“Happy birthday! Have a great one!”

Formalities are an inevitable part of life. Nobody seems to like them, yet they persist. Work, social events, relationships – these are all formality-heavy undertakings, and we’ve just seemed to accept this so as to not stir things up too much. Occasionally formalities even creep into leisure activities. In fact they almost led me to abandon the game of golf – a game I thoroughly enjoy – at one point. Depending on who you’re playing with, golf can be one of the most ceremonious activities known to man; taking too long to hit, not taking long enough, hitting out of turn, wearing the wrong thing, not marking your ball on every green, accidentally stepping in someone’s putting line, drinking 12 beers in nine holes – all these seemingly innocent gestures can make you look crass and unrefined in the eyes of “serious” golfers, i.e. people who actually enforce meaningless and fun-restricting rules during a casual round. Keep in mind these are the same guys who call hand-check fouls in pick-up basketball games. “Hey man,” he’ll say with a condescending tone on the seventh green, “did you just walk in my line? You know you’re not supposed to walk in someone’s line.” Oh I’m sorry, I thought this was a local municipal course, not the damn PGA Tour. I’ll try to be more respectful of “your line” in the future. Nice pullover.

Anyway, the point is this: formalities suck. They are the things you’re required to do to get to the enjoyable parts of life. I’m pretty sure they were all invented by fat kids who got picked on in high school and are trying to get back at the world. Whatever. Some things we cannot control. But some things we can. And I believe that when formalities invade the realm of Facebook – a largely user-created realm – it falls into the latter category.

Let’s take a moment here to reflect on a time when Facebook was, essentially, awesome. Back in its heyday – the Golden Age, if you will – the ‘Book was restricted only to those with a valid .edu email address:  college students. It was a place to emote in any way you wanted, without repercussions. It was just for us – young stupid adults across the nation – and parental supervision was nonexistent. Your profile picture was most likely you passed out on someone’s dorm room floor with a case of empty Keystone Light scattered throughout. Your “About Me” section probably said something about your ability to throw back whiskey shots like it was your job, and 75% of your online interactions revolved around trying to identify and hook up with that cute brunette in your biology class. In short, it was a great time – the digital version of the free-love 60s. But then it exploded, Mark Zuckerburg grew fond of wiping his ass with $100 bills, and things slowly progressed south. High school students were allowed, and were soon followed by the aunts and grandmas. Potential employers began checking profiles for questionable behavior. All of a sudden we had to watch what we did, and try to project a certain image. It became just like the real world, with a poke button. Nothing against aunts or grandmas – love you guys – but the dynamic certainly changed.

So what does all this have to do with formalities? Ever since the Golden Age of Facebook, there’s been an unspoken tradition of wishing someone a happy birthday via wall post. In the beginning, it was kind of cute – Facebook reminded you who’s birthday was that day, you sent them a little note (usually with reference to Natural Ice and/or beer-amids), and everyone went on their merry way. It wasn’t an obligation, just an option. This has changed.

Over time, the birthday greetings have become an obligation. Someone will do it for one of their friends, and feel compelled to do it for the rest, even those to whom they have very little real acquaintance. Everyone else is writing on Laura Deehan’s wall, and you for some reason feel bound to do the same. Nobody really knows why this ritual persists, yet we all perpetuate it – it’s probably a combination of simple politeness and the old feeling of “I’ve always done this in the past, so why stop now?” And it’s ridiculous.

In the Golden Age, you’d maybe have a few dozen birthday wall posts. Hopefully one from that cute brunette. Now there are hundreds; email inboxes are flooded with notifications, entire walls are seized and rendered useless for days, and every message seems to run together. Many of these are from people you don’t even know, who clearly don’t give a shit whether you have a happy birthday or not, yet they fake it anyway. Even a lot of actual friends can’t seem to formulate an original birthday wish anymore– at some point I suppose we all run out – and fall back on one of the go-to posts, which include but are not limited to:

“Happy birthday, have a great one!” “Hope it’s an awesome day!” “Do something fun today!” “Hope you have an amazing birthday!” “It’s been forever since I’ve seen you, we should hang out sometime!” (This is a lie; nobody involves wants to hang out. You are probably only became Facebook friends with this person during that time it seemed necessary to add anyone you’ve ever heard of at any point in your life.) “Hope all is well!” “Have fun today!” And of course, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!” All caps and multiple exclamation points apparently make the comment more meaningful.

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this. After all, it is positivity, something our society seriously lacks at times, and who am I to tell good-intentioned well-wishers not to do their thing? If you want to wish your high school guidance counselor’s niece’s fiancé a happy birthday via Facebook, by all means use as many exclamation points as you’d like. Go for it. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t feel obligated to do this. Chances are if you are close enough to someone to warrant a happy birthday, you are also close enough to text them, call them, or (gasp!) tell them to their face. And if you do take one of these three avenues, you don’t need to replicate the message on the ‘Book for the whole world to see. I promise, it’s cool. One is plenty. They get the idea.

Facebook birthday wishes will inevitably continue, and in many cases they’re actually warranted. Just please remember, like most things in life, this is a choice, not a requirement. There is no moral law indicating you have to do any of this, so use discretion, and I doubt anyone will even notice if you neglect your ex-boyfriend’s college roommate’s pot dealer on his special day. The world has enough formalities already.


  1. Luke R05-10-2011

    i love you for this. i write facebook happy birthdays to no one btw

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Sam Neumann | sam@samneumann.com | Boulder, CO