Facebook has made birthdays weird. “It’s XYZs birthday!”, Facebook tells me when I jump on it in the morning. “Send them well wishes!”, or: “Help them celebrate!” I’ve learned to ignore the message, mostly, since it’s repetitive and pre-programmed and counters Facebook’s general penchant for amping up its users’ collective narcissism. Every little red notification ought to say: “Someone’s thinking about you!” “Someone else is thinking about you!”, not: “Think about someone else! Make someone else feel good!” It’s almost admirable, this interface’s attempt to work against its own programming – and, by extension, our own programming.
But it’s a little off-putting, too. There is perhaps no greater manifestation of Facebook’s desire to mechanize relationships than its birthday interface. Facebook used to (and by “used to,” I mean, “used to a couple years ago”; I don’t remember earlier versions) let you know about your friends’ birthdays, but it didn’t encourage you to do anything about them, much less make it easy for you to do anything about them. In those days, every single wall post garnered significance; every single post presented me with an individual notification. On my birthday, I used step away from the screen and let the notifications pile up. I watched them surge in number and eventually surpass 100 when they’d (somewhat disappointingly) begin again at 1. These notifications were markers of my birthday’s uniqueness: it was the only day when I’d get even close to that many notifications. It felt embarrassingly good, knowing that people went at least a little out of their way to send me thoughts. (In case you haven’t noticed: notifications were like Ego Crack to High School Nathan.)
I think, during those first couple years, I responded to the massive glut of messages en mass: “Thanks, all, for the birthday wishes,” and so on. But then, as Facebook realized that friends wanted to write on each other’s walls for birthday encouragement, they started to make it easier for us: we could send birthday messages on the upper-right corner of our homepage. It organized our birthday wall posts in one tidy column that opened up and out, away from the rest of the Timeline’s clutter, like an isolated file folder full of tax receipts. This mechanical ease seemed to perpetuate even more mechanical messages: “Happy birthday!” “Happy birthday!!!” “Happy b-day!!”
I mean to say nothing against the message-writers. I can rarely think of more creative or meaningful birthday wall posts myself. (Hell, I hardly even write on people’s walls for their birthdays, and then I feel bad about myself because I want to be liked.) The banal birthday message isn’t a bad banal: it says “I’m thinking of you,” and that’s usually enough. But when it’s folded into Facebook’s pre-programmed mechanism, it can feel like human originality and particularity and rough edges have been sanded off completely, slid like a CD-ROM into a pre-molded slot. Man and machine might as well be the same. When Facebook asks me to wish my friends a happy birthday, I almost think: well, why don’t you do it for me? You might as well. It hardly matters if I write “Happy birthday!” or whether the smart machine does it for me, on my behalf, like my own (im)personal secretary.
Or maybe this points to exactly what matters when it comes to writing birthday messages. In our mechanic age, it’s the personal will, the brain that registers another person’s existence, the human fingers on the keyboard, that matter most of all. When I get birthday messages, they’re the indexical markers of people registering my existence, thinking positively of me. The problem isn’t them: the problem is me, the selfish person that’d prefer to think of human beings as an accumulation of red numbers on the upper-right hand corner of the screen; the problem is the dude cynical enough to think that every “happy birthday!!” message might as well come from a robot.
A couple years ago, I made a decision: I would not just respond to all of the birthday messages at once, like an Internet King addressing his crowd of identical, faceless subjects below his e-Castle’s high-up Browser Window. I would plow through the messages and reply to every single one. I would put effort into it: while I would sometimes give up and respond with the mechanically banal “thanks!”, I would try to come up with an individual, genuine message for several well-wishers.
It was hard. It took time. But I ended up starting personal conversations with people I hadn’t spoken to for quite some time. We began pleasant back-and-forths: nothing too deep, but undeniably human. (And undeniably aided by the non-human, I must add.) It felt like a good goal: I don’t give a shit how easy or brainless or automatic Facebook makes it; if you take the time to write on my Timeline, I’m going to reach out and treat you like the real-life person you are.
I no longer crave that little red notification like I used to. I don’t know if that means I’ve grown selfless or if I’m just desensitized to that particular egomaniacal thrill. (Probably the latter.) But I’ve kept my birthday message determination. And when I hold to that commitment, I feel a little thrill in the pit of my stomach derived from the steady act of turning simple, ego-boosting messages back outward, away from me, toward bilateral back-and-forths with full-on gosh-darn people.
And here’s the kicker: when I consider what I should send to well-wishers, when I sit at my computer and go through 100+ of these little things, it’s work. But the more I work, the more I try to empathetically imagine these people from California and Texas and New York and Cambridge and beyond, the more I feel the weight and gift of my many relationships wash over me; the more I consider the incredible diversity and particularities of the people I’ve had relationships with throughout my short life. When else, in human freaking history, have people been able to consider the multiplicity of their lifelong relationships in one single place? When have they been able to reach out to all of these people like a hand running along hundreds of inter-rooted hair follicles in one ecstatic stroke? Big parties, maybe. Weddings, maybe. But that’s about it. Working with, and against, the Facebook machine allows for this.
The more time I spend doing this, the more I’m awed by the teeming rhizome of humanity I’m blessed to meet and grow with, to twirl and knot around, to swell and mesh with. Deep, intimate, one-on-one relationships are a gift. But linked and networked diversity is a gift, too, and not one to be scoffed at or ignored or conflated with mechanical impersonality. (For what it’s worth, people like Jesus seemed to embrace both gifts with equal levels of gusto.)
In Essay on The Gift, Durkheim’s disciple Marcel Mauss explores the root of the sort of sweeping, Sublime feeling that washes over me when I try to respond to these many messages. Mauss, Tim Ingold explains, “showed how the gift I give to you” – i.e.: the happy birthday greeting – “that is incorporated into your very being, remains fully conjoined with me. Through the gift, my awareness penetrates yours – I am with you in your thoughts – and in your counter-gift, you are with me in mine. And so as long as we continue to give and receive, this interpenetration can carry on or perdure. Our lives are bound together as literally as two hands clasping…. And in carrying around, they wrap around each other, like the many strands of a rope.” As our lives interpenetrate and wrap around each other, they “form a boundless and ever-extending meshwork.”
It can be trite and mechanical and inhuman, sure, but I stand by the (arguably naïve) claim that Facebook’s social network can both illuminate and perpetuate our social meshwork. Wrap around me and I’ll wrap around you. The gifts that began with our individual births will join and expand in the awesome hypertrophy of multi-personal life. And that’s something worth celebrating.
 Ingold, Tim. The Life of Lines. London: Routledge, 2015. 10-11. Print.