that brand should be, how they want to contribute to it, and how the other members of the unit can help them do that. “Are you working as a unit?” asks Janes. “Are you supporting each other’s greatness? Are you aware of where you need to get better and support each other?”
No bones about it, says Muller, “family brands are restrictive and shallow.”
This may well be true. The implicit difference, however, is that a collective identity that stems from a personal identity — a sense of self — is not a marketable quality by default, yet a brand has to be treated as such at a certain point. When that happens, the difference becomes more than semantic.
Such is the opinion of Tina Muller—LCSW, LADC, and a Family Wellness Manager at the Mountainside Treatment Center — for whom the ‘all families have a brand’ take is a hard pass. “Families are not a commodity,” says Muller. “They are a unit that develops together with mutual respect, encouragement, and concern for each other… and are not something that is ‘sold’, so to speak.”
Even if, technically speaking, the family in the artfully-filtered and well-hashtagged Instagram posts isn’t necessarily the thing being sold, the fact that a family could be such a lynchpin in the strategy for selling something is where things get problematic. No bones about it, says Muller, “family brands are restrictive and shallow.” Essentially, if anything becomes a front for the public, “everything is a front for the public.”
It’s the pressure this can put on family members, particularly children, that is Muller’s major sticking point with the whole Insta-family phenomenon. The idea that the family-branding process might involve kids in a productive and autonomous way might be hampered by the inherent pressure placed on them, especially once things get particularly public (like, hundreds-of-thousands-of-followers public).
“Setting these standards for family brand that are influenced by fame and fortune can lead to children putting pressure on themselves to live up to it,” Muller notes
“Setting these standards for family brand that are influenced by fame and fortune can lead to children putting pressure on themselves to live up to it,” Muller notes. “And if they feel like they are not able to, they’re going to look for other avenues to relieve the stress and the anxieties.” Those avenues, Muller feels, are not necessarily positive peer support groups.
Janes, however, sees a larger benefit to this kind of endeavor people might not necessarily notice. “I worked extensively with Jillian Michaels, America’s top fitness trainer, and [a] multimedia personality, as she introduced her family across her social media and they became an integral part of her personal brand,” Janes says. “Her gorgeous family is now an extension of her own personal brand. In doing so she is able to inspire and lead a massive community of people going through similar parenting issues…”
As an example, however, this idea is flawed. While Michaels’ family may help inspire such a large following to make healthier choices, the version of Michaels’ family we are seeing on social media is but one small piece of the real thing. This, of course, raises a pretty major question: do you view your family as an extension of yourself? Or as something in which you can invest your energy?
Do you view your family as an extension of yourself? Or as something in which you can invest your energy?
There’s no way to answer this question for anyone. And Muller, as much as she disagrees with this concept on the whole, isn’t arguing for an entirely laissez-faire parenting style.
“Does [this] mean we don’t steer our children into various directions?” she asks. “No, we should try to steer our children into healthy directions like getting them involved in school, sports, and the community, and encouraging them to go to college. But it’s also giving them their own freedom to develop their own sense of self and their own sense of identity.”
Can a child really stick up for their own interests knowing how many people are watching? Is a branded Insta-family ever really a kid’s idea? Ignoring that power dynamic may end up requiring an unhealthy amount of cognitive dissonance at the end of the day. And as they say: would it be a brand if you didn’t have something to sell?