Happy Unbirthday!

Over the past 2 years, facebook has modified the way they display friends’ birthdays quite a few times. The result, in my humble opinion, is that the feature continues to get easier (and consequently more mindless) to use. First, birthday greetings were buried near the bottom of the right side of your news feed. (Sometimes I’d even have to scroll down a bit). Later, they were moved way up to the top, always in your face. Most recently, a feature was added that removed the need to actually go to someone’s wall to leave them a greeting. From your personal news feed page, you can click on each person who has a birthday that day and leave them a quick message, typed and sent before you blink twice. Then, just click copy, go to the next “friend” below, click paste, change their name or initials, add or subtract a few exclamation marks, and in less than a minute, you’ve brightened the days of all of your friends born on that day. Isn’t that amazing?

Armed with these thoughts, I felt the need to experiment. After my real birthday in early February, I edited my facebook profile to show my birthday as February 27th, about 3 weeks later. Then, I waited.

The goal of this experiment was to see how people use facebook’s birthday announcement feature. It was not in any way a scientifically valid experiment, and I only mention this because it was the prime criticism voiced by those whose facebook birthday rituals were exposed by it. One person even bothered to write you dont have the know-how or the right tools to conduct such an experiment for its results to be accurate.” Well, the results I posted were the factual ones listed here:

  • 99 facebook contacts wished me Happy Birthday on my actual birthday.
  • Of those, 48 wished me Happy Birthday AGAIN on Feb. 27.
  • Only 5 of the original 99 caught me trying to have two birthdays in a month. (One was my mother, who should know – it’s kind of a memorable experience – so we’re down to 4.) *This stat is the least reliable of all, since it is quite possible that others questioned what they saw but didn’t bother to say anything.
  • 2 others (who sent wishes on my actual birthday via something other than facebook) caught me in the days leading up to my fake second birthday, and one of their messages, posted mere hours before Feb. 27th’s arrival, was left on my facebook page for all to see. Still, moments after 12am, the wishes started coming in, right on top of the comment “as if tomorrow is your birthday!”
  • At least 5 of the 48 who sent wishes on both days wrote exactly the same thing on both days. (I only noted those that were hyper-obvious and easy to spot)

Plainly, there was no special “know-how” or “tools” required to observe and report the above other than simple addition – which I can assure you that I have mastered. But, just to reassure the skeptics, I had excel check my 1+1+1+… math.

Certain statistics are missing from the above list of results. Note how I did NOT tabulate the number of people who ONLY sent me birthday wishes on the wrong date. This is not a key element to the experiment as it would be ridiculous and unreasonable to expect everyone on my facebook friend list to know the exact date on which I was born. There is no meaning to be taken from this other than, I submit, that they trusted me to put my correct birthday on facebook. To these people, I am sorry to have misled you and I thank you for the well wishes.

To those who caught me, whether you said something publicly or not, in addition to the above thanks, please accept a big virtual hug of appreciation, redeemable the next time we see each other for a real one. I have never before wanted to be called out as much in my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Using (and abusing) facebook’s birthday feature makes seeming sincere too easy. So easy, in fact, that you don’t even have to go to someone’s “wall” to send them birthday wishes. (It’s not really much to ask, is it?) If you had to, you might notice that others are giving you valuable information. It is so mindless, in fact, that sending wishes to someone on their birthday takes mere seconds requiring little to no thought. So little thought, that almost 50% of people who sent wishes on the 27th also sent them 3 weeks earlier, and apparently didn’t give a second thought to it. Some even admitted as much, as if that was a valid defense that justified their behaviour.

Again, while I DO appreciate those who took the few seconds to send me wishes on either day, the right one or the fake one, any logical person has to question the value of wishes sent on both days. An old expression suggests that you can count your true friends on the fingers of one hand. New technology tries to artificially debunk that. I am under no illusion that I have almost 1000 friends despite what facebook tells me. We cannot rely on facebook to maintain our personal relationships for us. We still need to pay attention to them in real life.

This same person (and one other) wrote to me saying that they are tired and busy and that’s why they sent wishes twice. I remember, when facebook made their most recent changes, thinking that each morning I would wake up and send birthday wishes to everyone that facebook told me had a birthday that day. It would be a daily routine. Then, I realized that such a thoughtless, impersonal gesture would only serve to make me feel good about appearing to do something nice, while hiding the fact that I didn’t really care to send any real wishes, only to do what facebook had made convenient. I suggest that that’s what’s really going on here. Now I admit that I am drawing non-statistically significant conclusions on my experiment; they’re called opinions. I have a right to them as a human. You have a right to disagree. Consider, however, that disagreeing might be just an easy way to avoid taking responsibility for sending auto-pilot birthday greetings rather than paying a modicum of attention to who you are wishing what to and when.

Brevity has never consistently been my strength, so I will quote Deb who got “caught” sending me birthday wishes on both days. In her reaction to the results of the experiment, she summed up facebook birthday greetings perfectly. “FB allows us to be “thoughtful” without really putting any thought into it…(u can quote me ;)” Perfectly said, Deb. And, to your credit, thanks for taking this experiment the way it was designed.

Now, if anyone feels offended by this experiment or by anything coming from it, I invite you to instead laugh it off as the facebook experiment that it is and use it as an opportunity to reflect on the role that social media plays in your life, how you rely on it, and the impacts that social media and other social constructs have had on your interpersonal relationships.

And if your immediate response to that invitation is that you don’t have the time or interest for that, then look at what you do have the time or interest for instead (i.e. facebook). If one doesn’t have the time to invest in bettering their relationship to others in their lives, then how much are their facebook birthday “wishes” really worth anyway?

If you are still offended (or even more so now), well there’s not much I can do. I don’t apologize for this experiment. I think it is crucial, like James wrote in his reaction on facebook, to start consciously unplugging from the social media addiction. We must stop relying so heavily on social media to remind us of the things we had to consciously work to remember  before this technology existed. Let’s put the effort into real human interaction and pick up the phone to call people for their birthdays. I would rather get a handful of phone calls than a hundred greetings on facebook.

Jesse, who also surprisingly got “caught”, asked “I wonder how many birthday wishes you’re gonna get next year… Don’t be thinking there’s an unlimited supply. You may have used them all up with these shenanigans!!” Well, Jesse, that’s a very clever question. After I decided to do this, I briefly thought “shit, this experiment will upset some people so much that they will ignore my future birthdays!” Then, I realized that if someone didn’t remember that they wished me happy birthday 3 weeks earlier, they probably won’t remember to hold a grudge for 11+ months!

Despite being one of the few people who publicly called me out for fishing for birthday wishes I didn’t deserve, Michelle adapted an old but famous movie character. In her criticism of me, she brought up a conversation about lemmings that we had on the night of the experiment, after I congratulated her for catching me red handed. She wrote: “In 1958, the crew of Disney’s White Wilderness PUSHED those lemmings off the cliff. They did not jump. You created the cliff and gave those FB friends of yours a gentle shove.”

Her analogy is only part right. While I concede that I created the cliff, I did not push anyone. People did what they did, and all I am doing is observing, reporting, and offering an opinion on what happened. I am creating an opinion of the value/sincerity of wishes of those who sent them twice within a very short time frame. Again, while it is not scientifically sound, it remains my prerogative as a person. What I object to is people blaming the cliff for having fallen over it.

To adapt a famous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel [any way] without your consent. Only you are responsible for how you feel. And in order to avoid feeling a way that we find undesirable, we humans look for scapegoats. We cling to rationalizations and interpretations that we can hold on to in order to believe that it’s not our fault; that someone else is to blame. The key to personal growth is in looking at every situation as if you are 100% responsible – even, and especially, when you absolutely don’t want to be.

In the end, each person, whether they had a part in this experiment or not, will see it as they decide to see it. One can choose to focus on the cliff I created or on the possible lessons learned because of it. It is amazing to me how so many people witnessed the exact same experiment yet came out of it with opinions and feelings spanning the entire spectrum from “funny” and “interesting” to “antagonizing” and “disrespectful.” The only explanation for this, once again, is that it is a question of attitude. When you make a mistake, who do you choose to be? Are you the person who plays the victim card and blames others or the one who finds the nearest mirror and takes a long, hard, honest look. I hope you choose the mirror.

Special thanks to David Plotz who conducted the same experiment with his “friends” and posted about it here: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2011/08/my_fake_facebook_birthdays.single.html and to my friend Nicholas Smith who brought it closer to home and inspired me to try it for myself.