This graphic image of what appears to be a gray, stillborn baby* wrapped in a bloodstained baby blanket, held in an unseen (presumably) parent’s arms halted a number of social media cruisers in their scrolling, confronting them with a bolded, capitalized PSA to think before posting a joke pregnancy announcement. Along with the gripping image, it demanded users consider the pain of infertility and its treatments, and infant death, closing with, “How brilliantly hilarious is your April Fools Joke now?”
That image and similar requests were posted and “liked” on Facebook tens of thousands of times over the course of April 1, 2014. The April Fool’s Day sharing of this message in an effort to curb joke posts seen as insensitive was not new this year, but gained far more traffic and traction than in years past. The photo and similar posts raise questions of sensitivity and “safety” in third spaces, and efforts to police others’ third spaces to protect your own.
There are innumerable blogs, message boards, and chat rooms online dedicated to answering questions from, relating the stories of, and providing virtual communities for infertile women (although infertility is biologically equally spread across the male and female sex, the vast majority of these internet community resources are geared to and patronized by women). They can be rather insular in efforts to maintain the sensitivity of their members, including posting notices at the top of web pages to warn newbies against posting pictures of children or announcing pregnancies, in the interest of maintaining a “safe space” for those who cope with infertility and loss.
These communities also sometimes rally around infertility, miscarriage, and infant loss advocacy efforts, and often address the perceived social stigma of these conditions and trials, expressing being only able to talk about these issues within the online groups for fear of a lack of cultural understanding. Chandra Wells, in her study of infertility blogs and advocacy, compares these online communities of bloggers and reader/respondents as a modern form of second-wave feminist style consciousness raising. These blogs’ use of a confessional mode of expression, with ensuing discussions in the comment sections and links to other bloggers’ writings, enables the formation of “an oppositional discursive space within contemporary society” that facilitates the sharing of experiences outside conventional conversations, and critique the social forces that create and reinforce infertility and loss stigma.
But what happens when women in these online communities venture outside these protective “safe spaces” and engage with social media at large, with networks of friends and acquaintances not united in this common experience? Numerous posts on infertility and loss blogs and message boards address how difficult it is for these women to see a seemingly constant stream of baby pictures, ultrasound images, and pregnancy announcements on Facebook and other social sites. Some opt out of social media or hide posts by certain people, but others use Facebook as an opportunity to advocate to those who may have not faced these experiences and potentially fight stigma.
On April Fool’s Day, many in this community saw it as a time to advocate and educate others with this meme and other general posts about not making a joke of pregnancy, as April 1 pregnancy pranks, are nothing new (celebrities have even gotten in the mix, including Lindsey Lohan a few years ago…who followed the joke tweet with another wondering where everyone’s sense of humor was after she got unfunny backlash).
But within the photo and similar posts were messages of shaming others for being insensitive to those who have been unable to conceive or who have lost children, and this did not sit well with many recipients. Many responses to the meme viewed it as unwelcome policing of a shared social site, insulting some women behind its propagation as “infertile nutjobs,” “sancti-mommies,” and generally being no fun on April Fool’s Day. Some saw it as an extension of the increasing popularity of parents posting “Do’s and Don’ts” lists on their front doors when a new baby has arrived, but this time being imposed on someone else’s personal online activity.
It’s of note that a major voice in this debate was STFU Parents, a popular website and meme generator itself (and now book) that aims to shame parents who “misbehave” online—usually in the form of posting egregious humble brags about brilliant offspring or sharing unwanted diaper pics. STFU Parents shared the stillbirth photo on its Facebook page and asked followers for responses. Most comments, and the most liked comments, were overwhelmingly against the post and its message of thinking before posting a pregnancy announcement: “If I took a moment to think about all the comments I make that ‘might’ upset someone, I would never speak or type again,” read the most liked note. Others assumed the same point of view, many with pointed comments about feeling like this meme was trying to ruin a fun day for everyone else: “I post jokes about running, no one in a wheel chair gets upset…It’s the damn sancti-mommies that have to get all wound up about everything. It’s freaking April Fool’s Day…If you are overly sensitive, just don’t read your Facebook on April 1, and then GTF over it. It’s a JOKE.”
The stillborn photo and calls to not post about false pregnancies on April Fool’s Day were shared by individuals who felt their personal third spaces within the larger social media sphere threatened by what they saw as callousness of others invading their virtual communities. Many of those who saw the meme shared in turn bristled when they sensed their social media space being impeded by oversensitive “friends.” Attempts by one person to protect his or her social space inherently run up against the different needs of another’s social space when in the context of a large virtual community like Facebook. Advocacy vs. April Fool’s. Alternating views of memes such as these as admirable efforts at education or unwelcome buzzkills demonstrate the tensions inherent in such expansive third spaces.
By Brooke Edge
(*editors note: while the baby in the image appears to be stillborn and was reacted to as such online in social media, this baby was in fact alive so this post has been edited to reflect this information)