Count on Facebook to Keep 'Happy Birthday!' Alive
Social media has changed how we communicate an annual tradition
This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on April 26, 2016.
By Owen Youngman
"'Happy Birthday!' Is dead, and it's all Facebook's fault."
— The Guardian, July 29, 2015
When it comes to the commemoration of birthdays, it seems that, like Caesar's Gaul, the world is now divided into three parts:
- Those who enjoy the exchange of birthday greetings on social media.
- Those who reluctantly play along but see indolence on the part of the senders and low standards on the part of the recipients.
- Those who pointedly take no part.
As with most social media debates, people are thinking principally of Facebook when they take sides on this one. Given its size and worldwide profile — not to mention that its algorithm relentlessly reminds users of upcoming birthdays on a daily basis — it's the most likely shared reference point and easiest target.
I count myself in the first camp, however — those who enjoy the annual festival of drive-by interactions. And I use the word "count" quite literally, because for me counting is part of the exercise.
Given my roster of 1,765 Facebook friends, it's not surprising that I share my natal day with a few of them. A former Chicago Tribune colleague of mine is one of them, and we have been comparing data on this since practically the dawn of the Mark Zuckerberg Era, while wondering if our birthday twins, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and superstar Barbra Streisand, get much birthday attention via social media. Not surprisingly, more than 25,000 fans have wished Streisand a happy 74th birthday on her fan page this year. Daley, it appears, isn't active on social media.
Although my former colleague and I have plenty of "friends" through our media careers, we're hardly celebrities and most of our digital contacts are people we really know and are happy to hear from each April 24. Through the years, the numbers growing out of our comparisons have provided a different way to look at the growth and influence of Facebook.
Over my past nine birthdays, Facebook's count of active users worldwide has grown from 100 million to 1.6 billion, according to company reports. In fact, the number of my Facebook birthday greetings also has grown 16-fold: from 20 in 2008 to 327 this year, in private messages, posts on my timeline and embedded comments.
At first my virtual birthday cards did not keep up with the network's growth curve. As my number of friends grew from about 100 to about 1,000, the total barely budged. But over the past few years, as the all-powerful Facebook algorithm reinforces the greeting opportunity by featuring it in the news feeds of people with whom I have friends in common, it has settled in at about 18 percent of my friend base.
Like many people of a certain age, I do still find cards in my street-side mailbox from relatives, offline friends and charities (and in my email, from my car dealer and my former optician). But most of the people who reach me on Facebook frankly never would have known when it was time to turn to Hallmark and the U.S. Postal Service.
That said, birthday greetings do not address the core problem that Facebook reportedly is having, according to Bloomberg News, that its users aren't creating and sharing enough original content any more, just linking to others' material. But all of this innocuous bonhomie does seem to keep people engaging with Facebook. If it works for Facebook, wouldn't other social platforms want in on it enough to provide it for their own users?
LinkedIn, for instance, has been ramping up its notification system, but the business-y use case for the platform doesn't lend itself to the phenomenon. My 1,535 LinkedIn connections yielded exactly 10 greetings, though they were distinguished by their international character (e.g., former colleagues and former students in Pakistan, India and Brazil). And I have yet to be celebrated on Twitter, at least for the achievement of surviving another 366 days.
At the end of the party, then, is "Happy Birthday!" indeed as dead as the recently invalidated copyright claims to the song? I think not. All in all, it was a rewarding and nostalgic experience to read and acknowledge the hundreds of salutations from inhabitants of my current and former lives.
Which is not to say, however, that they were my favorite greetings of the day. Those came after church, when I was given handmade cards by young friends who are 14, almost 5 and almost 3. And some homemade blueberry muffins too. There's not likely to be an algorithm for that any time soon.
- Owen Youngman is a professor and the Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.