An Internet Birthday

It was my birthday yesterday.  It was also, perhaps, my birthday that generated the most ever Internet activity.  By that I mean facebook wall posts, emails, eCards etc.  And that got me thinking about the Internet and what it is doing to and for human relationships.  This birthday event is the perfect microcosm from which we can study that.


So first, let’s take a look at exactly what activity was generated by my birthday yesterday.  Let’s start with Facebook.

Facebook reminds users when it is the birthday of one of their friends in a little panel beside the main news feed.  For example, I’m reminded that it is my cousin, Robert Duffy’s, birthday today. Using this reminder, I can click “Rob Duffy”, type “Happy Birthday!” at the top of his wall and be done with it.  Let’s time this action… okay, 2.5 seconds.

So, of my 185 Facebook friends, 3 decided to do just that.

The next rung on the engagement ladder was to type my name as well, such as “Happy Birthday Chris!”, “Happy Birthday Yudo”, “Happy Birthday Fed” or some variation on that.  That might have taken an extra second, especially if they came up with some kind of nickname.  I count 9 who did something like that.

Next we have those who followed the best wishes with something like “Have a great day” or even “sending a birthday dance your way.”  I’d give equal points to someone who came up with an original way to wish me a happy birthday, such as “happy happy!” or followed it with an open question like “How are you doing?”  So in this category we have 8.

Then there are those who either went all out with something like this:

And there were those that had a longer personalized message that would have taken some reflection and thought.  So among them we have 6 friends on Facebook.

That makes for a total of 26 friends who greeted me in some way on Facebook taking between 3 and, say, 30 seconds each to do so.


I received 6 birthday greetings via email which ranged from a message that said “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” in the subject line, with no message following, to much more personalized messages from people I hadn’t heard from in a while.  I also received one eCard.  I had to watch an ad before I could view the card:


I spoke mainly with my family here throughout the day but also received a call from a 2-year-old in a bath tub and a voicemail from my financial advisor.


I received four birthday cards in the mail and am told two more are on the way.

In Person

Finally, I had one person wish me a happy birthday in flesh and blood real life, unprompted.  Fancy that!  And then there were a few others who did so after I told them it was my birthday.

So What?

Birthdays give the opportunity for us to appreciate and honor someone in our lives.  We do this by giving a little bit of ourselves: our attention, our time, and sometimes our effort or money in the form of a gift.  What the Internet has done here is make it really easy for us to participate in this exchange by lowering the bar of entry to just 3 seconds.  No preparation, reflective thought or emotion is necessary to write “Happy Birthday!” on someone’s facebook wall after seeing a reminder.  Put another way, the humanity in the transaction can be practically non-existant.

It would be quite easy to write a Facebook app that does exactly that.  Each day, it will scan your friends and see if there are any birthdays.  If one exists, it would write “Happy Birthday!” on their wall for you.  That would save us three seconds on many days of the year.  From one perspective, that’s fantastic!

I, personally, rarely act on a birthday reminder on Facebook.  I feel conflicted in honoring someone I may indeed care about with so minimal an action.  The fact that these messages are also public, for hundreds to see, also seems to pollute the purity of the sentiment.  And for “friends” that I don’t care about, the action would seem disingenuous.

I do, however, acknowledge that that is not other people’s experience.  Perhaps some people do find it worthwhile or better than nothing to give a micro-honorific such as a “Happy Birthday!” on someone’s Facebook wall.

Imagine what it was like in the old days.  You would notice on your calendar on the fridge that it was someone’s birthday.  You had put that reminder in your calendar and copy it, by hand, from year to year.  You then had to look up their address in some address book that you had made and updated by hand, buy a card from the store, pen in some worthy greeting, buy a stamp, put them all together, and remember to post it days in advance.  That takes a good deal of effort, even if you are the type of person who had the whole process automated somewhat.

So What?

Are we better off in this Internet age or not?  Do I feel that fully human events like my birthday were celebrated in a fully human way because of or despite the efficiency that the Internet provides.  Was the humanity of all who participated in this exchange nourished?  Was it helped or hindered by Facebook, email, etc?

Just because I am writing this post, it’s obvious that I am suspicious—suspicious of the Internet and how it is influencing the quality of human relationships.  But I also wonder whether we can really know its full effect.  Just how do you measure such a thing?  Human dynamics are changing, but can we actually say they are getting worse?  Isn’t that outcome ultimately up to us and our decisions as individuals?  I do believe, however, that the human spirit as a whole, in all its mystery and majesty, is not so easily confused or contained by a technology, a political system, or a cultural ideology—not in the long run.

8 Responses to “An Internet Birthday”

  1. Florence Says:

    Hey Yudo,

    This was really interesting. On reflection, I think that these FB birthday greetings are the equivalent of seeing someone across the street and yelling out, “Hi! Happy Birthday!” but not actually going across the street to stop and talk (or as Larry David says, a “stop and chat”).

    I think FB is what it is, and not anything else. (My nephew told me that he and his friends say, “It’s just Facebook.”) I think we’re all making it up as we go along. And that the human spirit cannot be contained by it, but perhaps sometimes confused.

    : ) Flo

  2. William Says:

    I thought about typing the ‘happy birthday’ (option 1 above) but didn’t because I figure you’re suspicious of these things.
    What I like about facebook is that I am facebook friends with people from years ago, people I wouldn’t be in contact with otherwise – We live in different parts of the world, don’t work together, go to school together etc… But I like these folks. In a small town we would great each on the street, talk a bit. And most of my facebook friends are like that as well. Nothing great, but I enjoy being able to have the small amount of contact I do have with them.
    I hope you’re well. Spring is finally here. Flowers up. So nice after out very cold and snowy winter. And Happy Belated

  3. Chris Abraham Says:

    @Florence. Good points. I think it’s useful to look to the younger generation and see how they are using technology because, for whatever reason, they always seem so much further ahead than the rest of us.

    @William. Yes, but do these short exchanges on facebook really nourish you as much as short exchanges, face-to-face, on a street or some place? I think, for me, no. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe they are better than nothing and don’t replace but, rather, add something to our regular social life.

  4. William Says:

    Maybe they are better than nothing and don’t replace but, rather, add something to our regular social life.

    yes. definitely don’t replace the face to face.

  5. Rob Duffy Says:

    happy belated!

  6. Birthday Greetings Says:

    We receive those birthday wishes from different ways like facebook, email, phone,cards and social networks. I think these all are better than nothing. By using these methods we are not able to great personally. We have to add something to our regular social life.


  7. maryb Says:

    interesting piece, Chris.

    having avoided facebook for years, and being quite new to it (as of noon yesterday!), it seems we have to intuit what is or is not meaningful in these exchanges. maybe the new technologies are asking us to develop a 7th sense? or, yeah, maybe it’s “just facebook.”

  8. Chris Abraham Says:

    now the NYTimes is writing about this too :)