Maybe you’ve noticed it, too: Facebook has been unusually pushy about birthdays lately. For me, it started near the end of April with an unexpected and unrequested email early in the morning. It was a dictatorial imperative, telling me that I should wish a happy birthday to a beloved professor from my undergraduate years. Later, when I logged onto the site itself, a notification popped up, repeating this command. I dismissed it, only to find that the Facebook app on my phone was providing the same information. Everywhere, insistently, the same demand. Celebrate!
This pattern held throughout the week that followed. Emails, push notifications, and pop-ups, oh my! While I was accustomed to occasional, unobtrusive reminders, I felt as if birthdays were being forced on me. Taking a page from Slate’s Dan Kois (though I didn’t go quite as far as he did), I began to unfollow ostensible “friends” whose “special days” didn’t seem particularly special. And yet they kept coming.
I initially assumed this torrent was intentional. This week, however, a Facebook representative informed me that it had been a bug in the site’s notification system. Under ordinary circumstances, the representative explained, a user should receive only one notification. You can subscribe to email birthday notifications, but people who don’t have that enabled were incorrectly receiving emails. It was not immediately clear whether the other, similarly persistent, notifications were part of the same problem.
But if these additional notifications were a glitch—and there’s no clear reason to doubt the claim—they were a glitch that served Facebook’s interests. Birthdays have been a central part of Facebook for years, partly because they encourage engagement with the site. They inspire you to click through to the profile of your newly agèd “friend.” Once you’re there, social pressure (“55 people have congratulated your casual acquaintance on her birthday!” it tells us) encourages you to take the time to write a note—even if it’s a glib one—thereby making you spend a little more time on the site than you otherwise might. In the process, you’re exposed to more ads, and sometimes to more content—the profiles of other well-wishers, for example—that might hold your attention longer still. From Facebook’s perspective, birthday notifications are a lure, one that lets them reel us in slowly and often.
Facebook’s company line is, of course, different. The representative I spoke to told me Facebook had originally incorporated birthday notifications because users requested them. It upset those users to miss their friends’ birthdays, and a gentle nudge helped save them from embarrassment. Unsurprisingly, though the alerts are optional, most users apparently keep them turned on.
Some of my real-world friends tell me that birthday notifications are the part of Facebook they like best. Having occasionally forgotten the birthdays of everyone I have ever loved (most of them more than once), I can understand why. I missed my father’s birthday this year, calling him only after my sister posted a picture of their celebration. Later, I learned that he had hidden the date from his timeline, feeling that the notes he normally received on the occasion were facile. Though I share his opinion, I couldn’t help but realize that I might have avoided some embarrassment if he’d left it on.
Ultimately, the power of the birthday notification speaks to the ways Facebook is transforming our ordinary experience of intimacy. Knowing that it’s someone’s birthday has traditionally meant being near them, either literally or figuratively. Proximity, in its own turn, is the starting point of intimacy. That’s why it often upsets us when people forget our birthdays. It’s not that we think they love us less, but that we fear they’re drifting away.
Even when it’s minor, that intimacy can be pleasurable. Facebook plays on that sense of pleasure, extending it indefinitely by letting us know the birthdays of almost everyone we’ve ever met. It doesn’t necessarily take away from the intimate quality of birthdays—as some have suggested—but it does expand the intimacy’s scope in a way that makes it unsustainable without the aid of Facebook itself.
For many of us, birthday alerts have woven themselves into the landscape of our lives. In this regard, at least, those additional notifications seemed almost natural. Still, I won’t miss them.