My introduction to the American birthday tradition was at the age of seven. My introduction to Facebook birthdays came years later in my twenties, but the two were similarly bizarre. Instead of being suddenly flooded with cakes and presents one day each year, I got virtual pokes and wall messages. Imagine the second decade of your life echoing the first, but in a hyper-virtual way with fewer edibles. Eventually, I got tired of all the superficial “Happy Birthdays” and disabled Facebook’s birthday for my account.
There are always a few friends who will inevitably write on my wall out of spite. They say things like, “Isn’t it your birthday today?” or “Phi doesn’t want you to know, but it’s her birthday today.” It’s social bullying. You can opt out, but you can’t ignore the herd.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Facebook birthdays at its inception, but as my friend list grew, I became more suspicious of broadcasting my day as a means for social engagement. People I have not seen in years would spend a few seconds populating my wall with comments I would never see again. It was like popcorn – empty of value, but always getting stuck in your teeth.
Of course I always feel guilty for not participating in the obligatory “happy birthday” postings on my friends’ walls and genuinely attempted for many years to write something special for most everyone. Now there are at least two or three each day and birthday walls get so filled I wonder if they would even notice the absence of one or two wishes.
Lately, I have noticed that virtual birthdays are also becoming a creature of their own making – a means for social interactions without physical labor to induce hype. Take this commercial from Outback Steakhouse. It presents a hugging chair that will give you the same friendly loving affection if they were physically there at your birthday dinner. Obviously, if you get too many pokes, you won’t be able to eat, but at over 2,200 calories you won’t need to eat much more than a blooming onion.
What’s even worse is the proliferation of non-birthdays to other social sites like LinkedIn. Maybe I am just antisocial and uncomfortable with the idea of people recognizing my existence once a year, but a synchronized chorus of “happy job birthday” feels not at all satisfying. Can I get a raise instead?
I’d like to propose a new birthday tradition: give or donate your time to others on your birthday. I think it’s refreshingly not egocentric and doesn’t make me feel like I am in the throes of a social crisis for existential acknowledgement.