The “It’s (so-and-so’s) birthday” feature on Facebook is simultaneously one of the best and worst examples of how social networks can impact our digital lives. Best, in that it lets us know when something important and personal is happening to people we are connected to, and makes it easy for us to connect with them in that context. Worst, in that it elicits inauthentic responses and reduces the process of responding to such an event to a relatively hollow “Happy birthday!!!!!!” on their wall that shows up among a sea of similar announcements. The true lack of time and care the responders are giving back to that announcement is clearly apparent by the similarity and curtness of their responses. Indeed, while some or even all may truly be having good feelings and a lingering moment for the person they are “celebrating”, that does not come across in the sea of short and generic comments.
As this is a known issue, at some point it will be solved for – either by Facebook itself or a competitor. Since it hasn’t been solved for yet (to my knowledge) here is my suggestion as to how we can take the nice reminder mechanism of Facebook and use it as a lever to enable more deep and authentic connection between ourselves and those we care about:
1. Give us more notice. By only broadcasting that it is the day of someone’s birthday on the day itself the service is giving us precious little room to plan and maneuver. Back when I had the birthdays of people I cared about in a calendar on my computer I asked for an alarm two weeks before the date. Now, that was to have time to find something for them on Amazon and have it shipped. What we should be solving for virtually should be simply virtual, and thus shouldn’t need the extra physical infrastructure time.
Being notified about upcoming birthdays a week beforehand feels about right. It gives you time to realize it is coming, potentially think about the person when you are offline or in asynchronous ways, and plan to do something personal for them.
2. Give us personal ways to recognize them. In the analog world, the thoughtful-but-generic way to send someone something for their birthday is a bouquet of flowers, or some similar gift from a flower store. It is something pretty or tasty, it clearly cost money, and it reinforces your remembrance of the person. The thoughtful-but-personal way is, as I usually do, go on Amazon and, if they do not have a Wish List, poke around in something related to their interests and pick something that looks cool and interesting around the budget you want to spend that you think they would really care about.
Facebook should provide for both of these use cases. More generically, they should create the equivalent to an online flower store, a place where you go to buy something to send others that is a clear remembrance, costs money (even if just a little) and can be given. Virtual flowers? Some kind of Flash animations? *Something* that, as with flowers, says “You matter enough to me that I took some steps and spent some money.” If well integrated, the “steps” one takes could literally be just a click or three from idea to purchased and delivered. They can even take advantage of old offline wedding registry technology and let buyers know what has or has not already been purchased for the person, further ensuring there is uniqueness in the different gifts being given.
For the more specific use case, since we already tell Facebook what our interests are, and they have clear behaviour patterns from us in terms of what we look at, who are our friends, and what we say, they can create “pop-up gift registries” for people. These can be crafted by the recipient – similar to the Amazon Wish List – or simply auto-generated the same way Zite generates its daily newspaper for us. Sticking strictly to digital products, they could focus on games and game currency, music, movies, TV shows and other things that can be inexpensive and easily downloaded to the recipient. As before, it could be just a few clicks to go from getting started to having something purchased. It does not need to be a monolithic process, particularly if Facebook can get us buying Facebook credits and just keeping a reserve of them laying around exactly for things like this.
3. Create personal repositories of thoughtful messages. Let us pick thru a catalog of famous quotes, and/or create a few of our own. Each of us should have some signature quotes, insights and witticisms, just as part of being aware and thoughtful citizens. I’m guessing most of us do not and, if we do, they are bouncing around haphazardly in our heads, not documented and prepared to be used in an actionable way. Facebook can have us save a series of quotes and thoughtful personal messages to be deployed in place of the random “Happy birthday!!!!!!” wall posts, and/or as complements to the gift giving ideas I’ve shared above. This will inject a spark of our personal beliefs and sense of meaning into our communiques, further richening the nature and quality of what we are “giving” to the recipient.
Facebook’s value proposition becomes more tenuous every day. I know for myself and many others, the only benefit Facebook has to offer is it connects us to everybody from our past, who otherwise would likely be lost to us. Why not take this opportunity, right in the core of the important use cases Facebook already covers, and uplevel it to a system and service that provides real value and compels us to return again, and again, and again? Incredibly, nobody has solved for virtual gifting well yet, and certainly if anyone should it should be the service that connects us to all of our friends and family. With just a bit of thoughtfulness and design, Facebook can create a service that improves our relationships, helps us make each other feel better, and provides a compelling reason to check in with Facebook each day. What more could they possibly ask for?! If they do it well, it will breathe greater authenticity and meaningful connection into our digital lives.