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The Facebook Birthday Effect

August 4, 2015

I don't exactly know when it happened -- I'm doubtful anyone really knows, except for a handful of individuals with inside information -- but I think it was around the summer of last year. I'm talking, of course, about Facebook's "Wish X a happy birthday" feature.

Of course, Facebook's had that feature for a long time -- in my memory, ever since I joined in the later half of 2011. But since then, they've been increasing the ease of wishing someone a passing "happy birthday" with each passing year. And at this point, Facebook drops a text box right into your news feed -- the first thing you see when you log in -- when you need them, where you can literally type your message -- frequently, those two words -- and click post, at which point your deed is done. You've wished yet another Facebook user on your friends list a happy birthday.

I don't use the text box. As a personal preference, I tend to try to keep my online friends and connections to a minimum, and contact them mainly through private messages, rather than through more public posts, delegating the posts to mainly serve as conduits for sharing links and the occasional witty joke. And as a result, it's relatively rare for me to wish someone a happy birthday through Facebook's inbuilt feature. Partially because I prefer to stick to messages and personal contacts rather than through social media, but mostly because I don't find the 2-second I spend on wishing them good will to be respectful to either party. It's vaguely reminiscent of a passing "HAGS"*, where the sender doesn't have to spend more than a second thinking about it, and the recipient is left to wonder if they really meant it, or if Facebook coaxed them into typing those two words as they scrolled through a thousand other posts they cared equally little about.

When a 2-second "Happy Birthday" to two hundred "friends" on a Facebook post is the norm, it's getting out of hand.

But you go ahead. Do it or not, I won't judge.

My criticism isn't just targeting Facebook's overflowing information about your connections, though. The issue at hand is substantially broader -- it's the entire Internet.**

The Internet might as well be defined by information overload -- we want information, we want it now, and we want it as fast as possible. And in this neverending hunger for the more, the now, and the faster, both information and action on the Internet are de-valued. That's to say, as tasks that previously took hours or days begin to take seconds and minutes to complete, we do more things, and we do more things simultaneously. And with that, as we're constantly paying attention to a million different things, the value we give to each action decreases. In other words, our attention is not an unbounded, undepletable resource. And when we begin to divide it up between hundreds of tasks that each cry for attention, we grant each task less and less attention, and therefore less and less value.

Our attention is not an unbounded, undepletable resource. And when we begin to divide it up between hundreds of tasks that each cry for attention, we grant each task less and less attention, and therefore less and less value.

That's the Facebook Birthday Effect*** -- as our online moments are chopped up between more actions, each of them ultimately get less attention and less value, including that birthday wish you just sent on Facebook. The power of our actions are dramatically diluted online. And that's the way things are in the world of madly moving 1's and 0's; as the supply of actions and information goes up exponentially, the value of what we do with each moment online falls.

But this problem isn't your average Internet issue, usually dealt with by blowing the cause of the problem off the face of the Earth (AKA blocking them online). We can't increase the value of our words and the time we spend online by shutting down websites and putting up less information on the web. Social media and the online drowning-in-overinformation attitude of the web has made us more aware but not any more mindful. And that is a problem. But the solution can't be to stop looking for information or to stop using the web any more than the solution to air pollution is to stop using electricity altogether. Rather, we need to selectively and consciously choose to think more about the actions we take online mindlessly, even if they're simple, quick tasks -- no, especially because they're simple, mindless tasks.

Facebook-friends aren't any less valuable than friends in the meatspace -- unless your "friends" list is three hundred members long and growing. Your tweets aren't any less worthy of attention than a handwritten note from you, not necessarily -- unless you post a new tweet every ten minutes. And your online "happy birthday" isn't necessarily any less valuable to me or worthy of appreciation than a thoughtful note on actual paper with an actual pen -- unless it took you two seconds to write it, and even less time to think about it.

The Facebook Birthday effect de-values our actions and work online, but it's not inherently because they're online. Things don't necessarily lose value by virtue of their being digital. They lose value because we give them less thought, simply because we can. Valuable and thoughtful words and ideas can be had online, but only if we deem them worthy of our attention, and only if we give them the time and attention they deserve.


* "Have a Good Summer", as a farewell, if you're out of the loop.

** To be honest, the entirety of the Internet isn't that much larger than Facebook's mind-numblingly large and ubiquitous user base, but still.

*** I made it up, in case there was any question.