Every morning, I wake up to a Facebook notification that reminds me of the birthdays in my friends group. A simple click takes me to a calendar view that shows me people who are celebrating the day, prompting me to wish them and let them know that I am thinking of them. Just so that I don’t miss the idea, the notifications are surrounded by ribbons and balloons in gold and blue. The message is simple. Somebody I know has a birthday. Social convention says that I should wish them and Facebook has designed a special interface that makes the communication so much simpler, faster, easier.
And yet, every morning I seem to face a small crisis, not sure how to respond to this prompt. Now, I am notorious for forgetting dates and numbers, so I do appreciate this personalised reminder which has enabled me to wish people I love and care for. But I generally find myself hovering tentatively, trying to figure out whether I want to greet these people.
This has perplexed me for a while now. Why would I hesitate in leaving a message on Facebook for people who I have added as “friends”? Why would I not just post on their wall, adding to the chorus of greetings that would have also emerged from the automated reminder on Facebook? I went on to the hive-mind of the social web to figure out if this was a unique problem, customised to specific neuroses, or whether this is more universal. It was a great surprise (and relief) to realise that I’m not alone.
When trying to figure out our conflicted sociality on social media, several conversations pointed to three things worth dwelling on. Almost everybody on that long discussion thread pointed out that the entire process is mechanised.
It feels like Facebook has a script for us, and we are just supposed to follow through. There is very little effort spent in crafting a message, writing something thoughtful, and creating a specific connection because it is going to get submerged in a cacophony of similar messages. Also, the message, though personal, is public. So anything that is personal and affective just gets scrubbed, and most people end up mechanically posting “Happy Birthday” with a few emojis of choice, finding the whole process and the final performance devoid of the personal.
Another emerging concern was that social media sustains itself on reciprocity. However, it is almost impossible to expect the birthday person to respond to every single message and post that comes their way. In fact, as somebody pointed out, if your friend spends their entire day on Facebook, responding to 500 comments and thanking everybody who spent three seconds writing a banal post, you should stage an intervention because it is a clear cry for help. You should have been a better friend and made their day more special by being with them. So the message feels like shouting in a ravine, expecting an echo and getting nothing. This lack of reciprocity, even when expected, is still disconcerting enough for people to shy away from it.
The most frequent experience that was shared was by people who wanted to make the person feel special and cherished. Facebook and the social media sites are now so quotidian and pedestrian that it seems an almost uncaring space. It was intriguing to figure out that people made choices of whom to wish based on their actual proximity and intimacy with the person. If it is a colleague, a distant acquaintance, or just a companion at work, they throw a quick greeting on their wall and move on. But for actual friends, loved ones, families, they take the prompt but then refuse to follow the script. They take that moment to call, to write, to meet, but not perform it on Facebook.
This need for connectivity and the suspicion of its meaning continues to mark our social media interaction. If it were not for social media networks, a lot of us would feel distinctly disconnected, unable to get glimpses in the lives of the large number of people we know.
At the same time, this thinned out connection that characterises most of social media also seems to make us realise that not all friends are the same friends, and that Facebook might be social media, but it isn’t quite personal media.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.