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The Researcher Who Studies How Your Dad Posts to Facebook

In the late 1980s, author Arlie Russell Hochschild coined the term “the second shift” for working mothers. While women had made considerable gains in the labor market, their progress in the domestic sphere lagged woefully behind. Men still weren’t doing their share of housework, forcing working women to spend their evenings cooking dinner, cleaning the house, parenting the children and undertaking all of the other traditionally feminine household responsibilities.

The gap in housework has since narrowed, but now working mothers are responsible for a third shift: managing the family’s social media presence.

The image of the overzealous mother sharing an endless stream of photos and Facebook updates about her son or daughter isn’t a misplaced stereotype—it’s a well-documented truth, according to Tawfiq Ammari, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan’s School of Information.

But that doesn’t mean fathers don’t share about their kids on social media; they just engage in a fundamentally different way, says Ammari, whose studies revolve around how fathers present themselves on social media.

Rather than merely cook their kids a meal, they write on their dad blogs about trying to “hack” the kitchen. Instead of everyday photos of their 5-year-old, they’ll post photos of them helping their kids construct Halloween costumes from scratch. And in lieu of chatting with the other moms at the park, they use Meetup to organize trips to the museum and crack jokes about football.

In the last few years, Ammari has interviewed more than 150 fathers about their social media habits, and studied millions of individual Facebook, Twitter and Reddit posts created by fathers. I recently spoke with Ammari about his research, Dad Twitter, why dads love Pinterest and the trouble dads have fitting in with the moms when they take their kids to the park.

The stereotype is mothers are the ones responsible for parents oversharing online about their kids. But your research suggests that stereotype is based in truth.
We interviewed more than 100 mothers, and it turns out moms do a lot of the managing of a family’s self-presentation on social media. And it’s about more than the moms posting about themselves. It’s also posts about the children (mostly photos) and managing any tensions with other relatives about social media etiquette.

What kind of tensions?
A lot of times it’s talking to older relatives who don’t understand the privacy settings for a social media platform, and preventing them from sharing some photos of their child too publicly. There were some parents (usually moms) who sent out formal emails to their relatives detailing what they can and can’t share online.

We also found a lot of dads are sensitive to sharing too many photos of their children, especially if they’re career-oriented. Their social media network is full of colleagues, and they want to maintain a professional profile online. I remember one particular dad who refused to be tagged in a photo of his child’s birthday party, because he didn’t want to be seen like he was hanging out with his kids all the time.

I’m not a father, nor do I work in a traditional office, but that seems like an incredibly strange anxiety to have.
It came up with fathers, but not moms. The worry is that, say the father left early one day, and then that evening, there’s a photo of him online at a child’s party. It’s not necessarily that he worries that it’ll be perceived as an indictment of his work ethic, but that it’s just something you don’t share with colleagues.

What was your motivation for researching dads on social media?
The norms of fatherhood are in flux. They’re not stable. We don’t know the definition of what a good father is. And we want to see how fathers are trying to use social media to craft their new identity. As men become fathers, or mature as fathers, they construct that identity online.

Fathers are still expected to be breadwinners, but there’s a higher expectation nowadays that they do work at home. And yet there’s a normative lag: doing diapers and feeding the kids are still considered feminine tasks. Fathers want to do those caretaking tasks while maintaining their masculine identity.

How does this manifest on social media?
Primarily, dads try to portray these traditionally feminine tasks as do-it-yourself projects. Instead of posts about cooking for their kids, dads post about “hacking” food and describe cooking in DIY, maker terms. For example, there’s a blog called Lunchbox Dad where this father arranges nutritious lunches to look like Disney and superhero characters, and shares the photos with other fathers.

That’s a blogger. What about the ordinary, everyday dad on social media?
Some dads work on remodeling the kitchen, and show photos of their son putting down the first coat of paint. One dad will create Halloween costumes for his kids from scratch and share photos of that. For another, it’ll be about gardening or building a model airplane.

Another good example is the Homestead Dad blog, which is by a dad who grows his own food and teaches his kids about farming.

In all of these cases, it’s about the DIY ethos of creating something from scratch. Maybe you’re not bringing home as much money as your dad did, but you’re providing for your family in other ways — redoing the kitchen, being self-sufficient with food, doing projects around the house.

All of those tasks are traditionally masculine ones, though. It’s not like they’re totally reinventing fatherhood.
These fathers aren’t seeking to resist or disrupt traditional gender norms. Instead, they’re deploying DIY practices to legitimize their domestic work in a masculine way.

What specific platforms do dads use to talk about fatherhood?
There a lot of dad bloggers, who then use Twitter to market their blogs. On Facebook, there are dad groups. Dads enjoy and use YouTube, because there’s a vibrant DIY culture there. And Pinterest.

Pinterest? Really?
Pinterest does over-index with women, more so than any other social media site, but it’s popular among some dads because there’s a lot of crafting content on there.

How do dads balance posting about their children and their careers?
A lot of dads identify as dadpreneurs. They’re stay-at-home dads who have a joint identity as fathers and business owners. One of the dads I studied was an architect, for example. His wife worked full-time, but he started his own architecture business from home. Every dadpreneur I studied has a story about having a Skype meeting interrupted by a crying baby.

There are dadpreneur podcasts such as Dadpreneur Daily to go along with this culture, where they talk about the constant back and forth of balancing work and fatherhood. I started this business and it’s my baby, but I have my actual baby, as well.

It’s interesting some fathers keep those parts of their lives separate, while others make that balance the focus of their identity.
There’s a distinctive difference between them. The ones who don’t want to share about being a dad have what you’d call a traditional job. They went to work 9-to-5 in a traditional office environment. The ones who constantly discuss being a father work from home, or go into an office only one or two days a week, and most of his day is scheduled around the kids’ schedule.

What’s Dad Twitter like?
If it says in someone’s Twitter bio that they’re a dad, they will tweet about being a dad.

Some fatherhood groups such as Dad 2.0 will have Twitter parties — at a certain time, they’ll gather on Twitter to discuss issues around being a dad. It’s usually light and there’s a lot of cracking jokes, but at times it’s more pointed. Huggies had a silly campaign about a diaper that so simple even dads could handle, and dads galvanized to oppose that campaign.

We know adult men are terrible at maintaining friendships. Are these online interactions a replacement for those relationships?
Absolutely. There are about 50 dads groups on Facebook, Meetup and Twitter — Chicago Dads, NYC Dads, each one for a different city. They’ll organize a trip, say, to the museum, and two of the dads will learn they live in the same neighborhood. Then they’ll organize a trip to the playground so they can catch up while their kids play. That’s really important, because it can be hard for dads to form friendships with the moms at the park.

There’s this natural discomfort by both sides. Moms feel discomfort that there’s a dad at the playground. Dads feel it, too, and tweet and blog about it often. It’s just part of the traditional view that the dad is only there because it was his day with the kids, not because he’s the primary caretaker. Dads find it really difficult to break into that group.

What aren’t dads posting about?
Dads don’t want to discuss controversial subjects, such as discipline, sleep training, circumcision and vaccination. With sleep training, for example, there are two philosophies: Either you let the kid cry himself to sleep, or you nurture them when they cry. You can’t subscribe to both methods. But dads don’t want to get into a discussion on Facebook saying, “You’re terrible if you let your kid cry himself to sleep.”

Are you saying mom are more willing to mix it up on social media?
Both mothers and fathers are less willing to discuss controversial topics than innocuous ones. But when they do broach such subjects, fathers are less willing to go into these long, winding discussions about them. When moms discuss them, however, they go all-in.