It was my birthday last week and a couple of days before the occasion, an idea struck me. I decided to make my birth date visible to only myself on Facebook and LinkedIn. The objective was not to find out who among my friends and contacts would remember my birthday. Rather, I did this as a social media experiment to see how many people were dependent on social media to wish me on my birthday. The results weren’t any surprising though.
In India, especially in my state, Kerala, under Hindu tradition, there are two birthdays. One, the actual date of birth and the other, the astrological date of birth based on moon signs. In academic and professional circles, the date of birth is considered as birthday whereas in family and community circles, the date that falls on the corresponding moon sign is considered as one’s birthday. The moon sign day is considered to be auspicious so the day starts off with an early bath and visit to temples, followed by a sumptuous feast in the afternoon. This is how it used to be from my childhood so it was a pain to go to school every year on this day.
Time has moved on and such elaborate birthday celebrations no longer take place, especially the sumptuous feast. I prefer to spend my birthdays in peace and quiet because it is the only day in the year when I get to choose what I want to do without interference from anyone.
We can broadly categorise our contacts into friends and acquaintances. Acquaintances are the ones whom we have known for little to short periods of time. From many of our classmates in school or college to most of our colleagues to the people we meet and talk when we are travelling, all of them come under the category of acquaintances. We may or may not be in touch with them constantly and those relationships are mostly need based. We may only know some aspects of each other’s lives and we do not share our private space with each other.
Friends on the other hand are just on the opposite polarity of acquaintances which is why our friend list is usually very small compared to the list of acquaintances. It is a decades or even centuries old norm that social media has stirred and shaken up completely.
Internet and social media have empowered us to connect with anyone anywhere across the globe. We can talk and even see each other across time zones through social media now. This is a dream come true for those people who have left their families behind in their own countries and gone abroad to work. It used to take weeks to communicate before the advent of mobile phones and social media. Mobile phones eased that difficulty considerably but it’s social media that has shrunk the distances to zero.
But something subtle has also happened in the meantime. Our friends and acquaintances lists have all become muddled because everyone is a friend on social media now. We would be communicating more on social media with those people who would have been on our list of acquaintances. As for the ones we consider to be our friends, we hardly talk because, well, they are all on social media anyway.
Coming to my birthday, someone from school whom I had never spoken to during school days, and became friends with after we became neighbors, wished me on both days. Another school mate with whom I became friends comparatively recently wished me in the evening on my date of birth. Another friend, whom I’ve known for 16 years, also wished me. All of these wishes came on Whatsapp. Two friends wished me on Facebook. Another friend whose birthday fell a few days after mine wished me a day before her birthday on Facebook messenger. She had my birthday totally confused. Then there was an ex-manager from a previous job who called me a day before my birthday because he wanted to wish me before everyone else did. These are all the wishes I got. From at least 70-80 wishes on Facebook every year, it came down to just two.
Everyone else failed to wish me. This is not anyone’s fault though. Life in society has become extremely fast paced. We are made to believe in the illusion that technology has made our lives easier, but in reality, it has not. There is so much to do and learn that we are all struggling to keep pace with the growth in technology. Added to this are the growing financial constraints. The financial meltdown of 2008 has changed our lives forever. It is no longer about whether we have time to remember the birthdays of our dear ones. We are mentally spaced out because it has all come down to survival and desperately holding onto our status quo in society.
Social media has come in and neatly fit itself into those gaps in our lives. Facebook shows us birthdays of our friends so it is very easy to drop in a message. But how much value does it have compared to a call or a hand-written note? Zero. Why? Because we never thought of them, we just reacted to an externally triggered alert. We do not have time to talk to our families in the morning because we are rushing off to work. So who has come in and taken that space? The RJs on FM channels. Everyone turns on these channels for music while we drive. The RJs smartly conduct their surveys and debates in between the songs they play and we participate wholeheartedly. The RJs are utilizing our need to talk and communicate our thoughts by directing us to certain topics and extracting our responses.
Social media has made us commodities in every sense. It is possible now to send virtual roses on dating sites to people we like. No emotions are required to connect and talk to people which is why we now have social media friends, people who are our friends on social media but whom we have never known before and may not ever even meet in person. And what is social media doing? Collecting every possible information about us, and more importantly, recording our behavior from every action we take.
All of this data helps companies to market and sell their products and services better by dividing us as customer segments and targeting us. Matrimony websites are a great example here. Create a profile on their website and they do profile matching based on our preferences. Our focus has shifted away from what we want from our partner to physical, professional, financial and astrological attributes of random people and we get to see the profiles of those people with whom our preferences and attributes match. Facebook and LinkedIn tells us who we should connect to based on our preferences and activities.
Social media is slowly culling the human touch between us. We are being made to accept that the easiest way to communicate is through social media. For long distance communication or to simply pass on a message or for casual conversation, yes. But to wish a friend in the same country or same place, I would prefer doing it over a call or even meet in person if possible.
To all the peeps who have known me for a long time and who didn’t or couldn’t wish me, our relationship is way beyond all social formalities. You know and remember me for a thousand other reasons so my birthday is no longer at the top of your memory stack which is how it has to be. Social media can only connect people at the physical level. They are trying hard with emojis but nothing can represent or become a substitute for our emotions. I am not going to give up my human conscience and let technology become my representative in exchange for doing things the easier way.