Happy Birthday CakeHave you ever considered how the advent of digital technology has changed a simple thing like your birthday? It bemuses me every time my own special day comes around.

I’ve hung out on a private chatserver with the same bunch of online friends for over twenty years now. The chatserver is modeled after the IRC format, with a channel topic we could change for special occasions. For all that time, we’ve enjoyed setting it to “Happy birthday, [person]!” when it was a given person’s birthday. I would be proud I remembered (or, more likely, had thought to set a reminder in a calendar), and I used to hope someone would remember and set it for mine without prompting (and I would feel very special when they did).

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the way birthdays went from a day to feel gratified at friends who cared enough to remember, to a day you get spammed with Happy Birthday notifications from everyone you’ve ever met and every place you’ve ever signed up online. Just consider how many different sources you get it from now.

Facebook tells all your friends what day it is. So does Google Plus, and even Skype. Many online BBSes keep track of birthdays and send their members an email on that day. Amazon reminds anyone who’s added you to their friends list two weeks ahead of time so they have time to get you something. Restaurants where you’ve registered for their discount program will send you an email coupon for free stuff. Pretty much any website you’ve registered with that keeps track of the date will wish you a happy birthday birthday as a matter of course when you log into it. (Even Google popped up a special birthday-cake doodle for me when I opened a new Chrome tab.)

I got up at 1 a.m. this morning for a few hours of net surfing and writing before going back to bed at 4:30, and within ten minutes of getting to the computer I had been wished happy birthday twice on Skype, once on Google Hangouts, and four times on Facebook. Seriously, wow.

I’m certainly not complaining, mind you. I do like people remembering my birthday and offering me best wishes, regardless of how they remembered. Even if they were reminded to do so, I can’t complain about that either. I still can’t remember my own parents’ birthdays without Google Calendar to remind me of them every year, so it would be a case of pot and kettle.

It just bemuses me the way that birthdays have gone from a highly individual thing, that people either remembered themselves or marked their calendars as an act of will to remember so they could show how much they cared about you, to a thing where they now can’t help being reminded if they share even the slightest online connection to you—all thanks to the same sort of digital technology that lets us read e-books on our phones and tablets instead of dead trees.

It’s not something anyone intended; it just grew out of everyone thinking it would be nice if they reminded people of their friends’ birthdays since they had the capability to do so. And it does at least mean nobody has to suffer the indignity of having their birthday forgotten anymore. (Just imagine how many old cartoon episodes this renders obsolete in one stroke.) Though on the other hand, all the people who’ve reached the point where they don’t want to be reminded anymore that they’re a year older are really out of luck now.

It’s also worth noting that this is the first year that people can sing “Happy Birthday” to me without potentially getting dunned for copyright violation—it was finally officially declared to be in the public domain last month. But when you get right down to it, I really prefer the Beatles and Weird Al versions.


  1. Wishing you a happy birthday, Chris. 🙂

    Your column made me chuckle. There are some places I’ve registered where the answers to their goofy – and nosey – questions were always tales; and so I am wished happy birthday throughout the year. I never realized, though, that some of these places might be telling friends and foes and causing confusion!

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