I remember how I used to send birthday greetings before Facebook. It started with a rifle through my desk drawer for an unused card that didn’t look too Christmassy; then, after admitting defeat, a dash to the card shop.
There, I bought the least offensive card I could find, borrowed or in extreme cases bought a Biro, composed an appropriate remark, gritted my teeth while I added exclamation marks, made at least three calls to establish the address and postcode, and then drove to the Post Office to buy a stamp.
With the stamp bought and the card dropped into the postbox I felt not a surge of joy but a backwash of relief at completing a tedious duty.
Nowadays I do none of the above. I simply click an icon in the top right-hand corner of my FB page, type a few simple happy words (clichés are usually best in FB-land) and the job’s done.
I can send FB birthday wishes to anyone, including all my FB friends (i.e. virtual strangers), many of whom would think I was mad and/or creepy if they were to receive a card from me in the post.
It’s not as flirty as a poke, nor as spammy as an invitation to join a cause. They’re socially acceptable in any context, and appropriate between any two FB-ers. Cleverly, Facebook strips birthdays of any connotations of ageing. Most people publish their birth date but not the year. And nobody, perhaps with the exception of a landmark like 40 or 50, mentions the age of the recipient.
Slipping social standards
Last week I sent a birthday greeting to the 15-year-old son of an accountant I haven’t seen in 12 years. (The accountant, that is. I have NEVER met his son, whom I accidentally – well, I say accidentally, but that is Facebook-ese for purposefully – friended.)
I would have been appalled at this casual disregard for social propriety a few years ago, but in FB land, let’s face it, standards of honesty, authenticity and integrity are allowed to slip.
I can send FB birthday wishes to anyone, many of whom would think I was mad and/or creepy if they were to receive a card from me in the post
It is one of the many comforting things about the place. I have a distinctly different personality in FB-land. I enthusiastically espouse causes I don’t give a damn about in real life. I communicate with all kinds of people I wouldn’t let near me in real life. And it is absolutely OK; in fact, it is shockingly reassuring.
FB-land, or the ghetto I inhabit within it, is the softest, kindest place imaginable. If it were a party, it would be ineffably dull: no irony, no cutting remarks, no curled lips, just people breathlessly discussing the plight of the Amazon rainforest (something I only give a fig about in FB-land) and saying ‘Like!’ to one another.
FB-land is not a dog-eat-dog but a dog-stroke-dog world. In FB-land I sign petitions to stop (today!) Israeli settlements on the West Bank, all animal cruelty, and world poverty. From the upbeat tone of the posts, you’d think we were making sound progress on all fronts.
Am I getting softer?
You may detect a certain ambiguity about my feelings towards Facebook, and you would be right. I cannot tell if middle age is softening my brain at the same time as hardening my arteries, or if I am in touch with a genuine community of co-operative and kind fellow souls.
It is the Facebook birthday that has most challenged my skepticism. I too clearly remember my birthday before Facebook. The two phone calls (one a day after the event) and three cards on my kitchen table – public testimony to the small number of my well-wishers – did little more than intensify the feeling that another year had passed, dragging behind it many regrets and failures.
But this year, having embraced, albeit gingerly, Facebook, I was astonished when my birthday came round at how gratified I was to receive more than 20 posts to mark the event (including, yes, one from the now 16-year-old son of the ex-accountant).
Sad? Maybe, but the fact is that the outpourings of gratitude from other birthday boys and girls after they receive similar greetings – “Thank you, you lovely, lovely bunch, I smiled 74 times! So sweet of you all and much appreciated xxxx” is a random example – indicate that they share my feelings of surprise and delight.
Who cares that I didn’t know some of my well-wishers? What I noticed, my eyes moistening with gratitude, was the number. Some people, you have to scroll down until your forefinger is numb to see all their birthday posts. But 20 was fine for me.
It is clear that what the Post Office has killed – the birthday – is being revived by Facebook. So let me be one of I hope many to say (and not with a card) happy birthday to high50.
Read our other first birthday stories:
Further reading My internet ‘friends’? I hate them