Sappy Birthday: The Reliable, Artificial Heart of Facebook

I am certainly not the first person to write about the relatively new social phenomenon of the Facebook birthday. On the other hand I may be the last person to actually share my date of birth on Facebook (at least it feels that way to me).

For years I have eschewed what I felt was the insipid practice of posting birthday wishes on people’s Facebook walls. “It’s fake, it’s forced, it’s formulaic,” I would complain. After all, does it not nullify the entire idea of wishing someone “Happy Birthday” if a machine is reminding you to say it, and that machine is only reminding you because the person having the birthday has, in essence, programmed it to remind you? If you are out with someone who demands, “Ask me how I am!” and you respond by saying, “So how are you?” is that really satisfying to the other person?

But this year I was too busy to nudge my friends about my approaching birthday (which, as a person who loves birthday attention, I have become accustomed to doing), so I caved. And anyway, I am at my core an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” type of gal. So I succumbed to the all-powerful God of Facebook.

There seem to be three types of Facebook birthday well-wishers: The Good, the Bad and the Boring. The Good ones give you a little something personal but not too intimate (“Happy Birthday, good luck with your writing!” or “Have fun in Hawaii!”). The Boring ones just write “Happy Birthday!!”--with the prerequisite double exclamation points. Boring in this situation is perfectly fine, in my opinion; if you think of Facebook as a big party, these are the people who are raising their glasses to you when the host (in this case the host is Facebook Notification) offers up a birthday toast.

And the Bad? The Bad are the ones acting like 7th graders, and typify everything I dislike about Facebook and the social networking universe in general. (I myself was fortunate enough not to get any of the Bad, but I have seen them around). The Bad tend to post things like: “Happy Birthday!! Hope you don’t get drunk like last year, when I had to drive you home, and then you sang really loud even though you were already in bed, remember?” Or “Happy Birthday, maybe this year I will actually get to see your face, stranger! R U mad at me? Why don’t you call a person up some time?”

In a perfect world, we might use Facebook as a tool for remembering people’s birthdays, but then do something more personal to commemorate them—a phone call, or a card. But in the real world we seem to lack the time and wherewithal to do that for more than a very few close friends. Of course, that is what made birthday greetings so special in the old days. Now, who wishes you a happy birthday has more to do with how much your friends are keeping up with Facebook than it does with how much they are keeping up with you.

However, as much fun as it is to diss Facebook—and I admit it’s one of my favorite pastimes—I have to say that Facebook’s birthday reminder mechanism is on the whole a great boon. A Facebook acknowledgement is better than missing the birthday entirely. When I was a child, I was sure that by the time we got to 21012, computers would be able to interact with us the way a servant would, like the overly-maternal robot in The Jetsons. I imagined them as perfectly efficient, perfectly discreet personal assistants who would automatically remind us what we have to do, where we have to be. I have always kept a birthday reminder book next to my desk--a calendar of family and friends birthdays--but of course the system doesn’t work unless I remember to write people’s birthdays down and remember to look in the book on a regular basis. How different, really, is the Facebook notification system from my old-fashioned birthday book, except that it does all the work for me—better than I can? Is it so bad, having an electronic birthday secretary? Isn’t that what computers are for?

So now I have completely embraced the Facebook birthday ritual. Does this mean I have become a social zombie? Perhaps. But as we all know from watching zombie movies, once you are a zombie, you are unlikely to care whether you are one or not. You just join the horde of flesh-eaters and have a good time.


  1. Dear Miss Mingle,
    To take it one step further, what is interesting about this is how the birthday person responds to his/her birthday wish. Some don't respond at all. Others post a general comment like "Thank you all for the birthday wishes". While some others respond individually to every single birthday wish they received. That's the kind that makes the Facebook birthday ritual more personal. This is my favorite kind.

    1. Thank you so much for your answer. You've given Miss Mingle something to think about!