Social Networked Birthdays

In an article titled The Socially Networked Birthday from the Huffington Post, author Rachel Levy Lesser discusses what it means to have a birthday on social media.  Lesser states, “Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg (or the Winklevoss twins, depending on which way you see it), birthdays have become a strange stroll down memory lane for so many of us.”  When your birthday pops up on Facebook, all of a sudden you are getting hundreds of wishes from your “weak ties” on Facebook that you may not have spoken to in years.  Two of Lesser’s Facebook, and real, friends evaluated this situation with two opposite views.  One friend said that it is just part of one’s to-do list when they log on to Facebook and see your name.  Her other friend argued that you really should only wish someone a happy birthday on Facebook if you would do so on the phone, or in a card before the days of social network sites.  Lesser admits that she likes hearing “from everyone’s Facebook account,” and it really doesn’t bother her.  She concludes by sharing that when her childhood friend on the West Coast called to wish her a happy birthday one day late, but admitted that the only reason she remembered was because of Facebook.

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Screenshot taken by author. October 5, 2013

I feel as though Lesser touches on the topic of shallow birthday content, but is missing the point about the meaning of those ties and how they play a role in the online world.  The topic Lesser brings up is much deeper than she thinks it is in terms of friends.  Birthdays have a completely new and different meaning ever since social networking sites, Facebook in particular, have become popular.  We are reminded every day of upcoming birthdays on Facebook, we get notifications reminding us of our “friends’'” birthdays and our news feeds are flooded with other people commenting on that friend’s wall.  The event becomes about the social media site rather than the individual — so what does that say about our online friendships? We rely on our online friends to make our birthday special by flooding our walls, our Twitters, and collages on Instagram, but do we really care if they send us a text or even call us?  Birthdays have become about the public activity rather than special meaning.

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I personally find it odd when people post on my wall that I truly haven’t spoken with in years.  I only write on my friends’ walls or people I may want to be friends with in the near future.  This is what Nancy Baym refers to as a “label tie,” someone you have the potential to form a relationship with (even if it is a weak tie) but you haven’t actually activated it.  Maybe one of Lesser’s childhood friends is a label tie and they have the potential of being friends again, but neither of them has made the effort yet.  I may write on a distant friend’s wall in order to keep the friendship open for a later time.  I would not necessarily wish them happy birthday in person or even text them, but I am keeping the tie open for future engagements.  I am engaging in “social grooming” in order to not let this weak tie fall back into a latent tie by doing some of these ritualistic acts.  I would probably use these ties for bridging capital resources such as job opportunities, but not as bonding capital for emotional or financial support.

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Baym talks a lot about the idea of friends and what it means to be a friend online.  An important term that she brings up is “media multiplexity,” when we communicate with people in multiple media formats.  We are most likely to communicate on multiple platforms with people with whom we have stronger ties to, such as Lesser’s two friends mentioned above.  On the other hand, we probably only use one medium to talk to people with weaker ties, and without that medium we probably would never talk to them.  This is exactly the point that Lesser’s second friend makes.  Facebook makes it infinitely easier to build relationships, create connections and identify with unexpected people than the offline world.  This idea changes what it means to be a friend.  Or has this idea of “real friends” changed?

Don Slater describes the terms “disembedding” and “disembodiment” in his article, Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline.  Disembedding describes the irrelevance of physical location because it doesn’t matter where you are in the world – you come together in this virtual space.  All of Lesser’s friends came together on Facebook to send her birthday wishes regardless of where their physical location was.  This is something positive, according to Slater, because people are less restricted with geographical borders and it helps long-distance relationships.  I can attest to this when I studied abroad last semester in Florence and never felt at all distant from my friends or family in the United States.  Disembodiment is the idea that our offline presence is irrelevant to our online presence; you can leave your body behind.  In terms of Facebook I feel like friendship is more about connection via “likes” and “happy birthdays,” but not about communication or bonding.

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I think this article touches on a few important topics relating to friends and the online world, but it perhaps could have been further developed on how weak ties are really used in everyday life.  Maybe Lesser really was unsure, but I think she could have talked more about what it meant to receive birthday posts from these distant ‘friends’ and how she felt about her childhood friend admitting that she only remembered her birthday because of Facebook.  I would have liked to have heard more about how birthdays would be different without the weak ties on social media and what it means to re-connect with Facebook friends on a day that is supposed to be special and spent with real friends.

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