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The Big Business of Birthdays

“I rarely know anyone’s birthday anymore unless it’s through Facebook”

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Facebook is a many-headed beast. It does everything, and is everything. The company shoves itself into spaces it doesn’t belong, and attempts to be things it can’t. It’s strange to see the social network that some of us remember as a safe place for our college keg-stand pics taking technological moonshots. Facebook looks, acts, and is nothing like it used to be.

But among the handful of remnants from the original Facebook is the birthday notification. The social web has trained us well — we have daily habits that we can autopilot through, like, for example, waking up every morning and scoping out the day’s birthdays.

No other social network has managed to capitalize on those internet celebrations like Facebook has. Last summer, Twitter added the option to include birthdays in your profile — which results in a balloon animation — but it’s not an overwhelmingly popular feature. A Twitter “happy birthday” might float through the feed, but people aren’t congregating en masse on the site to find it and wish their friends well — and Twitter certainly isn’t prompting anyone to do so as aggressively as Facebook is. Such celebrations are absent from Instagram and Snapchat, and the only other digital spaces to wish one an HBD are email or text. No other social network has instituted the birthday as a feature.

Much of that is thanks to Facebook’s push to have its users’ profiles tied to their real identities. The notification field is a major prompt. The language of Facebook birthday notifications has varied over time — if you receive push notifications, you’ll get a message on your home screen for certain friends’ birthdays. Facebook will even prompt you to open the app and post your message.

The history of Facebook birthdays is not all that exciting, but some habits — like uploading videos and tagging people — the company had to teach. Wishing someone a happy birthday on the platform came naturally, and it’s now a function Facebook owns. The platform didn’t introduce notifications for birthdays until 2013; before that, the side of your feed included a short list of birthdays, and it was up to you to act.

But act on that you (often) did: While Facebook didn’t intend to encourage the digital party, the platform certainly took notice, building various functions into the site to complement this action. The Events feature, launched in 2005, was in part created to help users plan birthday parties. (Back when Facebook was only available to only college students — a.k.a. the good old days! — Events was called My Parties.)

Facebook has taken steps recently to further promote your well-wishes. In 2014, the platform introduced the “birthday card,” a square that aggregates the greetings that get plastered on your wall on your special day; it keeps you from having to scroll down your Timeline and feel like a total narcissist. And if you hit this link, you will enter a world of Facebook birthdays. You will be asked if you want to create a party for someone, see a calendar, or see a birthday you missed.

Facebook
Facebook

On Thursday, Facebook introduced “birthday videos,” a feature that pulls together posts other users leave on your Timeline for your birthday. It’s very much like Facebook’s flip-books feature, and it’s something you can use to thank everyone for the wishes. (You need to have received a minimum of three “happy birthdays” in order for Facebook to make you a video.)

Facebook

Facebook

Think about how you used to “do birthdays” online before Facebook. You probably didn’t have a notification system to remind you it was someone’s birthday. Once alerted to the day’s significance, you may have made a beeline to your computer, where you either composed a nice email or, if you were especially flashy or a member of my preadolescent friend group, visited Bluemountain.com. There, you picked a free e-card from the library, customized it, and sent it along. Maybe you repeated some version of this on Myspace or LiveJournal. But no one automated the process. Facebook’s been around for 12 years now, and you could argue that its most consistent, functional, and happiness-inducing feature is basically a calendar reminder.

And thankfully so. Birthdays are important — forgotten ones are devastating. A 2009 Open University paper examined the birthday routines and memories for people of all ages — including the story of a woman named Thelma.

“I didn’t get a card or present from my daughter until the following day,” Thelma told researchers, “when she knew that I was calling to see her during the day, but it spoilt it somewhat, having to wait.” Another woman talked about waiting for such a greeting, as the day went on, wondering if maybe there was a surprise coming. When the day ended without any, she broke down in tears. “The strength and reciprocity of personal relationships is often tested by the ability to remember birthdays,” author Bill Bytheway wrote in the paper.

Not only is the feature helpful, if it went away, it would probably contribute to a new, free-floating anxiety and sadness.

There is a certain hierarchy to Facebook birthday greetings — they are not doled out equally; some people are deemed more worthy than others. According to a 2013 Cal State University Long Beach study, women in relationships receive the most happy birthday wishes. Men in relationships get the second most, followed by single women, and finally single men. (Researchers had hypothesized that single women would be the most popular on their birthdays.)

The reason women get more HBDs is obvious: “Generally females have a larger circle of friends and a busier social life than males,” the study’s authors wrote. The other reason is a confirmation of what I’ve always known to be true: “If a male is pursuing a female, he might wish her a happy birthday as a means of contact. It is less likely that a female would pursue a male, therefore less likely that she would wish him a happy birthday.”

So Facebook birthdays are an excuse to exercise thirst, which should come as no surprise. And the increase in birthday greetings for the coupled really comes back to a numbers game: People in relationships benefit from their partner’s social network, receiving well-wishes from their significant other’s social circle as well as their own.

Makes sense! But there’s also a slightly sadder, more calculated reason: Taken people are less threatening than single people. “For example,” the Cal State study said, “a single male may be intimidated to ‘approach,’ or in this case give a birthday greeting, to a single female who he finds attractive because she seems threatening because there is a chance of rejection.” Basically, research sees through you, intimidated men and women of the internet that casually slide in with birthday greetings for your most attractive friends.

There is absolutely a game being played here. Yes, when I leave a “happy birthday,” it is genuine, but there is an exchange happening. I do want you to have a happy birthday, but I also want you to know that I want you to have a happy birthday. Things are elevated by features such as Facebook’s birthday cam, which was introduced this year and allows users to leave personalized video messages, or the platform’s new prompt that asks if you’d like to include pictures of you and the birthday boy/girl in your greeting.

“Facebook has ownership of birthdays,” said Christopher Warren, one of the Cal State Long Beach paper’s authors and an associate professor in the school’s psychology department. A lot of that, he said, is because its virtual population is so big — everyone is there. And when everyone is there, certain human behaviors come out. “It can probably be explained through evolutionary psychology, mate-seeking behaviors, social-status maintenance,” Warren said. “[We] do start that sort of hierarchy. There’s a social order.”

It also has to do with “observer behavior,” Warren said. “The observer is kind of the stalker, or the creeper — not necessarily in a bad way; it’s something we all do,” he said. “But you see other people posting ‘happy birthday,’ and you feel like you’re almost doing [someone] wrong by not wishing them a happy birthday. You’d have to be the loner who doesn’t talk to anyone on Facebook to not wish them a happy birthday. It’s a sentimental thing, and it’s our nature to want to participate if we see other people commenting.” He said Facebook’s notification prompt — “help Jason celebrate!” — has a similar effect. There’s just a pinch of social pressure involved.

Another study, conducted by the Association for Computing Machinery, examined the evolution of Facebook interaction. The researchers found that certain Facebook features — such as the birthday notification — drove an increase in posts. People who don’t post frequently, in fact, were largely driven to do so directly because of the feature.

In fact, according to the study, a birthday greeting is responsible for 39 percent of users’ first interactions with their friends on the platform. Researchers, again, attribute this to the notification, which is one of the first things you see when you log in. Not surprisingly, the researchers suggest that the reminder mechanism causes activity that otherwise would not happen. Sure, some of us would remember the birthdays of close friends and family members without a reminder, but then we would have to choose from a variety of mediums to communicate our well-wishes. (Text? Phone call? Maybe Facebook!) We’ve been conditioned to know we’ll be reminded about all birthdays in our social circle and have an easy function in order to communicate birthday wishes. The need to remember and then choose how to act is totally taken care of.

Obviously, this benefits Facebook. It’s a low-weight feature — it doesn’t require updating, onboarding users is part of the network’s sign-up process, and people engage with it without much prompting. And people use it, a lot. According to Facebook, around 100 million times a day, in fact. The new bells and whistles — and the arguably more aggressive notifications — surely drive more posting and pictures, something Facebook absolutely needs.

Warren said that he rarely recalls anyone’s birthday anymore unless Facebook reminds him. (Same.) The simple act of becoming a birthday scheduler was fortuitous — there’s a payoff in tapping into sentimentality and social pressure.

And in an internet age when youth is valued and user demographics mean everything, it’s failure-proof to own something that literally 100 percent of people can use. Not everyone has photos to upload or stories to link to or 360-degree panoramas to share. But you know what everyone does have? A birthday.