Image courtesy of Glenn Fleishman.
As you’ve probably noticed if you’re on Facebook, the service has become ever-more aggressive about encouraging you to celebrate the birthdays of those in your social graph. It reminds you of your friends’ birthdays via notifications (“Wish them the best!”) and allows both those with a birthday and their friends to exchange sentiments via a special interface designed for efficient bulk celebration. It’s even experimented with pre-filling out birthday wishes, allowing you to thoughtfully mark a friend’s special day with a single click.
For years, I played along. This year, however, I marked my birth date as private, which shut down Facebook’s whole birthday ritual. The difference was surprising: I didn’t get a single socially networked greeting from the previous broad cross-section of well-wishers.
While this was the outcome I wanted, it still left me stunned at Facebook’s birthday hegemony. We may have outsourced our many happy returns to Mark Zuckerberg as part of his return on investment. (Though Facebook doesn’t directly monetize birthdays, anything it does to keep people engaged on its platform makes it a more powerful advertising medium.)
At the moment, this might seem like the least important complaint you could possibly lodge against the embattled Bay Area tech behemoth. But unless you’re quite young, think back just a few years and recall the relative privacy of your day of birth, with or without its year attached. It was something you could choose to share or not, and many people among my acquaintance didn’t. Some preferred to celebrate their birthday only with family or a select few friends; others simply felt it was a fact about themselves–like their weight or the hospital in which they were born–that was nobody’s business but their own, save certain government agencies, financial institutions, or a bar’s ID checker. As one poster to Quora noted, “[M]y birthday is personal and I believe its celebration is less about me, but more about my parents who brought me into this world.”
Birth dates were once private enough that in 1990 a waitress who sued her employer on the basis that she was fired due to her age (68 at the time) noted that the inclusion of her age on a birthday card was a violation of privacy and “intended to humiliate, embarrass, and or demean her.” A federal court deciding the suit against her for several reasons in 1995 noted, “The Court concludes that in this case the plaintiff’s age is not such an intimate or personal fact that it can be the basis of a privacy claim.” That may pass the legal test, but not the smell test.
In a more recent decision in Texas, however, a court of appeals found that birth dates could be private. The case involved requests under the state’s public information act for information that would include the birth dates of several members of the general public, not public officials or employees. The appeals court determined in 2015, quoting in part from a Texas Supreme Court decision, that “public citizens have a privacy interest in their birth dates such that the ‘publication [of birth dates] would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person.'”
In the past, it wasn’t easy to find out someone’s date of birth. In the United States, births are registered with county clerks, but if you don’t know in which county someone was born, you would have been out of luck a couple of decades ago unless you paid a private detective or a background-checking service to run someone’s life history down. Even today, while records are largely computerized, hurdles typically remain in place to prevent wholesale access to deter identity theft. Facebook, however, is a surging sea of dates of birth, many of them shared publicly. That’s a boon to identity thieves, and yet another consequence of the company’s birthday fixation that should give us pause.
Birthdays Before Facebook
In the early days of the internet, sharing one’s birthday didn’t seem like a big deal, because the network was all twisty passages full of geeks, mostly alike. We didn’t think information we posted in venues such as Usenet newsgroups would persist forever–how would it be stored for the next few months was often a pressing concern. Nor did the misuse of something as innocuous as a birth date seem plausible. As we built communities, our birthday seemed like intimate trading material, something we could share that was meaningful to us and allowed a greater personal connection with close-knit groups that formed in every nook and cranny. Search for birthday in Google Groups’ archive of old Usenet newsgroup postings in the 1980s, and you can find people sharing their full day and year of birth with aplomb, along with detritus such as my 1988 insights about traveling with a Mac Plus as a carry-on on a plane.
But it’s still worth thinking of the current ease with which you can find someone’s month and day of birth–if not always the year–as one of the many ways in which Facebook has slowly boiled the privacy frog. Even though you choose to share your date of birth and who gets to see it, the efficiency with which you can do so erodes notions of the private self in an age in which Facebook and other sites live and die by how much of ourselves we give over. The Pew Research Center found in a 2013 survey that 82% of teens surveyed post their birthdate to their social media profile, ostensibly with little idea of how that might be used to their detriment.
Several years ago, when I first added the date of my birth to Facebook, I limited it to friends and thought nothing of it. I’ve also tried to be careful about who I add as a friend, trying to connect only with people with whom I have some sort of interaction that defines friendship for me more than passing acquaintance. Over time, I’ve been worse at enforcing that rule, and have friended many people I barely know or met briefly many years ago.
My feeling about the devaluation of birthdays has grown for years. This is certainly in part because of the calendar software I use, which can pull in birthday calendars from my personal address book, as well as Facebook, Google, and other sources that track that information. When you see birthdays every day on your calendar, including the ones of people with whom you’ve never celebrated–and some you’ve never met in person–it starts to disassociate you from the people in question. One birthday is important; 100 is a list.
Which led to my experiment. I wanted to do a Tom Sawyer funeral, and see who would recall my birthday without a Facebook reminder. This wasn’t to sit in judgement and feel dissed by those who didn’t remember. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been less interested in marking my biological age myself. Certainly, before Facebook, I’d heard from fewer people beyond family and close friends. I’d been less likely to send birthday wishes myself.
A few days before my birthday this year, I set my birthdate to private, or “Only Me” in Facebook parlance. And then on the actual date, digital crickets. No birthday messages on my Facebook wall, no shoutouts on Twitter (apparently driven by people seeing my birthday on Facebook?), no random emails from people I barely knew, all of which had happened in the Facebook era. (The random emails had already begun tapering off in recent years, and they seem to have come from an old birthday-list server or site that must have finally wandered off into the dark.)
Instead, I heard from my father and stepmother, my aunt and uncle, other family members, a few friends, and, in one Slack team I’m part of, a colleague who had made a note of our close-knit group’s birthdays. In that Slack thread, one friend replied “WAT? Facebook didn’t tell me, so it must not be true,” which was itself a revelation. (When I asked this friend if I could quote that private communication, he agreed and added, “Birthday wishes on FB are pretty much the top reason for keeping FB.” He gave me permission to quote that, too.)
Facebook’s increasing aggression about birthdays led to my personal backlash, echoing another comment by the Quora poster I mentioned above: “I don’t like that people say happy birthday to me when they otherwise wouldn’t have remembered to.” We recognize what’s authentic, and Facebook’s attempt to pivot itself back to a more personal service, now that so many other initiatives at manufacturing attention have waned, shows the strain.
While I liked the ego stroking of having a special day remembered by lots of people for a time, the artificiality of Facebook trying to raise a cheer for its own benefit on my behalf has worn thin. I’ll keep my birth date private, thank you. But I’d be happy to celebrate yours if you like.
Glenn Fleishman is a veteran technology reporter based in Seattle, who covers security, privacy, and the intersection of technology with culture. Since the mid-1990s, Glenn has written for a host of publications, including the Economist, Macworld, the New York Times, and Wired.