The Digital Birthday: How Social Media Changed Birthdays Forever

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Technology and social media have changed the way we celebrate. Remember when you used to get a birthday card from a family member or friend in the mail? That doesn’t happen much anymore, thanks to new technology that offers us better ways to connect, digitally. Many birthday traditions have stayed the same: Most birthday celebrations still include a birthday cake and celebratory song, for example. But other birthday traditions, especially around birthday greetings, have changed forever.  Where you once had to call someone up or send them a birthday card in the mail to wish them happy birthday, you can now share a post on social media, send a digital greeting card, or reach out with a quick text. You also don’t have to remember dates or maintain a paper birthday calendar anymore. 

The Culture of Sharing

With the rise of social media, our culture has shifted. We are much more likely to share our experiences and milestones, like birthdays, online for all of our friends to see. Sharing information has always been part of our culture (we wouldn’t have any written or verbal history without it), but social media offers a new way of sharing information about our lives that reaches a wider audience. In a study about online sharing, one of the main reasons people said they share updates on social media is to grow and nourish relationships. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that we post on someone’s Facebook wall or create an Instagram story to celebrate their birthday.

Decrease in Birthday Cards

Birthdays have become more digital in recent years. With Facebook, we post on each other’s walls and share photos to wish someone a happy birthday. On Instagram, we dedicate entire Stories to our friends and family on their birthdays. We also send birthday e-cards with heartfelt video messages inside instead of going to the store, picking out a paper birthday card, writing a message, and then either mailing the card or handing it over in person. Birthday celebrations and greetings in particular have been streamlined. Even gifts have become digital. Digital gift cards, online subscription gifts, and online birthday fundraisers are all popular alternatives to physical gifts. All of these birthday traditions have transitioned to the digital world, thanks to technology.

Increased Awareness

It's hard to miss a loved one's birthday these days. Birthday reminders and notifications are everywhere -- on Facebook, your Google or Apple calendar, your Timehop photos, or even some specific birthday reminder services. Gone are the days of needing to remember someone’s birthday date or maintain a paper calendar of birthdays. Now you just log into Facebook and you have a notification about which of your friends have a birthday that day. This increase in awareness also increases the expectation of receiving birthday greetings from others, since it’s so easy to know when it’s someone’s birthday. Birthdays have also become a lovely opportunity to reconnect with people we haven’t reached out to in a while.

Video Cards

Video is the latest frontier for birthday greeting technology. Video cards make birthday wishes more personal, as the recipient can see and hear you wish them happy birthday. Facebook introduced a video feature for birthdays in 2016, allowing users to send a short 15 second video to their friends on their birthdays. SnapChat lets you send quick videos to friends. Instagram stories have video capabilities where you can record a short video message for your friends’ birthdays. You can even send birthday ecards with video messages by email or text. Other than wishing someone happy birthday in person, video is one of the most personal and thoughtful ways to celebrate a milestone.

Need to Connect

Nowadays, people will wish happy birthday to anyone they are friends with on social media, even if they aren’t that close. Humans have an inherent need to connect with others and reaching out to someone on their birthday helps fulfill that need. Even a simple act like this can help improve the relationship between two people, and boost our overall mental and physical health. You feel good when someone you aren’t closely connected to wishes you a happy birthday. Brands understand the value of celebrations, and many reach out to customers or followers on their birthdays to offer a “treat” or birthday discount for their products.

Why Are Birthdays So Important

Birthdays are a milestone. It’s a moment for us to reflect on the previous year of our life and celebrate what’s next. In many cultures, we honor some birthdays more than others, such as the first birthday, the quinceañera, or the 50th birthday. Every birthday gives us a chance to celebrate someone we love and express our gratitude. As an extremely social species, we use birthdays as a reason to come together and socialize. Even when we can’t do that in person, social media helps us connect and celebrate digitally.

The Future of Birthdays

Where do birthdays evolve from here? What new technologies will influence the ways we celebrate birthdays in the same way social media has? Already we’ve seen a new trend of virtual celebrations via video chat platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, and Skype. Our expectations for birthday etiquette and celebrations will change. Perhaps there will always be a screen at our celebrations for guests who can’t attend in person. We may even end up celebrating the entire birthday week! Perhaps we’ll completely shift from gift-giving to fundraising on our birthdays. Who knows? One thing that remains constant, though: Birthdays will always be a way for us to unite and celebrate with each other.
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