Happy Fakebook Birthday

Monday was my birthday, but you probably missed it. If you’re a friend of mine, you might have a sinking feeling for a moment. How could you possibly have forgotten to wish me a happy birthday? Did you forget to check your birthday reminders? Cue the open tab to Facebook. But wait a minute.

This year I removed my birthday from Facebook for a reason. It was a small social experiment, and some friends found it sneaky. Please forgive me — I was testing out two life hypotheses:

  1. I’d receive very few happy birthday notifications, if any at all.
  2. I wouldn’t care.

Unsurprisingly, both turned out to be true. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed being free from the inundation of Facebook messages.

You know the type: trying to be quick and on their merry Facebook way, people respond to their right-column reminders with a quick “Happy birthday!!” and they’re good to go. The craftier among them try to make their impersonal birthday posts slightly differ from the last two or three on the wall.

But they’re all essentially the same: mere variations on the same one-liner with plenty of exclamation marks. I’m certainly guilty of this when I’m viewing Facebook connections as a task to be checked off each day.

Last month, David Plotz conducted a different social experiment by changing his Facebook birthday several times. Lo and behold, he got tons of happy birthdays on all three fake days. It’s called an information cascade: some of David’s friends observed others wishing him a happy birthday, so they did too, without actually examining the underlying information (that they all just got it from the birthdays page). I could see the same cascade dynamic evolving in the particular people who realized it was my birthday from each other.

Unfortunately, many one-liners do not sum up to an actual happy birthday. Instead, what made me happy were the actual conversations I got to strike up with friends.  Whether it was a short text or chat, an e-mail, a phone call, or a visit in person, those real moments were memorable and turned it into a great day.

Therein lies the deeper difference: a wall post forces the poster to wish that the recipient has a happy birthday. But a real message or conversation is so much more powerful, enabling us to actually cause the recipient to have a happy birthday through our actions instead.

I doubt you’re ever impressed by people spending 5 seconds on your Facebook page because the site reminded them to. Which raises a greater point: why do we care about being wished a happy birthday at all?

A birthday is a pretty arbitrary thing to remember. And I have a terrible memory, so I won’t be offended if you don’t remember mine. Please return the favor.

For everyone who posts on my wall, I appreciate the gesture. But every one liner wall post is a missed opportunity to make a real connection. I’d much rather hear from you on any random day than to see your wall exclamation on my birthday.

So I’ll propose a toast. Here’s to all your birthdays, and your unbirthdays. May your happiness be made and not wished.

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10 thoughts on “Happy Fakebook Birthday

  1. did that this year too for mine. its an interesting experiment but ultimately friends don’t quite appreciate “getting tested” even if its for a relatively inconsequential/explainable thing – definitely felt that guilty pang when I missed yours. so i won’t be repeating it in future. (by that measure, david plotz definitely crossed the line…)

    I still do the minorly-adjusted-form-birthday-wallpost if only because it is a legitimate excuse to restart connections with people i haven’t spoken with in years. doesn’t have a very high hit rate, but its nonzero. =)

    • beyroutey says:

      Totally agree that ‘testing’ friends isn’t worthwhile, and that wasn’t my intention. I knew fewer people would post, and was more testing the way I’d feel about it.

      I’m definitely going to continue writing to friends on their birthdays, but am changing the way I approach it. Instead of writing lots of standard wall posts, I’ll switch to writing real messages or reaching them via some form of real-time communication. If I don’t have time to on their birthdays, I’ll just wait til I do have time and reach out then.

      In that sense, the birthday reminders are really just a good way to remember to talk to someone. I’m simply disagreeing with the way most people use those reminders.

  2. Syl says:

    I always had an ambivalent feeling on this matter. Writing happy birthday on my friend’s wall seems like the worst idea to really wish a good birthday for I will be taking a part in a flood of meaningless messages on the wall. However, I feel guilty ignoring the reminders. By the way, your little experiment reminds me once again how I should really process information on the net. Always be doubtful and ask questions, even if it is just a minor thing as someone’s date of birth.

    • beyroutey says:

      Feel the same way about ignoring the reminders. I think my way of dealing with them now is to see the reminder, and then write the person at least a text message or a quick e-mail, or find them on chat. Those ways of saying happy birthday are much more likely to create a real opportunity to catch up.

  3. Arda says:

    I’ll have to disagree with this notion of “short text or chat, an e-mail, a phone call, or a visit in person” making up more memorable wishes in the first place. I don’t know why a wall post wouldn’t suffice in many occasions.

    There’s a lot of people that I met at some point in my life and I wouldn’t ever talk to again. Yet receiving those wall posts from the irrelevant people reminds a person that he isn’t forgotten, and when we can’t hold such people responsible for not knowing our birthdays, Facebook indeed serves as a perfect reminder system in my opinion. While they might indeed not matter much, some of the wishes may come from those irrelevant people that mean something to you, or people that remind you of something warm and friendly. Hearing from those kinds of people even in the slightest form of communication might mean something to me, and remind me that that person at least cares enough to write on my wall on my birthday (I assume if 5 of your friends had birthdays on any given date, you would at least write to one or two, but not to all 5; you would be picky).

    Phone calls and in person visits would come from those people who care enough to pay you one regardless and people who don’t need reminders to know your birthday, who tend to be your close friends or family. I just think removing your birthday from Facebook is unfair to those other people who don’t remember or know at all, but would care enough to wish you a happy birthday once they are reminded. After all you receive far lower than a 100% return against your friend list on your birthday wish count on Facebook, I would say 20-30% is more like it.

    I don’t feel for either argument very strongly, but I think the argument I just made is a strong one against yours, at least for the part before you question why people care, which is a different issue. Looking forward to hear what you think!

    • beyroutey says:

      Great thought, Arda! I completely understand why posts wishing you a quick happy birthday can make you feel remembered and cared for. And I’m sure some people process this differently than I do.

      I guess I have to make a distinction between my feelings as a giver and as a receiver. As a recipient, I love hearing from my friends, but would rather start a real conversation with them. You and others have rightly identified that I probably shouldn’t deny friends the opportunity to feel good by sending me a wall post. So in the future, I might restore my birthday just to avoid making anyone feel bad. But my response will be to try to initiate a real conversation with people who post on my wall. Which makes me wish they’d have used a more personal communication medium from the start.

      As a giver, I can’t help but feel that sending someone a wall post gives off an air of “I want this to be seen publicly” and “I don’t necessarily want to have a real conversation at length”. To me, both of those feelings run counter to the idea of wishing someone a happy birthday.

      It takes the same amount of time to send a direct message with the same content, and I find messages superior because that form of communication invites a real conversation. So as a giver, for anyone I’d normally send a wall post (that would get those good feelings you mentioned), I’ll send a message instead. For people I wouldn’t want a conversation with (the ones you identify as ‘skipped’ among birthday notifications), I’d probably continue to skip the communication altogether.

  4. greglafata says:

    this is awesome

  5. […] and prioritize being in the moment. When I’m thinking of someone, I give them a call and avoid empty online interactions. And even in the hustle and bustle of city life, I often disconnect completely and take a walk. […]

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