About once a month one of my Google calendars rises up from hibernation to remind me of birthdays. I’ll never forget as a child going to visit my grandmother, who every week would sit down with her calendar in front of her and write birthday notes to the friends and family she cared for. My grandmother was an extremely social person, with more friends than anyone else I know had pre-Facebook, so this weekly ritual really took an hour and required quite a lot of dedication. She would every January sit down to copy the birthday calendar anew, presumably making edits where appropriate to reflect new friends and those who had drifted away. I was always impressed by this and other rituals she relied on to demonstrate her love for others, and upon reaching adulthood vowed to maintain some sort of ritual myself.
Of course, Facebook birthdays supplanted the thoughtfulness of a ritual like that of my grandmother’s. Suddenly, everyone can demonstrate such thoughtfulness and devotion just by posting a message on a wall whenever Facebook prompts him. For this reason I’ve never found Facebook “happy birthday” wall posts to be very personal or meaningful, and am not one to send them. Somehow a thoughtful email or card seems far more personal and far more meaningful — at least, this is how I feel when I receive them. So, I send emails and cards, I don’t do wall posts.
But I still need that birthday calendar, like the one my grandmother kept. So, a couple years ago I created a Google calendar and set reminders for the entries of all the birthdays I entered in. Every few weeks I get an email reminding me of the birthdays ahead, the people whom I ought to send cards or emails wishing them well. I have not gone back through and audited the calendar since creating it, though, so many of these reminders increasingly bear the names of people with whom I have not spoken for well over a year, sometimes two.
We keep building these tools to simplify the effort required to do the little things that matter so much in friendships: send a birthday card, check in to see how someone is doing, share photos and news of our lives. As the cost of doing these things go down, the gestures lose their meaning. Well, of course you remembered my birthday and said so on my Facebook wall, at some point five years ago you clicked yes to a friend request and it was sealed then that each year you would be reminded to say happy birthday. There are a lot of commentators who claim that the social web is bringing us closer together through tacit and passive information sharing, and I don’t wholly disagree. But there is something that gets lost when we rely on automation for the little gestures that once signaled so much. I’m not one for tradition, so I’d be very happy to leave the birthday tradition behind and accept that a new tradition is signaling the type of devotion, care and love that my grandmother’s birthday calendar once signaled — but I’m not sure I know what new tradition is replacing the old?