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I Charted My Facebook Birthday Wall Posts Since 2005

The results are grim.

A splattered birthday cake, shown on a Facebook feed
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

By one measure, I peaked in 2010, the year I turned 23. That was the birthday when the most people ever, before or since—53 of them—posted on my Facebook wall to celebrate another year of my life on Earth. It’s a good thing I don’t judge my self-worth against how many Facebook wall posts I get every time I turn a year older, or else I’d be in trouble, because on my most recent birthday, about a month ago, I got a measly 13 Facebook birthday well-wishes. (Sorry, that sounds ungrateful—thank you to the 13 of you who still care, especially to that one acquaintance who posts every year, even though we otherwise don’t speak.)

For as long as I can remember, Facebook has dedicated prime real estate—the screen’s upper right corner, usually—to alerting you of your friends’ birthdays. And for a while there, the Facebook birthday was a glorious thing. At one time for my millennial and millennial-adjacent cohort, it was maybe even a highlight of your day. So coming across a recent tweet by Ringer writer Alison Herman that noted “the slow death of the birthday wall post”—and having conveniently just celebrated that birthday I mentioned—I did the only natural thing: I immediately opened my Facebook page, scrolled through 15 years of birthday posts, and tallied all my total messages year over year.

Before the results, a caveat: I can’t promise these numbers aren’t a little screwy. Did I take my birthdate down from Facebook one year? In my fevered count, did I miss a post? Who knows? That said, the neatness of the bell curve I eventually came up with surprised me: With 13 posts this year, I’m almost back down to the 11 I received the year I joined Facebook, in 2005. As Herman suggested, for all the talk of Facebook’s struggle to stay relevant, it’s your own data that might tell the story better than any real statistics ever could.

Chart illustrating the amount of happy birthday wishes the author received by year.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

I can see my entire history with Facebook, and, if I squint, Facebook’s entire growth trajectory, playing out in my little chart. In 2010, the year of my biggest Facebook birthday ever, I was a year out of college, and Facebook still had a fairly central place in my life as a way to keep in touch with old friends and cement ties with new ones; I’m sure I checked it multiple times a day. No mass revolt that caused many users to quit, like after the 2016 election, had occurred yet. Facebook (birthday) business was good.

The tradition of birthday wall posts became part of an internet culture that we all shared, that rush of digital attention we all began to expect and eventually take for granted. I want to stress that it went beyond mere nicety: Posting on a good friend’s wall was essentially obligatory during those heady first years of Facebook, when I was in college. It would start at midnight as soon as your birthday began: People who were still awake studying would write on your wall, and then it would resume the following morning, as presumably everyone you knew saw your name on screen as they checked Facebook for the first time that day. You would compose special messages for your best friends, or if you weren’t creative enough for that, you would at least add some flair in the form of capital letters, asterisks, tildes, and lots of exclamation points. You’d wonder if your crush would post. If your birthday frequently coincided with the Jewish high holidays, as mine did, you would neurotically fret about how this would affect your wall posts. I don’t remember exactly when I stopped leaving birthday wall posts for other people, but all I know is that I used to dedicate a weird amount of psychic energy to the whole practice, and until I started writing this post, I hadn’t thought about that in while.

This custom was of a certain moment, and it was nice while it lasted, but that moment is now over. I consider my chart definitive evidence. A birthday text now feels a little more special in its privacy, the inverse of how the Facebook birthday post was once a novel public performance of friendship. I tend to agree with the point Fast Company once made, that Facebook-birthday-wall-post mania devalued the birthday in a way. But the thing is, I also know all but my closest friends don’t actually remember my birthday; instead, they maybe remember the month and they log into Facebook to check the exact date, or they use Facebook as a guide to program friends’ birthdays into their calendars and send those texts. I know, because I do this too. The birthday economy still runs on Facebook; we just don’t celebrate there anymore.