Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why Facebook Birthdays Feel So Weird

shutterstock_birthday_cake.jpgLogin and make a Facebook birthday wish! Receive a multitude of classic happy birthdays. Celebrate your existence on Earth in a truly virtual style.

The oddest aspect of Facebook birthdays is the re-emergence of dormant social connections. Facebook makes it oh-so-easy to reconnect with people you may have forgotten you were even "friends" with. And then all of a sudden they're up on your wall, sending you birthday shoutouts like the good ol' days.

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"One of those things that distinguishes Facebook, is there is no obvious decay mechanism for friendships," says Dr. Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. "We meet many people everyday. Some of the people we meet become close friends, others we never see again, others acquaintances. In normal life, if you don't maintain a friendship it goes away. Facebook leaves a concrete link to that person."

Facebook is an online social space, akin to a public cafe. It does not provide the one-to-one intimacy of email, texts or IMs. Then there's the non-asymmetrical Facebook friend feature. Both Facebppl parties must agree to the friendship. It ends when one or both of the people decide to cut it, and cannot be restarted unless both of those parties agree. This is very different from Twitter or Google+, where connections are fully asymmetrical. Just because someone follows you does not mean you have to follow them back. Not so on Facebook.

Depending on the number of Facebook friends you have, you might see a birthday every day, a few times a week, or a few times a month. That strange little box in the upper right-hand corner of the screen quietly reminds you that you have friends with birthdays today. Congratulating them on their virtual existence is entirely your choice.

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On the old Facebook, birthday posts could easily become overwhelming and out of control. So, in the Timeline era, Facebook has indeed attempted to help users keep track of all these emotive wishes through topic-focused categorizing. Facebook means well.

The odd thing now is that this seemingly simple Facebook Timeline birthday solution actually makes it harder to individually reply. And if you don't respond, you're not actually making any attempt to connect. You just passively watch posts fly by. Facebook has gone the opposite route, making the Facebook birthday increasingly impersonal, with an opportunity for users to post one big "thank you" to all their friends.

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If the purpose of Facebook is truly to connect and share with the people in your life, why just watch the posts fly by?

Two days after my birthday, I jumped onto Facebook, busily liking and/or commenting on each post. Those simple actions inspired a few interesting conversations, one with a classmate from college, another with a local artist and a few friends from the past.

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