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:
- I’d receive very few happy birthday notifications, if any at all.
- 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.