Turning Twenty-Seven

Yesterday morning, I woke up without an alarm clock and with the sun in my eyes. It was a great start to my 27th birthday. I eventually got up, went to work, and throughout the day, I received phone calls/text messages from friends/family and also experienced what Facebook users know as "the birthday ritual." It's when Facebook alerts you to wish people on your friends list a happy birthday.

I stopped wishing people "happy birthday" on Facebook a long time ago - I think if I really care about someone, I'll privately message, text, or call him/her instead of being jumbled in with a group of users that my Facebook friend (usually) has a good enough relationship with that they wish him or her a happy birthday. I say usually because I met one of the people that wished me a happy birthday yesterday at a conference about three years ago. We never said a word to each other, but apparently were aware of each others' existences enough for her to post on my wall on my birthday. What causes someone to wish a passing stranger in the "real" world a happy birthday in Facebook world?

My confusion may stem from my use case: I use social media more as a tool for personal branding. There are debates about privacy and anonymity on the Internet, but all of my accounts are intentionally transparent - my username is my full name backwards, slightly adjusted. Also, because of my experiences trying to build connections in 140 characters or less on Twitter, I feel like connecting with someone online who you don't talk to that often or who isn't geographically close to you is dependent upon the saliency (or specialness) of your message, relevance to the topic being discussed, and emotional closeness. This third reason has a caveat, since Twitter is generally a public forum for the free exchange of ideas between strangers. I post articles that I'm reading on Facebook and chat using its Messenger, but on Twitter, I talk to friends, engage with business leaders and other software developers all over the world, and retweet articles that I find interesting - all on a single medium.

Addressing the first reason - saliency - is interesting. As a general summary of my experience on my birthday, if someone mentioned the 27 Club or posted something unique (like this gem), I'd respond within minutes. However, in order to elicit a response, folks who posted on my wall had to show some sort of forethought beyond "hbd," "happy birthday," or variants of the generic birthday salutation. Otherwise, my perception is that when someone posted on my wall, he/she took the path of least resistance (Facebook's pop-up UI). Although that person's wall post had relevance, its blending in with the other posts I received on my wall made me (consciously or not) skim over that person's well wishes. I took relevance for granted, and saliency (like a friend simply posting "OLD") became far more valuable to increasing my positive emotional state.

All in all, I appreciated everyone who contacted me via Facebook and when my co-workers started applauding when I walked into the office yesterday morning. I think this birthday taught me that engagement, while genuine, must be unique in order to be memorable and worth responding to, since I judged the value of the well wishes subjectively upon their uniqueness. I am thankful to have had so many people recognize me on my birthday, and I believe that the ability to engage and connect online without a physical medium is the original intent of the World Wide Web.

Published September 17, 2015