Good manners, of course, are just artifice—formalized rituals, designed for social lubrication, that mean nothing. From the cotillion curtsey to the subway-train “excuse me,” they create automatic mechanisms for encountering strangers and papering over conflict. They are false, but they are necessary.
Yet there is one manifestation of good manners that appears to have exactly the opposite purpose, a form of social lubrication that makes a mockery of everyone connected to it. I refer to the Facebook birthday greeting. The Facebook birthday greeting has become a symbol of all that is irritating about the social network. Every April 11 or June 7 or Sept. 28, your Facebook account suddenly chatters with exclamation-point-polluted birthday wishes. If you are a typical Facebook user, these greetings come mainly from your nonfriend friends—that group of Facebook “friends” who don’t intersect with your actual friends. The wishes have all the true sentiment of a Christmas card from your bank. The barrage of messages isn’t unpleasant, exactly, but it’s all too obvious that the greetings are programmed, canned, and impersonal, prompted by a Facebook alert. If, as Facebook haters claim, the social network alienates us from genuine friendship, the Facebook birthday greeting is the ultimate example of its fakery.
So I decided that if Facebook was going to bombard me with fake birthday wishes, I was going to bombard Facebook with fake birthdays. The Queen of England has two birthdays every year: Why shouldn’t I have three birthdays in a single month? I was born on Jan. 31, but I’ve always wanted a summer birthday. I set my Facebook birthday for Monday, July 11. Then, after July 11, I reset it for Monday, July 25. Then I reset it again for Thursday, July 28. Facebook doesn’t verify your birthday, and doesn’t block you from commemorating it over and over again. If you were a true egomaniac, you could celebrate your Facebook birthday every day. (You say it’s your birthday? It’s my birthday too!)
At the end of June, I edited my profile to mark my first fake birthday on July 11. Early birthday greetings began popping up on my wall on July 8, from a couple of “friends” who were going away and didn’t want to miss the big day. Why “friends” in quotes? I have a Facebook account primarily for work reasons: I use it to alert acquaintances to Slate stories and to post photos from Slate events. I do very little actual social networking on the social network. Of my 1,557 Facebook friends, I’ve probably met only 200, and I’d count only 100 as actual friends. (For example, I am not sure if I am friends with my wife.)
By the morning of July 11, my wall was crammed with birthday greetings, and by the end of the day, 119 people had wished me happy birthday—or rather “Happy Birthday!!” (which appears to be standard Facebook birthday punctuation). Only four old and close friends were skeptical that I was celebrating my birthday in July, though most of them attributed the confusion to their own faulty memories. One, the brilliant John M., sensed something profoundly wrong, posting: “Is this some Slate experiment about the Pavlovian response of people to Facebook birthday notifications?”
My second fake birthday, two weeks later, was when things started to get strange. I received 105 birthday wishes on July 25, nearly as many as two weeks earlier. This time, nine people suspected something was awry. James P., for example, jibed: “It must be pretty nice having multiple birthdays each year, let alone in the same month!” But the skeptics were far outnumbered by profligate birthday wishers. Of the 105 birthday wishes, 45 of them—nearly half—came from people who had wished me a Facebook happy birthday two weeks earlier. The highlight of my second fake birthday? Playbook, Politico’sfamous Washington tip sheet, included me in its daily birthday greetings, prompting a whole raft of non-Facebook birthday wishes from D.C. insider friends.
Three days later I celebrated my third and final fake Facebook birthday. My social network was clearly sick of me. I received only 71 birthday wishes on July 28, down from more than 100 on my first two fake birthdays. And even more skeptics caught on to the experiment: 16 doubters, compared with 9 from three days earlier. Several of them observed that I appeared to be aging quickly, while Jen M. threatened, “I’m about to write an investigative piece looking into how it’s your birthday every day on FB …” The next day, July 29, Brian S. wrote: “I’m shocked that it doesn’t seem to be your Facebook Birthday for the first time in recent memory. ;)”
Even so, the repeat birthday greeters still trumped the doubters. Almost 30 people wished me a happy birthday on July 28 having already wished me a happy birthday on one of my previous non-birthdays. Sixteen people sent me Facebook birthday wishes on all three Facebook birthdays, not noting or perhaps not caring about the repetition. One friend even wished me four happy birthdays, congratulating me twice on one of my fake days. The messages from one of these three-time greeters, a friend I’ve never met named Barry P., were almost poignant.
On July 11, he wrote: “Wishing you a very happy birthday David & a wonderful year!”
On July 25, he upped it: “Wishing you a very happy birthday David & your best year ever!”
On July 28, the superlative was gone: “Wishing you a very happy birthday David & a terrific year!”
Some of the repeat-greeters, perhaps hoping to differentiate their contributions, had developed their own birthday formulas. Ben S. on July 11: “HBD DP! Hope this is your best new year evuh.” On July 25: “HBD DP! Hope this is your best new year evuh.” And on July 28, “”HBD DP! Everybody down South is hopin’ this is your best new year evuh.”
Don’t mistake my observation for derision. Mass electronic communication is destroying our memories, since we rely on devices to protect us from embarrassing ourselves. I routinely send an email to a friend on a Tuesday, and then send her exactly same email on Thursday. Even so, the Facebook fake birthday experiment did end up confirming my worst fears about the network. All too many birthday wishes are autonomic, sent without thought or personal feeling. It’s one thing to remember your friend’s birthday because you took him out a decade ago for his drunken 21st birthday debauch. It’s much lamer to “remember” your friend’s birthday because Facebook told you to. A significant number of Facebookers clearly use the service without sentiment, attempting to build social capital—undeserved social capital—with birthday greetings that they haven’t thought about based on birthday memories of you that they don’t actually have.
And yet my three-birthday July was not completely demoralizing. An encouraging number of my friends—many of them my actual friends—were so socially alert that they cottoned on to my manipulation of the Facebook birthday system. And these friends who saw through my experiment didn’t let it darken their mood or cause them to spread ill will: Almost everyone who recognized that my birthday was bogus wished me a Happy Birthday anyway, like Eileen H.: “Did I not just wish u this? Well, hbd s’more!” They sought to increase good feeling in the world—and toward me, even though they knew I didn’t deserve it.