over 9 years on 2009-05-11


today is jev's birthday...   and while there are plenty of 'off gird' ways to wish her well, sitting in front of my screen in nyc while she is in sf i quickly ponder how the internets (specifically facebook) has totally changed the value-flow of birthday wishes. (stick with me - the early bit of this is old/obvious, the end is fun and new)...

remembering birthdays once carried value, but no more:  for years i kept detailed records of close friends birthdays and had annual calendar updates set up.  people appreciated it when i remembered their birthday (or, at least the fact that i took the time to put them in outlook and then make a call).  facebook destroyed that in 2005 as a form of meaningful social expression.  when it took effort/investment to remember someones birthday, wishing them well carried some meaning.  there was investment and an exchange (i bet before writing was invented remembering someones birthday was even more meaningful - although they probably didn't remember themselves).  now, since there is zero investment in remembering the birthday, there is zero value in the expression of just remembering the date.

facebook also devalued the communication of b-day wishes:  when fb rolled out 'the wall' a whole new birthday dynamic evolved.  the new and massively devalued 'currency' was in following a pre-formatted immediately at hand link to make a 'wall' post...  (or, later, perhaps invest in selecting and then put physical capital against a virtual gift).  you not only got the date for free, but you got their address and an open line for free as well -- the cost of sending birthday wishes declined dramatically, so the volume of wishes went way up.  basically, the currency was doubly devalued -- both remembering birthdays and sending the message itself lost value --

but that was hardly the half of it....

'wall' actually made b-day wishes a negative cost:  'wall' + birthday reminders = an almost instant competition to who posted first.  while you might make the argument that this was a way to re-introduced some value into the birthday system (all of a sudden, there was some appreciation of the expression of being first) i would argue it was actually propelled by a totally different social mechanism...  what was really evolving is that if you were first, everyone else coming after you would see your name and photo posted up.  you actually gained social currency.  people no longer posted for the sake of the birthday, they posted for the sake of the social currency.  it was essentially like having a high social-search ranking.  wishing someone a happy birthday was selfish.

then they became a really negative cost with news-feed:  then came newsfed and the fun ramped up.  with newsfeed not only did you get to harvest social credit via people also visiting a profile page... but you got to magnify that credibility throughout your and the birthday girl's network.  all of a sudden you could get social credit across a whole network of people, not just mutual friends, by being the first to wish a 'happy birthday'

now, with feed comments, the birthday girl is actually the one that pays the 'well wisher':  the new phenom is actually a total inversion of traditional birthday wishes.  with an avalanche of 'happy birthday' posts, it is actually the birthday girl who gives to the 'well wisher' value by commenting on/responding to/ and thereby validating 'true' friends...  it is a tax.  the birthday wishing ritual has inverted, the mating dance has gone all topsy turvy.  the unit of currency is no longer wishing a happy birthday to someone, but the thank-you comment in the opposite direction.  you want to be the chosen birthday well wisher who gets the response - and the glory.

so, what is left? what can the new social expression of birthday care for those you appreciate mean...  i might argue that it is taking up your own social space... posting in your limited social messaging footprint to sometimes unwilling listeners, posting on your twitter feed... or perhaps writing a blog post about the birthday -- it is inflicting pain on your network for the glory of another :)

or -- just as likely -- this is actually the greatest inversion of all.... leveraging your girlfriend's birthday into a post on your blog :)  --

either way, thinking of you and love you jev -- happy birthday

original swl blogposts and letters 2007-2010