Lately, Raphael Bartolome's email inbox has been getting more and more crowded. In addition to the urgent requests for new mortgages and home-equity loans, the Seattle mortgage broker now regularly receives messages loaded with even more emotional content: baby photos.
It's not just his friends sending regular photo updates of their toddlers. Now clients looking for larger homes are forwarding him pictures of their newborns, perhaps hoping to underscore the need for a new nursery. Recently, one young couple seeking a mortgage sent along a picture of the pregnant wife's ultrasound.
"I can't believe these people are sending me these photos, and I just met them two weeks ago," says Mr. Bartolome, who tries to send back brief replies, such as "Nice photo" or "Wow."
Mr. Bartolome is not the only one feeling besieged by baby -- or fetus -- photos in his inbox. True, many people are delighted to receive baby photos from their close friends or family members. "I get bombarded with them, but I don't mind them at all," says Heather Hecimovich, a university administrator in Milwaukee. "It helps to keep my friendships intact." But others, part of a quiet backlash, chafe at what they feel is an onslaught of online baby exhibitionism, fed both by Americans' increasing love affair with digital photography and their obsession with their children.
With just one keystroke on the computer, parents can now mass-email photos and even video clips of baby's first bath, birthday or even birth to their entire address book. The result: You've got mail -- and it's drooling.
Last year, Americans sent 11.8 billion photos via email, compared with 2.6 billion in 2000. By 2009, this number is projected to grow 22 percent, to 25.7 billion pictures, according to IDC, an Internet technology research firm. Experts believe that a significant percentage of these photos will be of babies or children.
It's not just emailed photos that are creating the kiddie overload. Many online video-sharing sites allow parents to both post and email video clips. Services that host mommy (and daddy) blogs now enable them to post photos directly from their cellphones to their blogs. Further pushing the urge to share are fetal photo studios such as Womb's Window, in Wilmington, N.C., and Prenatal Peek, in Diamond Bar, Calif., where a pregnant woman can have an ultrasound and buy a photo package of her fetus that includes both video and still photos.
The results can sometimes be painful to watch. YouTube.com, the online video-sharing site, currently has more than 100 videos of ultrasounds and dozens of videos of birth scenes on it. One recently posted clip carries this clarification: "This is the C-section. ... She looked very clean."
The barrage looks set to get worse. More online photo-sharing companies see tech-savvy parents as a growing part of their business. Shutterfly.com estimates that baby photos are its No. 1 area of content, representing 30 percent to 40 percent of the total number of photos shared. Meanwhile, Snapfish.com says 70 percent of its 25 million registered users have children, and it increasingly markets products to them, such as diaper bags and bibs, that can have photos printed on them.
For Robert Kressly, the baby-photo boom is starting to get annoying. Each month, an old college friend emails him a link to an online photo album with about 50 photos of her kids, many of which look strikingly similar.
"Here's so-and-so on the top of the sliding board, here's so-and-so halfway down the sliding board, here's so-and-so three-quarters of the way down the sliding board," says Mr. Kressly, 36 years old, who was careful in the beginning to write back and compliment his friend's kids. Now, the Cherry Hill, N.J., resident just hits delete.
Self-absorbed parents have been around forever, of course, but now their online photo-sharing habits are the subject of TV commercials. One recent spot for Time Warner Cable's Road Runner high-speed Internet service pokes fun at dueling sets of grandparents sending each other increasingly cuter photos of their grandchildren. ("Send him Halloween!" commands one grandmother.) And in a culture where children are pushed to compete at earlier and earlier ages, is it any wonder that many parents now begin bragging about their kids before they're even born?
Many parents say they simply want to share their joy and stay connected with others. Even before his son, Noah, was born 17 months ago, Nathan Burgess created a Web site, posted ultrasound pictures that featured the fetus's feet, head and genitalia, and emailed the link to friends and family. Since the birth, he's added hundreds of photos chronicling everything from Noah's first snow to his first mashed bananas.
Mr. Burgess, a 30-year-old former attorney who lives in Manhattan, believes this photo-sharing connects his far-flung friends and relatives, from his in-laws who split their time between Colorado and Florida to his college buddy who until recently was serving with the U.S. military in Iraq. The pictures were so popular, he says, that he's also created a Web site (nycnoah.camstreams.com) devoted to a streaming video of his son sleeping, and now sends regular email advisories telling people when to log on to "Noah TV": "The little star is in his crib and will (hopefully) be napping shortly," reads one.
Etiquette experts say that parents should show some restraint when sending out photos in mass emails. "People love to see a picture or two of a newborn, but not a whole barrage of them, and not a barrage of bad photos," says Letitia Baldrige, a protocol expert who served as chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy when she was first lady.
Yet recipients of baby pictures should display good manners by always acknowledging them, no matter how irritating they may be. "You only need three words: 'Great photo arrived,' " Ms. Baldrige says. "That tips them off that you are not desperately awaiting another update." And if that doesn't fully get the point across? "Send them a picture of your dog," she says.
Mimi Doe, an author of five parenting books, including one aimed at helping families live more balanced lives, often receives letters from busy moms overwhelmed by the vast amount of emailed links they receive to pictures of -- and blogs about -- other people's children. Her advice is to create a stock response to each new batch: "Thanks so much for thinking of us with photos of your growing lives. Unfortunately, our computer is blocked from any of the online photo services. We are with you in spirit."
Vicky Melen has decided she may need to take more drastic measures. The 30-year-old communications representative, who is single and lives in Minneapolis, has a large group of friends who have children and sometimes receives baby photos from four different people in one day. Normally, she likes the updates, but every once in a while the cumulative bombardment makes her feel like her life is oddly empty. Recently, she's begun contemplating the photo she'd like to distribute in return: "Here's a picture of something important in my life -- my new jeans."
Of course, there will always be some parents, like Ken Frager, who just can't -- or don't want to -- take the hint. A proud father, he often emails pictures of his daughter, Sarah, to 60 to 100 people at a time, from former high-school and college friends to business colleagues and even the chief executives of companies where he once worked. "It's another way of networking," says Mr. Frager, 43, who works in marketing at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. But recently he was startled when one of the people he'd been sending photos to for months wrote back and said, "Who are you? I don't know you. Your daughter is beautiful, but I don't need to see these photos anymore."
Mr. Frager removed the baffled recipient from his distribution list in a hurry. But, he says, "If I were truly smart, I would realize that the people who aren't responding don't want to see the photos either."