Facebook Changed My Birthday

Last week my birthday arrived. It was a regular one, one could say, without any big celebration but with my wife at dinner. My youngest son just turned one, and we wanted to give him a nice party and not let me spoil his first Happy Birthday song. And the day went, let me admit, not like my dream birthday: the kids’ school has not yet started, so it was an usual messy day of watching cartoons, going to the playground, changing diapers, trying to cram something useful during their afternoon nap. Sarah and I enjoyed the Brazilian restaurant like our own island of sanity and happiness in the evening. Oh, some peace.

But in the meanwhile, parallel to this close nuclear family day, something invisible was happening. Friends – close and distant friends, friends that live across the street and friends of other parts of the globe, friends recent and from years past – congratulated me on Facebook. It was a delight to open my page and read what they had written, to remember faces, remember fond memories, and hear words of encouragement and appreciation. It was, actually, surreal, like a surprise party that overcomes the limits of space and time and when everybody had a moment to say something to me. No real party could gather all those people; the overlap of languages and social contexts would be awkward too.

This virtual party was good, really good. I loved hearing from all those folks. Thanks, guys. Come again next year, and I hope to not miss your birthday in the meanwhile.

But the sheer number and geographical spread of congratulations received made me think a bit too. It was a party to good to be true, too virtual to have a concrete equivalent. I saw very few people during the day – my kids, my wife, a friend I bumped into on the street – and a couple friends who are not on Facebook gave me a ring too. The contrast was curious, to say the least.

This overcharged connectivity was something an article of TIME magazine analysed, when Mark Zuckerberg was chosen the Person of the Year in 2010. Facebook, the writer describes,

… smooshes together your work self and your home self, your past self and your present self, into a single generic extruded product. It suspends the natural process by which old friends fall away over time, allowing them to build up endlessly, producing the social equivalent of liver failure. On Facebook, there is one kind of relationship: friendship, and you have it with everybody. You’re friends with your spouse, and you’re friends with your plumber.

The article goes on to point that the actual process of knowing and befriending people is different too. It takes much less time and effort to seal a friendship: the click of a button (sometimes regarding a person you’re not quite sure you know!). “Friendships multiply with gratifying speed, and the emotional stakes stay soothingly low; where there isn’t much privacy, there can’t be much intimacy either. It’s like an emotional Ponzi scheme, where you keep putting energy in and getting it back tenfold, even though the dividends start to feel a little fake.” [1]

Don’t get me wrong, I loved every word of congratulation. It was really nice to hear from folks I care about, have not seen in some time, and to read words filled with poetry and affection. It was like a enfolding wave of blessing over me.

But maybe next year I’ll throw a real party too. I’ll go through the process of doing groceries, organizing the house, through the awkward invitation of someone I kinda know but not that much, dress nice, and see who shows up. I’ll enjoy the moment, the hugs and laughs, and enjoy the cleaning up after. A virtual global party is nice, and a real local one is great too.

René Breuel


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