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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Are Facebook Birthdays the Root of All Evil?

Posted By on Tue, Aug 2, 2011 at 3:15 PM

click to enlarge Your "friends" don't know shit about you
  • Your "friends" don't know shit about you

Facebook's birthday reminders have become an invaluable tool for the socially inattentive among us. If you're a person who has trouble remembering your son's birthday -- even when it's the same day as your own -- the periodic reminders that crop up beside your news feed on the social network can be a godsend.

Unless, of course, they are an insidious mechanism helping to destroy the world of meaningful human interaction as we know it.

The latter proposition is examined by Slate editor David Plotz in an article published today. Plotz conducted an experiment:

He repeatedly reset the date of his birth on his Facebook page so that

he celebrated three "birthdays" in the month of July. (His actual

birthday, he tells us, is in January.) This oddity raised few red flags

among his many Facebook "friends," many of whom repeatedly sent him

online birthday wishes, unaware of his ruse.

What, exactly does this reveal? According to Plotz:

Mass electronic communication is destroying our memories, since we rely on devices to protect us from embarrassing ourselves. I routinely send an email to a friend on a Tuesday, and then send her exactly the same email on Thursday. Even so, the Facebook fake birthday experiment did end up confirming my worst fears about the network. All too many birthday wishes are autonomic, sent without thought or personal feeling. It's one thing to remember your friend's birthday because you took him out a decade ago for his drunken 21st birthday debauch. It's much lamer to "remember" your friend's birthday because Facebook told you to. A significant number of Facebookers clearly use the service without sentiment, attempting to build social capital--undeserved social capital--with birthday greetings that they haven't thought about based on birthday memories of you that they don't actually have.

Some new-media mavens take issue with Plotz's reasoning. Adrian Chen of Gawker points out that Plotz admits to not personally knowing the majority of his 1,500-plus Facebook friends. (Plotz says he uses the site primarily for professional purposes, like broadcasting Slate stories.) Fair enough; impersonal online messaging works both ways.

Nevertheless, Plotz has pointed out yet another way in which FB relationships are a debased simulacrum of real human contact -- a theme hilariously sounded by South Park when its writers envisioned a world in which all human interaction was identical to Facebook interaction. Thanks for the food for thought, Mr. Plotz -- we'll accept it as a party favor.

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Peter Jamison


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