To let the world of Facebook know it's your birthday, or to not let it know. That is the question.
Crave Senior Editor Leslie Katz and Jim Kerstetter, who runs CNET's enterprise-reporting group, share the same birthday, five years apart. It just so happens that their birthday was yesterday. It also just so happens that they can't stop talking about how amazing it is that their birthdays are on the same day. They've been doing this for six years running now.
But there was a difference yesterday: Katz left her birth date visible as part of the information she makes public on Facebook, and Kerstetter, ever paranoid about privacy, kept silent. Who was right? Let's evaluate their very unscientific points of view -- and get your own thoughts in the comments section at the end of this post.
I marked a milestone birthday yesterday -- the first one celebrated as a Facebook member.
Yes, I'm probably unique to be celebrating a first Facebook birthday at my advanced age, but for reasons having to do with privacy concerns and social-networking overload syndrome (SNOS), I came to the site late. To most of you far-earlier adopters, the Facebook birthday message barrage is hardly anything new. To me, it provided a new dimension of birthday awareness.
I couldn't even say how long I've been on Facebook. I was somewhere between college kids with a coveted .edu address and middle adopters. That said, I've never intentionally shared my birthday in one of those "Hey, look at me, I just got a year older!" apps.
Sure, some folks remember (but not quite as many as you'd think) without that handy calendar prompt, and that's very sweet of them. I can do without the new dimension of celebration. I suppose I've always approached birthdays with a certain melancholia, but I don't see how a few hundred birthday greetings would change that. If close friends forget, sure, that's a bummer. But if someone my wife went to high school with and I met at a wedding a few years back doesn't say "happy birthday," hey, no worries.
With e-mail notifications set to alert me to Facebook wall postings, I got regular pings throughout the day reminding me that I'm getting old -- and that people I know and love (and a few I hardly know) were thinking of me, if only for a split second. Yeah, some of the greetings read pretty much the same, but what can I say? They brightened my day and contributed to making it one of the most cheery birthdays in recent memory.
I also got old-fashioned greetings via phone calls, cards, e-mails, flowers, and hugs, but the Facebook notes simply gave the day a "the more the merrier" feel. They also provided a chance to reflect on people I'm not in touch with much but have fond feelings for. Hearing from a former CNET intern I supervised in 2008, for example, reminded me how proud I felt of her progress during and following her summer here (and also reminded me once again how old I am).
For me, birthdays are a day to stop and appreciate life, and some of the people who contacted me on Facebook yesterday reminded me how much I have to be grateful for.
My mom called me. A couple more friends and family sent me e-mails, and two people posted unsolicited birthday greetings on my Timeline. I had a cake at home with a few friends and family, and did post a picture of it. It was nice.
It could well be that I'm a fan of the Facebook birthday barrage only because of the novelty factor. When I mentioned my experience to a co-worker, she said she felt similarly on her first few Facebook birthdays, but now sees the Facebook birthday greeting as an easy and generic out for those who don't take the time to call, e-mail, skywrite, or otherwise acknowledge birthdays.
Another co-worker admitted that she likes to talk on the phone and misses getting birthday phone calls from those who now go the Facebook route. A friend of hers, she says, has a policy that if she has someone's phone number, that person will get a birthday call. Plain and simple. Still, I'm not picky. A thoughtful sentiment is a thoughtful sentiment, no matter the medium (though orange tulips are always extra appreciated).
I hope we're not having a "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus" moment here, so I'm trying extra hard to avoid gender stereotypes (though my wife would assure me that I fit many of them).
Really, I see nothing wrong with letting the world know it's your birthday. It's simply not for me, and not just because of modesty. We make it so easy for people to know too much about us. I joked a while back in a commentary that I was going to let everyone know the smallest minutiae of my life on Facebook. I think a few readers didn't get the tongue-in-cheek tone of what I was writing, but the point I was trying to make was: why? Aren't you folks worried about so much unnecessary disclosure?
People see photos of our families, where we grew up, where we've worked and where we work now, what we like, and (hopefully) funny quips about our days on our profile pages. For me, adding the birthday is a step too far. Why not add my Social Security number, my mother's maiden name, my father's middle name, and the name of my childhood dog, while I'm at it? Oh, and a few passwords to sensitive systems at work might be a nice addition.
Lord knows (and by lord, I'm of course referring to Facebook here) I'm careful what I post online, and I've certainly experienced my share of social networking-related angst. Therefore, the fact that people have a range of reactions to the value and etiquette of the Facebook birthday shout-out does not surprise me. As April 9 approached, I thought of David Plotz's insightful Slate piece from last year, in which he referred to the Facebook birthday greeting as "a symbol of all that is irritating about the social network."
"Every April 11 or June 7 or September 28, your Facebook account suddenly chatters with exclamation point-polluted birthday wishes," Plotz wrote. "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 true sentiment of a Christmas card from your bank.
"The barrage of messages isn't unpleasant, exactly," he continued, "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."
Well, gee whiz, that's even cynical for me. I don't agree. We're talking about personal choice here. I do keep track of the comings and goings of my friends and colleagues on Facebook. It has reconnected me with old friends and allowed friends from various circles of life to meet one another virtually. If Lee, the childhood friend and Yankees fan, and Tom, the college roommate and Red Sox season ticket holder, get to debate under one of my posts, that's good fun for everyone.
That's why I maintain that Facebook is a marvel. In a mobile society like we are today, where else but your wedding and your funeral do people from all the different moments of your life get to interact? Perhaps it's better to ask: Where else do you get to see them interact? I'm endlessly entertained by their discussions and often go out of my way to provoke them.
Maybe I just don't like telling everyone that I'm getting older.
OK, Mr. Grumpy. I'll get off your lawn now.