The Problem with Facebook Birthday Greetings

They're neither genuine nor always unwanted--kind of like all Facebook interactions

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It happens every year whether you want it to or not: your Facebook wall is assaulted by people you haven't heard from in six years with birthday greetings. The one-line exclamations tend to be the generic type of happy birthday wishes that used to hide behind the five dollar bills in greeting cards from distant family members. In a neatly packaged metaphor, Facebook birthday greetings represent the problem that the social network has become. Always billed as a place to connect with your real friends, Facebook is now crowded with shallow or even fake relationships. And with new combatants like Google+ engaging in the battle over the social internet, Facebook's increasingly crappy signal-to-noise ratio is chasing people away.

In the latest in her Sunday New York Times column, Virginia Heffernan defends Facebook birthday greetings. Heffernan think this is why Facebook birthday greetings are benign. "The Facebook greeting still carries something like eye contact, recognition and a smile--humanness," she writes. "So far, bots and spammers don’t seem to be among the well-wishers on a Facebook birthday. Real humans send the greetings. And they’re customized."

Heffernan's column serves as a rebuttal to a Slate column by David Plotz from two weeks ago. The two basically agree that Facebook birthday greetings, like Facebook friendships themselves, serve as a proxy for real social interaction. In an attempt to figure out whether or not this amounts to "a form of social lubrication that makes a mockery of everyone connected to it," Plotz conducted an experiment. Over the span of three weeks, Plotz posted three fake birthdays for himself and then took note of who responded. Nearly a third of the hundred or so people who wished him a happy birthday did so each on each of his fake birthdays, most of them not noticing the duplicate holidays.

"The wishes have all the true sentiment of a Christmas card from your bank," says Plotz. "The barrage of messages isn't unpleasant, exactly, but it's all too obvious that the greetings are programmed, canned, and impersonal, prompted by a Facebook alert. If, as Facebook haters claim, the social network alienates us from genuine friendship, the Facebook birthday greeting is the ultimate example of its fakery."

Heffernan surrenders to the idea that Facebook greetings are shallow, but hey, so what? They're better than nothing, right? Not when, like spam, the greetings come off as extraneous and disingenuous.

"All too many birthday wishes are autonomic, sent without thought or personal feeling," Plotz writes. "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."

Sounds spammy indeed, which brings us back to the larger point about Facebook's big problem. Like the debate over whether Google is making us stupid, the argument over whether Facebook is making us anti-social is complicated but self-defeating. Heffernan's case in favor of Facebook birthday greetings basically fits in the company's mission statement. Facebook describes itself as "a social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and coworkers," and shallower relationships tend to be more efficient than deeper ones.

Plotz, however, sounds like he's looking for something else. Until this summer, Facebook users didn't have many other choices for a social network that offered both the breadth of users and the depth of a social experience on the site. David Plotz, meet Google+. "Among the most basic of human needs is the need to connect with others," reads Google's annoucement blog post for their Facebook equivalent. "Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools. In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it."

The extent to which the two companies self-descriptions come together like a jigsaw puzzle shouldn't be too surprising. As Facebook has grown to include a fifth of the world's population, their ability to separate the signal from the noise has flagged. Google seems to have poured all of their resources into the holes that Facebook's growth created and built a yin to their yang. If Virginia Heffernan is content to read through her barrage of random birthday greetings on Facebook, she's more than welcome. If David Plotz finds the experience too spammy, he can leave and join Google+. In fact, with Facebook losing users in its primary markets and Google+ gaining ground, it looks like this is exactly what people are doing.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.