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."