Birthdays and Social Media

by | Feb 21, 2022

This past Saturday was my birthday, and I had a great day. Thank you!

This got me thinking about birthdays and social media. You may have noticed that LinkedIn provides notifications of connection’s birthdays to those who opt-in for that feature. I used to think that LinkedIn was “business only” and birthday notifications were wrong. I’ve changed my mind. Here’s why.

THE DUNBAR NUMBER

British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has postulated that there may be a limit to the number of relationships a person can actually cognitively maintain. The imprecise “Dunbar’s number” is about 150 relationships. And it does sound about right. Anecdotal evidence like Christmas card lists, wedding attendees, etc., confirms this 150 number as true or at least in the ballpark.

The Dunbar number was derived from studying primates in the wild and does not account for technological advances humans have made, such as Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) and Social Network Sites (SNS). Interestingly, Facebook reports the average number of “friends” per member as ~338. Double the original Dunbar number. Even more interesting is LinkedIn put the number of contacts per member at ~990. Technology!

LOOSE AFFILIATIONS

In her article, Massachusetts Institute of Technology social media scholar Judith Donath, “From Darwin to Facebook,” posits that part and SNS’s value is derived from providing a way to maintain and develop what she calls “loose affiliations.” These loose associations of schoolmates, coworkers, neighbors, family, and acquaintances were difficult or even impossible to maintain before SNS.

According to Donath, loose affiliations are worthwhile to maintain from an evolutionary standpoint in that they promote increased survivability in today’s complex world. Having trustworthy advisers (as in people you actually know, have known, or interacted with) can enhance social survival. In other words, more loose affiliations are a competitive advantage.

If this advantage is driven by evolutionary adaptation (as Donath suggests), strengthening our cognitively limited circles of friends beyond the doubled Dunbar’s number is something to aspire to. Hence the seeming innate drive for more Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY

There are many practical ways to build and maintain these useful loose alliances via SNS. Writing articles like this one is one way. But, it’s much work. “Likes” are easier but can often go unnoticed. Comments may be the best way. But in widely trafficked sites, the wrong comment can have an unintended negative impact.

The simplest way to maintain a loose affiliation is wishing your SNS friends a “Happy Birthday” once a year. Facebook and LinkedIn have made the process amazingly simple. First, they remind you of the person’s birthday. Then, they give you a prominent button to click that uses some AI to deliver a “personalized” message. The whole process takes less than a couple of seconds.

And, who doesn’t like to get dozens or hundreds of “Happy Birthday” wishes? It’s nice. It’s a kind and simple gesture that doesn’t take much effort. Plus, the cumulative effect of receiving many birthday wishes is sweet. All those connections chiming from different times in one’s life can really add to the magic of the day.

THE LAW OF RECIPROCITY

Social Psychologist Robert Cialdini spoke of “the first principle of persuasion,” reciprocity. Basically, people tend to return a favor. Wish me a happy birthday today; I wish you a happy birthday tomorrow. I then feel a small sense of obligation. Who knows when that favor can be returned?

All this is to say I currently wish everyone on Facebook checks the box a Happy Birthday on their day, irrespective of my relationship’s depth. No judgment. Everyone loves being remembered. Moving forward, I’m going to do this on LinkedIn as well.

So next time you see that it is someone’s birthday on SNS, go ahead and click and send them a note written by AI but sounds personal. Push past your Dunbar limits. You’ll feel good about it. And, best of all, as you brighten their day, you’ll simultaneously be helping to evolve the human species.

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