Birthdays Do Really Matter!

June 10, 2014

“If you wouldn’t post a birthday greeting on their page, you should de-friend them.” That was the advice I received from a friend recently. On my birthday, I realized the logic of that suggestion was actually backwards and may have accidentally learned how to appreciate the possibilities for civility in the realm of social media.

For several years I have made a rather big deal about the rise of incivility being directly correlated to the growth in social media related channels and technology. The cloak of anonymity is now almost regarded as an extension of First Amendment rights in the US. I still vigorously reject this notion. Free speech is rooted in the requirement of responsible speech. Going back to the very beginnings of the argument in favor of natural rights, John Locke never envisioned a world where we would exercise these natural rights with no regard for our responsibilities as citizens or a universe absence of consequences for those who would abuse, disuse or tread on those very same natural rights. And yet, here we are in a world where snark and public shaming, charges with no proof and acidic anonymous commentary and gossip are changing the very community fabric that depends on civility. 

But this past week I dealt with my own nonchalant attitude towards my social media “presence”. It all started a couple of weeks ago when a friend of mine shared her philosophy on how to tidy up the messy world of Facebook friends. You know this world well. It is the place where people you barely knew in high school (“I am married to the guy who used to date your cousin who was in geometry class with your sister”) or even where someone you might have been tormented by in elementary now wants to be your “friend”. I have written before about how these connections give a false sense of community and an attitude of entitlement between the “friends” we reconnect with. I have personally experienced the pain of receiving advice, personal criticism, finger waving and outright insults from people I friended who maintain a perception of me that is fossilized somewhere back in the Early 8th Grade Pleistocene Era and does not take into account 30 more years of experiences with growth, loss, heartache, travels, education, embarrassments and victories. 

The philosophical approach to a better Facebook world is to eliminate “friends” that you wouldn’t send a birthday greeting to each year. As soon as I heard the theory though, it didn’t sit right with me. At some point, someone sent me that invite for a reason. Even with my cynical position on social media and civility, I struggled with the nagging suspicion that slipping out the Facebook back door on these synthetic relationships was still…wrong. Something as trivial as these ephemeral cyber friendships had gotten me to thinking about my part in striving for a more civil world – my own little actions – our little actions that are collectively the solution to civility. 

Last year I made it a point to “like” every person’s “happy birthday” comment on my Facebook wall. I wanted each one of them to know that I had seen it – that their well wishes had resulted in a return receipt. I felt good about that. I was taking time to acknowledge them, right? This year something dawned on me at the beginning of my 47th birthday. If civility is a measure of how we choose to respond and interact with others, what if I tried to respond personally to every individual birthday greeting? Not just with a “thanks” but instead with a comment or reference to something relevant to their lives, their Facebook updates, their families, their victories, their heartaches. What if I tried to show them that I was paying attention throughout the year? Here is the scary part – what if I started to interact like this and realized I hadn’t been paying attention? Awkward. 

I decided it must be attempted. What an incredible day! Not life changing or cathartic. But it was a day of actual community, on the digital medium I find to be such a contributor to today’s uncivilized personal behaviors. I found that investing a few moments to share an inside joke, a memory or a congratulations was returned with kindness and thanks. I realized that Facebook has surrounded me with friends and family with passions and purpose that I admire. Friends who organized motorcycle rallies to memorialize a family member who passed away. Friends who share the most amazing pictures and fundraising events for an incredible child with Williams Syndrome – a child with an amazing smile, whom I have never met but brightens my mood every time I see the newest picture of his great adventures. Friends suffering through depression, loss and illness seeking a shoulder or a listening ear. Friends sharing graduations and marriages and victories. And they took time to wish me a happy birthday. 

It took time and effort. Sometimes my response leapt onto the screen with little thought. Other times it took a few minutes to recall an event that would be relevant, timely and hopefully meaningful to my well wisher. And then there were those few where I realized that I had not been paying attention. And it bothered me. Someone took time from their day and I couldn’t respond with the type of genuine interest that I should have for them. I am sure that critics might scoff at the idea of taking the time to try and stay current with all those friends out there on social media. 

But maybe that is the lesson to learn on this birthday. That civility is a product of community, of friendship and of a true and abiding interest in others. These are fundamental truths whether your friend is over the fence or hedgerow next door or in Papua New Guinea. Whether they are reading an old fashioned pen and ink letter or your last posting about your new barbecue grill.

Maybe civility is as simple as telling someone that you appreciate that they think your birthday matters.