My phone continually vibrated throughout my last birthday. Each alert was from Facebook, each indicating another friend had posted a short note to my wall. I received 69 birthday messages that day, with 6 belateds on May 8th. The intent was sweet, but each one made me more annoyed than the last. For the first time, Facebook was ruining my birthday.
Prior to Facebook, birthdays for adults kind of sucked. I personally couldn’t eat birthday cake (I’m gluten-free), didn't plan trips (I’m too cheap), and felt too old to start drinking at noon (at least on a weekday). That all made for a very unhappy birthday.
That changed when Facebook started featuring birthday alerts on the homepage. I didn’t realize this impact until my birthday back in 2010. That first morning two years ago, I was shocked when I was woken up by a Facebook notification from a woman I went to high school with. She was wishing me “Happy Birthday” from across the country. How strange. Including our four years in school together, those were the first two words this woman had ever spoken to me.
The Facebook comments didn’t end there. During that day in 2010, I was inundated with birthday wishes by former co-workers, college friends, family, and people that I wasn’t exactly sure I knew. The constant attention made me feel the way birthdays used to make me feel when I was a kid. It made my day special. It made me feel special.
Now back to this year’s birthday: The flurry of “Happy Birthday” comments continued throughout the day, just like they had in 2010 and 2011. But now that Facebook birthday messages were no longer novel, I was focusing on the lack of content in most of the messages. 90% of the messages were two words long. “Happy Birthday!” I know this was not anyone’s intent, but ten “Happy Birthday”s in a row started to feel meaningless, emotionless and obligatory. For a lot of my Facebook friends, I think it was just part of their morning To Do list:
- Feed dogs.
- Check email.
- Post Happy Birthdays on Facebook.
...and I'm not even sure each of these To Dos were being done separately. Overall, I felt like 90% of my friends were just phoning it in – and thanks to Facebook’s iPhone and Android apps, many literally were.
I understand how this happened, because I am guilty of it myself. I’ve posted tons of two-word “Happy Birthday” comments. By 2012, the simple “Happy Birthday” comment had become Facebook’s new Poke.
But only 90% of the Facebook birthday messages were two words long. The other 10% were the people who took an extra 30 seconds to write a genuine, considerate message. My friends Scott and Deb each sent wonderfully warm messages (as they always do). College friends mentioned names and places I had not thought of in twenty years. Some folks I don’t often talk to still took the time to write a personalized message. This was the true power of social media - people that would not have called or emailed on my birthday were given an easy delivery system to communicate a brief but thoughtful message.
Unfortunately, this 10% was being diluted by the other 90%.
So what’s the Rich Fix?
With my fix, a simple filter is added to Facebook. Facebook friends can’t post a Happy Birthday message if the post is shorter than six words. “Happy Birthday” can be two. That means only four words of original thought are needed. Think about it - if you can’t muster up four additional, non-generic words on the anniversary of a person's mortal coil entering this realm, then do you really need to say anything at all?
Until Facebook embraces and implements this Rich Fix, I’ve challenged myself to self-enforce a six-word minimum on birthdays. I’m now only sending birthday wishes to those people that inspire me to dream up at least four additional words. You know what? It’s hard. While it forces me to stop posting birthday messages to people I don't know very well, it also pushes me to say something genuine to those I do care about. That makes each birthday special, not for all of my Facebook friends, but for all of my friends on Facebook.
I hate obligatory small talk in real life, so why reproduce it digitally? Ultimately, I want this to be my goal with every communication with every friend, on every digital means of communication, every day of the year. But I’ll start with baby steps, and just focus on birthdays for now. For Facebook friends’ birthdays, I'm sending genuine emotion as my virtual gift.