Some time in the near future:
You wake up to a jazzy MIDI version of the “Happy Birthday” song. Your smart thermostat and smoke detector are singing in harmony because today is your day. Your fitness tracker is vibrating in an unfamiliar Morse Code. Searching the internet, you come across a question in the support forums about it, explaining it is the preprogrammed birthday greeting silent alarm that you can disable after pairing the device again and updating your settings. Your bathroom scale, toilet, and garage door also welcome you with birthday wishes. Open up the refrigerator to another friendly jingle. Tropicana, Fage, and Sabra Hummus all wish you happy birthday. Now there’s an incoming message. It is the “birthday selfie” it snapped when you reached for the orange juice.
Your automobile navigation system is the next device with a special greeting. “Hello. Good morNING. And. Happy birthDAY,” the system says in its usual condescending inflection. Driving to work, your connected ring unexpectedly starts blinking and vibrating without a break. Startled, you slide it off and throw it in your purse. It is set to alert you to incoming Facebook messages. And today, on your birthday, there are hundreds.
“And happy birthday [your name pronounced as a variation of the misspelling on the cup],” the Starbucks barista says. The cloud-based Clover coffeemaker read your rewards card data as soon as you walked into the shop. You can still hear the ring faintly buzzing in your purse until —oops!—your smart watch pings all of your contacts with a hologram of candles on a cake. The flood of incoming emails and texts short-circuits your connected ring. Silence at last.
It was my birthday recently. Perhaps you heard? Sorry about that! Google Plus, the zombie social network I have barely used since its launch in 2011, alerted my contacts that have Android phones. And anyone with iCal synced to Google Calendar had it marked in their iPhones. “The internet is trying to tell me that it’s your birthday,” someone wrote in an email to me. Throughout the day several others would send similarly kind but bewildered messages.
It was a bit embarrassing, but I’m more concerned about this alert as a form of data tracking. My guess is that Google set up the alert to calibrate the affinity score of everyone who sent me a message with “birthday” in the email. Those who contacted me that day are now marked as stronger connections than those who didn’t. The Facebook algorithms—what used to be called Edgerank—must factor in birthday engagement (yes, I cringed typing that) when calculating the affinity score of the relationships of users.
My friends often don’t know my birthday because in the years that I celebrate it, I usually opt for dinner and drinks the Saturday night before the actual date. Some companies and social networks are just as confused. I have the habit of marking my birthday on the first of the month when I can’t be bothered to click a drop-down menu. Sometimes I just go with January 1 and the default year. It is only when I’m not paying attention that a company gets it right. On my birthday, ZocDoc, EVA Air, and, of all places, Blingee, were among the few to send me emails wishing me a happy birthday.
Companies are constantly looking for excuses to contact customers and users. Look at how mobile apps have redefined “breaking news” to include just about anything. CNN, the New York Times, and other media apps often abuse their push notification privileges to inform users of the deaths of octogenarian TV actors or Justin Bieber’s arrest. These apps have every incentive to get on your lock screen. Meanwhile settings and permissions for notifications are increasingly difficult to control.
A birthday is the perfect excuse to sneak in a company plug. It is flattery as advertising. Perhaps some people regard Blingee more highly for remembering them on this day. If Blingee sells its list of birthdays to another company, it has an innocuous entry point to contact you with a “special offer.”
But let us call this what it is: birthday harassment. Social networks can use your birthday to determine what people are important to you. Brands use your birthday as an excuse to tell you they exist. The data tracking and governing algorithms that are part of your everyday internet experience become more visible on your birthday.
The internet already feels like the Yo app on your birthday (“Happy birthday! Happy birthday! Happy birthday!” and nothing more to say). As we move toward an “internet of things,” with connected devices that may access personal Facebook and Google data, these notifications will be harder to avoid. New customs may emerge to avoid birthday wishes from smart coffeemakers and connected forks. Perhaps it will become an annual tradition to shut off all devices on your birthday.