Written by Nick Confalone for Slate
Making six-second videos with my baby started out as fun. Then came the followers, the money, and the fame.
Vine and my son were born within three months of each other. When the video-sharing app came out, I was a stay-at-home dad—“staying-at-home” because I was freelancing, which is a cool writer term for being unemployed. Every day, instead of looking for a job, I happily played with my baby. Unfortunately, the “happily” part lasted for about 20 minutes, until, exhausted, I’d look at the clock and realize, Ugh, I still have seven hours and 40 minutes until my wife gets home from work.
Vine saved us. It’s deceivingly simple: Create six-second videos that loop forever and share them with followers. One of the first Vines I ever saw was a beautiful sunset over the ocean. I watched it from our bed, wearing an unwashed T-shirt covered in spit-up. After I finished crying about never seeing the beach again, I knew I had to make movies too. My set would be our house. My supporting cast would be stuffed animals, a plastic giraffe named Sophie, and a 25-pound cat. My star, my muse, and my co-director would be my 3-month-old son.
Ever since I was a kid making movies with G.I. Joes and my dad’s Hi8 camera, I’d been waiting for something like Vine. It was my perfect medium, combining my love of storytelling with my impatient desire to finish something quickly. I’d written cartoons for Disney, so I knew that there’s no better way to quickly convey an idea and make people laugh than with fast cuts, silly voices, whip pans, and sound effects. A cute baby helps too. I spent all my time watching him, what he was doing, how he played with his toys, the sounds he made, the way he moved—all the while spinning these tiny details into six-second stories. Those eight hours alone with him started to fly by.
We started knocking out a Vine every day and getting followers so fast that the app gave up on notifying me about new ones. Our Vines were on CNN, Ellen DeGeneres’ show, and in the Tribeca Film Festival. We even got recognized in public. Mom friends told me part of our appeal came from seeing what Dad does with the baby when Mom’s not around. I let him lick money (oops); I propped him up, but he fell over (oops); I let him suck on a peanut butter jar lid (oops).
In spite of these momentary lapses of parental judgment, Vine commenters unanimously agreed that I was great with my son. Sure, the cultural bar for competent fathers is so low you could trip over it, and sure, commenters also argued about chemtrails and vaccine conspiracies, but their comments about me were different. They were about me! I was a Good Dad!
As the months went by, I faced my first real Vine-related parental crisis. Our friends’ kids began talking to my son in my silly Vine voice, and I started to worry that maybe he’d grow up and hate me for this. Maybe I should stop. And yet … strangers liked me on the Internet—every insecure writer’s dream. So I decided on a half measure. I would keep my kid’s first name a secret. No one would ever know who he was … unless they recognized him … which they did … all the time.
As our follower count grew into the hundreds of thousands, I found myself wading through even murkier moral waters. Companies started offering to pay me to make Vines, and I said yes. Use a Popsicle as a main character? If you say so! Play the ukulele while the kid wears Gap clothes? Sounds good! Get into Disneyland for free? Only because you’re twisting my arm. Through it all, I vowed to maintain a strong parental standard for what kind of work we’d do, which was “as long as it’s something I’d want to do anyway, I’ll do it.” In hindsight, it was more a creative manifesto than a moral compass, but I was feeling great, because look at all my followers! And now MONEY!
My inflated sense of parental excellence was so high that when Unilever called wanting to know if I’d make a Vine for Klondike, I pitched them an impossible idea: I could have the baby singing and dancing on Broadway, complete with flashing lights and top hats. It didn’t matter that he was getting older, fussier, and harder to bend to my directorial will. I bought some props, blocked out an afternoon, and got to work.
Take 1: baby not looking at camera. Take 2: wardrobe malfunction. Take 3: spit-up. Take 4: not good. Take 5: worse. Take 6: awful. Take 7: Seriously, what is wrong with this baby?! Take 8: Please, smile. Take 9: I mean honestly, babies smile all the time. Take 10: Just smile. Take 11: COME ON!!! Take 12: “I’m not mad anymore, I’m just disappointed.” Take 13: I’m a little mad still.
“We” decided to take a break around Take 14. How could that dumb idiot not be able to sing and dance for a measly six seconds?! Fuming in the kitchen, I realized I couldn’t pretend my Vines were about having fun with my kid anymore. I had become a Skinner rat, refreshing posts every 10 seconds to check for more “likes.” And it didn’t matter if I was making them for myself or for somebody else. I was forcing him to do what I wanted.
I loved how it used to be, rolling around on the rug with my son, playing with toys, and talking to him in funny voices. I loved watching him grow up through funny little videos. What I didn’t love was making him cry, or ruining wonderful fleeting moments to grab my camera, or making him do things that could potentially embarrass him later in life.
Still, I haven’t stopped altogether. I still make personal and advertisement Vines, but I only pitch ideas I know we can do organically, based on what he’s interested in at the time, like recording him seeing the simple beauty of a puddle in the backyard that splashes the palm of his tiny hand on a hot day, or sticking his fingers in power outlets. We’re making another Vine for Klondike right now, playing off his love for toilet paper tube telescopes. In my personal Vines, I still occasionally squeak out a frenetic story, but more and more I’m making slice-of-life pieces, little stolen moments of found babyisms that can’t be forced like I’m playing with G.I. Joes and my dad’s camera.
My toy baby is turning into a little boy. One day he’ll ask to borrow the phone so he can make his own movies, and just like my dad did, I’ll tell him to grab some toys and go for it.
When I look back on all the Vines we’ve made, 18 months later, I sometimes cringe at the ones I made just for me, or for money, or for “likes.” But most of them, the early Vines especially, the ones where we were just having fun together, every single one of them is a window to whatever we were doing on that particular day: his first pterodactyl screeches, his first tummy time without crying, his first spit bubbles, the first time he recognized himself in the mirror, the first time he stood up, the first time he realized he loved sweet potatoes. I have his whole life captured. I guess those videos are also for me, for when I’m older and want to look back on my son’s first year of life, and remember that year of my own. I’m so glad we made them.
More from Slate: