It’s your birthday today. Depending on the kind of person you are, you either sleep in on your special day or bounce out of bed at an early hour to enjoy the day for as long as you can. After you read birthday wishes from your parents and grandparents, you go immediately to Facebook to check for the revered notification: “[Insert friend name here] posted on your Timeline.”
Thus begins a day with one leg in the real world and one leg online. Any ping, whether it’s a Facebook notification or not, sends you catapulting to Facebook to check the growth of your birthday post compilation. In class, you check Facebook to read and reread the ways in which your friends’ birthday posts materialize on your Timeline, transforming your wall into a scrolling cascade of well-wishes.
Constructing the perfect birthday post is an art. One may either write a candid post the length of a short essay, complete with a photo of the birthday person and well-wisher at age three, or troll the birthday person by posting a silly, embarrassing photo and/or caption on their Timeline. (I recently posted a rather lovely looping video clip of my brother shooting and missing a three-pointer for his 22nd birthday.)
The deepest, most wonderful birthday posts from the dearest of friends combine elements of both. The site insists that the sincerest friendships consist of words and images, anecdotes and pictures, something to publicly prove that a relationship exists between one user and another.
Part of it has to do with user engagement. Blocks of texts are not as appealing as colorful photos or comical videos; with images, users can tag one other in an avalanche of comments and supplementary content. Inside jokes are the currency on which this economy of sincerity runs: whimsical photos and funny, sentimental reminiscence.
But what if your reservoir of photos or anecdotes is lacking? Does this make your birthday posts less genuine?
The format of Facebook’s birthday prompt causes us to consider posts without these elements incomplete. The image-caption composite is the peak of sincerity within a hierarchy of cordiality, spanning from posts containing mini-photo albums and blog-length text to simple “happy birthday” wishes or nothing at all. To the audience outside the well-wisher and recipient, a post short of both elements seems deficient of sincerity. The irony is that the entire compilation of individual birthday wishes lacks such sincerity, valuing the quantity of posts. We have unspoken competitions against ourselves — and other users — every year to beat our last birthday’s score.
Two-dimensional digitality has rendered typical laudatory interpersonal interactions unnecessary. Photos and words on a feed now replace calls and video messaging. People are using Facebook as a medium for relationships. Wishing someone a “happy birthday” is easily completed with a couple swipes at your keyboard, a quick peek into your photo albums and clicking “Post.” We are interacting with people in a way that is one degree removed from reality, no longer accountable for our interpersonal actions. Photoshop and spell-check let us curate our interpersonal relationships; it is simpler to send a birthday wish from our beds.
As Yale students are goal oriented, and as building relationships is often not a priority over schoolwork and planning for our futures, the simplicity of this system appeals to those of us who live to check tasks off our to-do lists. In addition to homework assignments that can be turned in digitally and lectures that can be watched online, we have moved our interpersonal relationships online as well and considered it adequate. It’s Daniella’s birthday? Great, I’ll write her a post — okay, that’s done, check. What’s next?
But nothing can replace your parents calling you on your birthday, attempting to harmonize together in an off-kilter rendition of “Happy Birthday” performed with multiple accidental key changes. Nothing beats that one friend running towards you from the other side of the street on your way to class, launching into your arms with a suffocating hug, repeating, “Happy birthday, happy birthday!”
Julia Kahn is a junior in Silliman College. Contact her at email@example.com .