Today is my 39th birthday. Among other things this means I’ve now spent 2/3 of my life online, since we got our first computer when I was 13. (Apparently it also means that a year from now I’ll be forty, which all my fortysomething women friends tell me will be the dawn of a new sense of calm and confidence. Promises, promises.)
Of all the ways that technology has changed my life in the past 26 years, today I’m noticing the impact on the birthday experience itself. First it changed how we celebrated our birthdays: along came home movie parties, arcade birthdays, video game nights. Then it changed the invitations: phone calls and notecards gave way to e-mails and e-vites. Most recently, it’s changed who marks the occasion: so far today I’ve had 5 “happy birthday ” tweets and 35+ Facebook messages.
Many of these are from people who wouldn’t have known about my birthday in the days before Facebook reminders, or twittered birthday reflections. Like much of what happens on social networks, these birthday greetings have the effect of making our web of connection more visible, and in some cases, re-awakening relationships that have gone dormant.
And then there’s the flip side: here I am, totting up greetings received, looking for a Facebook app that will tell me how my ratio of birthday greetings to total number of friends compares to other people’s ratios. OK, I’m not actually looking for that app — but I won’t deny that part of the fun of a birthday in the Facebook era comes from volume, from the sheer Sally Fields-esque “You like me! You really like me!”
I can’t help wondering what we lose — and gain — by turning birthdays, weddings and baby arrivals into Facebook and social network fodder. Are we returning to our tribal roots, marking each life passage with a community celebration? Or are we diluting the significance of major turning points (I’m looking ahead to a 40th birthday next year and a 10th wedding anniversary this summer) by making even the minor moments into public events?
We can answer this one with a simple vote. Those of you who think that public birthday celebrations via social networks help to enhance our special days and keep us connected, send me a birthday gift via iTunes. Those who think they dilute our life passages, send me a birthday gift via Amazon. Those who have no opinion, don’t know it’s my birthday, or haven’t read this blog post, don’t send me anything at all.