The Meaning of Birthdays in the Age of Social Networking

28 January 2013 | By Sign Salad

Birthdays are semiotically rich territory – balloons stuck to the front door, a cake with candles, singing happy birthday, making a wish. But how has the digital age affected the semiotics of birthdays?

In the West, birthdays are about individuals. Prior to the social network revolution, to celebrate a person’s birthday was to celebrate the person that she had become at a particular juncture in her life – the birthday was therefore an event. As such, it was a celebration best enjoyed by those who knew the birthday boy/girl well – friends and family. The mere fact of knowing the date of a person’s birthday was sufficient testament to the closeness of your relationship with that person – a fact that was signified through a private, exclusive message of some kind (email, phone call, text).

In summary, birthdays were coded as individuality, event, knowing, closeness and exclusivity.

The advent of social networking, particularly Facebook, has provided a new cultural context in which birthdays mean something considerably different. What does it mean when we see a reminder that it is a Facebook friend’s birthday, a reminder reinforced by the sight of countless birthday messages on this person’s wall? The first thing to observe is the fact that we are alerted to the person’s birthday. This blocks the code of closeness, as previously understood, since there is no way to tell which of the person’s friends has genuinely remembered the birthday and which of them have merely been alerted to it.

We might then observe that the sheer volume of birthday messages, combined with the generic nature of their content, undermine the codes of knowing and exclusivity. So, knowing and closeness are gone, and exclusive has become inclusive.

This much seems obvious, but what of the codes of individuality and event? The visual representation of a Facebook birthday is found in the chain of birthday messages that populate the wall of the birthday boy/girl. Importantly, it is the number of these messages that defines the Facebook birthday, not their content. Since the content of the messages is so homogenous, often demonstrating no special relation to the individual, the birthday, as individual event, has been undermined. Instead, the Facebook birthday acts as a smokescreen for something else, and that something else is the social network site itself (the collective).

As a social network, Facebook is reliant on the willingness of its users to ‘friend’ one another. However, many Facebook friends, once confirmed, have no direct communication with one another. Their friendship stops at having access to one another’s profile page and having one another’s activity come up on the newsfeed … until one of their birthdays. For this type of ‘friendship’, which is so widespread on Facebook, the birthday is the only time when users communicate with each other directly. The Facebook birthday thus plays a vital role: it reminds users of their connection to their friends and their participation in a collective. It reminds users that they belong to a network, and celebrates this fact. In so doing, it reinforces the very thing which makes Facebook what it is. The birthday in the age of social networking can then be coded as an inclusive, ‘collective connector’.

What is celebrated is not the individual, but the social networking site itself.


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