It was my birthday not long ago. And while birthdays in adulthood don't have quite the cupcake-icing shine of childhood celebrations, they're still pretty nice. People from various parts of your life who may otherwise pretty much ignore you reach out and offer their congratulations for your perseverance in existing. And even though it's not like you actually chose this particular day as a birthday, or even to be born (thanks, Mom), it's nice to be recognized.
And recognized you will be, if you have any social media presence at all. (If you don't, who are you, and do you truly exist?)
On my birthday, my Facebook wall was inundated with messages from well-wishers, people I'd known in high school, or my first job, or second or third or fourth or fifth or sixth, or college, or that one time I met that person at a bar and we made out and never spoke again, except by way of birthday messages on Facebook.
Everyone came forth to say "Happy Birthday!!" (with two exclamation marks or more, or it doesn't count), or "Happy!" (must have gotten cut off before he finished), or "HBD," which in terms of stylistic birthday wishing has to be the laziest version on the planet. Some left full messages featuring inside jokes and deep, thoughtful feelings and vaguely inappropriate gifs, but most just expressed the sentiment plain and true, as handily urged to do by Facebook's birthday calendar reminder. I had more than 100 such messages on my birthday, and a handful of belated wishes the day after.
I bring this to your attention so that we might face a pervasive etiquette conundrum head on: What to do with this slew of Facebook birthday messages that may have only been posted out of that semblance of duty that strikes when we see that a friend or colleague we haven't spoken to in months and maybe don't speak to at all is up for their yearly aging ceremony — so we just throw out a convenient "happy" to be done with it? And: Even if said comments are completely legitimate and thoughtful, what are you supposed to do in return?
With each message, I experienced a growing panic. Nothing in comparison to what I feel about, say, the American president maybe colluding with Russia or everyone losing their health insurance, but an unsettled feeling nonetheless, the nagging qualm that I was going to have to do something about all this, that out of joy had come duty. After all, someone had gone to the trouble of writing "HBD" on my Facebook page! The very least I could do was like it in return. But you can't just like one post and not the others, you can't just pick and choose the good ones from the ones attached to names you don't even recognize and clearly only accepted as friends while drunk. And Facebook makes scrolling through all of those messages time-consuming and a bit difficult; you have to keep clicking to see more, and then pressing that little thumb to express your like on each, and in the meantime more are still coming in. It all starts to feel distinctly uncelebratory and more like a Sisyphean task, if Sisyphus was a guy who sat behind a MacBook Air and had the job of liking everybody's Facebook posts.
There are, of course, other options. I considered writing a message on my own wall to the tune of "thanks all of you birthday well-wishers for making my day better, you are all loved as long as you wish me happy birthday into eternity." But from experience, I know that such missives only lead to yet another slew of messages from those who forgot to wish you happy birthday and now feel obligated to do so! And then what do you do with that? It's a slippery slope, just like aging.
Or I could do nothing. Just take the wishes as they come and not worry and enjoy my birthday, as some Facebook badasses/less neurotic people I know seem to do. But I couldn't shake the feeling that even if it's just on Facebook, I was breaching a certain established proper etiquette by not responding, that I was — horror of horrors — being rude. I grew up in the South. These things are entrenched.
Now may be where you say I'm overthinking this. Nope. I'm thinking about it just the right amount.
This is a question that has been considered widely across the internet, from Quora (one person writes, "You should always reply with a thank you, hopefully to each individual person" which gives me a panic attack; another says, "If it's your Mum, Dad, or best friend be nice. Otherwise don't sweat it" — if only!) to etiquette guides everywhere (this one from SF Weekly says, "You should feel free to simply ignore them. Very few people expect a response to a generic online birthday greeting, and really, it's totally fine to not want to 'like' or respond to 100 comments that all say some variation of, 'Happy birthday!!'). There's even a WikiHow ("One message to your wall thanking everyone for the birthday wishes is common practice, and unlikely to offend anyone.").
A post from Mic expresses what might be the only definitive sentiment about any of this: "To be clear, I'm not mad at the people who wrote 'Happy birthday!' on my wall. I love the people who wrote 'Happy birthday' on my wall. I'm mad at Facebook, because Facebook is doing what it does best: manipulating my emotions." (Even after extensive crowdsourcing for the answers in that piece, opinions remain divided — there are the "must respond or you're terrible people" people and there are the "don't sweat its," and never the twain shall meet.) Meanwhile, Gizmodo offers what may be the best option: In an extremely meta take available to journalists and bloggers, write about all those Facebook wishes and what to do with them on "a popular weblog."
The great thing about complaining in public, of course, is that you may never get Facebook birthday wishes again, which clears the problem right up. You know what? It's freeing. And it's not my birthday for another 11 months, so hopefully no one remembers this by then, and/or by that time we'll all be donating our Facebook birthday wishes to the ACLU.