Birthdays. Eagerly awaited by some, dreaded by others. An annual marker of the passing of time, the ticking clock. For some, it’s a day that extends into an entire month, materialising as an abundance of hedonistic ventures and excuses to knock back the Prosecco every night. For others, it remains a day-that-shall-not-be-named, preferably breezed over like a minor pothole in the road; significantly insignificant, buried in the back of the mind and only discussed in hushed voices. Once urging the years on, we now will them to slow down, dreading the climbing number of our age like an electricity bill.
In the earlier days, it was the thrill of a packet of Marlborough, ridding the paranoia of a fake I.D and striding into the 15-rated film at the cinema with confidence. Later it becomes the beckoning of the menopause, freedom bus passes and wrinkled foreheads. Though many live in denial of birthdays (my aunt has turned 21 for the past 45 years) and see ageing as a social construct which we don’t have to adhere to. Birthdays remain a constant throughout our ever-lengthening lifespans. Hence, they function as both a personal and a universal marker, enabling us to reflect upon how society has changed and developed over the years, through the culture and rituals around this annual celebration. With technology having drastically affected our means of connectivity and communication during my brief time on this earth, each birthday exists as different chapter in this social evolution.
Somewhere in my house exists a plastic folder, stuffed full of birthday cards from my youngest years, yellowing with time. Though short and sweet, these cards were utterly reliable and much anticipated, arriving prematurely through the letterbox like clockwork. They sat promisingly on the hall table – a true test of patience – the warm familiarity of Grandma’s cursive alongside that of an obscure, distant family member who never missed a year. Balloons, streamers and a Barbie cake were all it took to please. An oversized, light-up badge for the special years. During school time, it was the honour of bringing in cupcakes for the class, and the relished – albeit temporary – popularity that came with that. During holidays, balloons tied to the front door were all that notified the occasion to the outside world, alongside a disco-ball, Britney spears, marzipan fuelled bash if you were fortunate. The only time spent near a phone was the reliable call of my Grandparents, singing ‘happy birthday’ down the line in glorious canon. Every year. Without fail.
BBM (Blackberry Messenger) was a phase that took the Millennials and Gen Z’s of this nation by storm. A notable shift in the pace of conversation and accessibility, a time soundtracked by the collective clicking of plastic keys and the threat of thumb strain. On birthdays, the iconic red light would flash in overdrive, illuminating like a firework display. Phones glued to palms, scarcely coming up for air amongst the flood of messages, we began to acclimatise to this new volume of attention we were receiving on our birthday.
The accumulation of a triple-figure catalogue of Facebook friends had a colossal impact on birthday culture. When Facebook was still in its prime, birthdays involved a mass inundation of public wall-posts and declarations of appreciation – helpfully prompted by a notification. “Friends” re-emerged from every corner of life, plastering your Facebook wall with messages of varying sentiment:
Lacking in charm, maybe, but racking up the quantity nonetheless, and successfully helping surpass last year’s haul. Well-wishes from friends of varying integrity: your oldest friend; a girl you met at Butlins aged 7; a stranger you snogged at a house-party once last year – whose name you didn’t know; that infamous year above, who you wouldn’t dare share eye contact with the following morning at school. They all played a vital role, contributing to the dopamine-filled day you had looked forward to the previous year. A lingering stamp of popularity, proof of your worth, stacked up neatly on your profile.
Obligatory photo collages from your best friends were to be expected. A collection of your most undignified and unrefined moments from the past 12 months, and entire lifetime, captured and stashed for this special day. Evidence of memories you need no reminding of. Perhaps the aftermath of a whole bottle of Glenn’s vodka in the park, dusted off and brought to light year upon year. Your intimate moments revealed to everybody, a gift of pre-meditated humiliation from your nearest and dearest. Implicit competition between the friends, the quality of collage a direct intimation to place in the social hierarchy – the more spectacular the collage, the most legitimate the friendship.
A couple of years ago, Facebook began a slow, withering demise in the eyes of the young generations. Instagram took centre stage, as the former was left to rot, kept alive only as a sprawling address book of everyone we’ve ever met, and by middle-aged gardeners sharing snapshots of their allotment successes. With this, came an ambiguity around birthday etiquette. Still, on our birthdays, we turned to Facebook for its previous gratification, to now be met with a disheartening response: birthday posts that you could count on one hand, from the stragglers who hadn’t yet got the note about moving on. A tumbleweed rolls across our profiles along with the whistling of sinking hearts and deflated egos. But rather than a sign of social extradition, this was just a sign that communication had progressed and birthday culture would soon adapt to its new home.
Instagram has now been part of our lives for a decade, growing and metamorphosing alongside us over this time. Once just a place for poor quality photographs and rainbow filters, it’s now a superpower that has taken worldwide interconnectivity into a whole new realm. It functions simultaneously as a tool for business, a political platform, an artistic portfolio, a dating-profile, a means of communication, social promotion, and a personal mood board. With the mass migration to Instagram, birthday culture has thus adapted into what it is now…
Unlike Facebook, Instagram doesn’t dutifully remind followers of the birthdays, hence it has become our personal responsibility to prompt people ourselves. We must lace the feed with triggers, so that our followers simply cannot miss news of the big day. Be it photos of ourselves basking in the ‘birthday glow’ and surrounded by silver helium balloons or sporting a plastic tiara, with the caption “21!”. After giving a gentle nudge, we can sit back and watch our handiwork unfurl, taking the form of likes, comments and messages. Facebook collages have now been replaced by Instagram ‘stories’, chopped up into a million mini morsels of appreciation and odes to the past, and length the new measure of appreciation. We watch as images of our face spread across social media like wildfire, resharing these ‘stories’ of our time on earth to our own profiles, for all of those that might have missed the previous prompt.
Shops such as Paperchase and Scribbler have succeeded in keeping the birthday card alive and relevant. Though, they are far less common, frequently crude or based around an avocado-themed pun. Websites such as Moonpig have also helped shift card-giving into the contemporary. Possibly instilled in me by a Mother who wrote me a card for every possible occasion – ‘good luck,’ ‘well done,’ ‘thinking of you,’ or ‘just a note.’ I am still a great advocate for the power of the birthday card. I also believe it has taken on a whole new weight. A symbol that you are worth the time and effort spent writing those words. The intimacy and closeness felt through the ink, smudged by their hand. The lick of their saliva sealing the envelope. The knowledge that you were in someone’s thoughts, before you reminded them. Though less fruitful that it used to be, receiving the post on my birthday might still be the thing I look forward to the most.
Despite the torrent of contact and hype we now experience on our birthday, thanks to social media, I can’t deny feeling a little empty when the day comes around. Although full on emojis and gif-laden photographs, I find myself unsatisfied. The love feels removed, trapped behind the glass of my phone screen.
Technology has connected us to a number of people – simply unfathomable two decades ago – however, this dissatisfaction implies to me that it is not the number but the quality of relationships that feel significant on my birthday. I would argue that, through the process of evolution, birthday culture has lost some of the effort, thought and care that makes the day feel noteworthy. There remains something in the handwritten card, the bunch of flowers, the home-made cake, the phone call, that can’t be emulated through social media; a physical manifestation of love and thought that feels tangible between your two hands. A sense of true human connectivity that we desire on this one day each year. Something that Instagram alone will never quite fulfil.
By Gabriella Conn