My Social Experiment

Leslie Knope: By Swanson standards, we're close. I know when your birthday is.

Ron Swanson: So does Baskin-Robbins.

Parks and Recreation, “Ron and Diane” (12/6/12)


Back in 2011…

(This is the part where your screen gets all wavy and out of focus temporarily.)

…I was perusing Facebook, and it so happened that, according to Facebook, something like five of my friends all had the same birthday, and maybe I should write something on their timelines. Being the kind of guy I am, I didn’t want to just write “Happy Birthday” on each one and move along; I wanted to personalize it just a little bit. But when I got to the first friend’s timeline, I saw that something like 200 people had already posted some sort of greeting. I thought, is this person really going to wade through all these greetings? And, if Facebook hadn’t reminded them of the date, would all of these people have sent some sort of greeting? I pretty much thought, “Not.” At present, I have 306 friends on Facebook, and I know the birthdays of precisely nine of them, six of whom because I’m related to them (and one of THOSE because we share a birthday).

That’s probably on the low side of average, because I have almost no memory whatsoever of these things, whereas other people I know have that stuff nailed down, or have a good working system for keeping track. My sister-in-law keeps a calendar with all kinds of memorial dates on it: birthdays of people both living and dead, anniversaries of weddings, events, parties, funerals, especially good desserts she’s had…it absolutely exhausts me to look at that thing. But I figured that a lot of people were in the same boat I was: they’re only wishing each other a Happy Birthday because Facebook said that it was their birthday.

So I decided to conduct an experiment, to see A) whether my theory was correct, and B) how many people actually paid attention to this sort of thing. And hey: maybe I’d get a blog post out of it.

I went to my Facebook profile and edited it, changing my birthday from February, to April 5. It was late March by then, so I figured that was ahead of the timeline just enough that the date wouldn’t suddenly appear on people’s pages. By April 3, the greetings started coming in: “Hey, wishing you an early Happy Birthday since I won’t be around.” Late in the day on April 4, they started to pour in, most of them in the realm of “Have a great day tomorrow!” And, of course, on the 5th I got something like 75 greetings. I acknowledged them with a single post, thanking everyone for their good wishes.

A few days later, I went back into my profile and moved my birthday to June 5. Now, I have to admit that this one was a little bit of a time bomb. I set the date and pretty much forgot about it…until the greetings started coming in. And again I got something in the area of about 70-80 greetings. No kidding? Okay. A few days after the 5th I changed it again, to August 5.

This is where the experiment went to hell, in a couple of ways and for different reasons.

In early July, a guy named David Plotz got the same idea. However, he was on deadline and I wasn’t, so he sped up the process and celebrated his Facebook birthday on July 11, 25th and 28th. (Click the link for the story.) The story ran on August 2nd, only a couple of days before my fourth birthday of the year. My blog post had gone from Cool, Original Idea to a “Me-Too” re-hash of someone else’s project. Even though I started first and was taking my time about it, he got his story live before I did. It was also around this point that a couple of my Facebook friends were starting to catch on. Some of them had gone from “Have a great day!” to “How many birthdays do you have, anyway?” That part I was actually fine with, because that would have been the tipping point of the story: with the August birthday, I could end the project because finally people had figured out what I was up to.

Also, Facebook itself was getting kind of tired of me moving my birthday around, and offered up some suggestion that if I change it again, I’m not going to get any more opportunities to change my birthday. So I re-set it back into February and tanked the whole project. So that aspect of the Summer of 2011 was a little disappointing, in that I’d done all this but felt as though I couldn’t write about it, not without looking weird or bad or something.

(Temporarily wavy screen again.)

So why have I chosen to write about this whole thing now? I’m glad you asked.

As I noted above, my birthday falls this month; in fact it falls this week. And once again I’m inundated with the birthday greetings. Nowadays I take pains to reply to as many of them as I can. There’s over a hundred nowadays, and I feel bad when I find myself resorting to canned phrases when I acknowledge them. At least I have four or five of them to rotate through, and now and again I can break the chain by relating something a little more personal. (“Hope your chlamydia cleared up!”)

But among that hundred-plus posts, there remain about 10 percent of them who are doubters. They see it’s my birthday, and their greeting to me is “Happy Birthday! (assuming it’s really your birthday)”, or they’ll piggyback onto other people’s posts, including the greeting from Wife: “If Wife says it’s your birthday, then I can believe it. Have a great day!”

All’s I’m saying now is that it’s been four years, and I’m still in the virtual doghouse with some people. It’s kind of fun that they remember that prank from a few years back; I hope they still get a chuckle themselves out of it.

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