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Dear Friends Who Wished Me Happy Birthday on Facebook

Here’s why I still haven’t responded

Aaron Gell
Jul 30, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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Hey guys,

I owe you an apology. My birthday was more than a week ago, and I haven’t even acknowledged your kindness. I totally suck.

I was absolutely planning to scroll through your thoughtful congratulations and acknowledge each one with a “Thanks!!” or even just a like. It’s the least I could do. (In fact, it was designed by some of the top engineers in the world to be the least I could do.)

That or I could have just dropped a single thank-you post on my timeline. I even had something prepared: “Thanks for the birthday wishes! So happy to see this site has some utility beyond denying the Holocaust and outing pedophiles who don’t support our president!” But then I thought better of it — lame sarcasm still feels better suited to Twitter — and tried to cook up something nicer and more sincere, and before I knew it, a week had gone by and it seemed weird to bother.

Oddly, I only got 51 happy birthdays this year. That’s down 19 percent from last year, when I got 63, and reflects a worrisome 37 percent drop from 2016, when I got 82. Who are the 31 friends who gave up on me in the past two years? I can’t bring myself to dig into the data, but Facebook certainly knows. Hell, maybe Russian intelligence services know too.

Anyway, those who stuck with me will be pleased to learn that my birthday brought me pretty much the same amount of contentment it usually does, which is to say it was fine.

Of course, I’m not the only user of the service to watch in horror as my engagement numbers flatlined. In recent years, I have mostly used Facebook to promote stories I’ve written (that and to publish one stirring “open letter to my children” when Donald Trump came to power).

So, I like to tell myself that when Facebook decided in January to downgrade news articles in favor of “personal moments,” the algo somehow decided my content was so impressive and professional that I simply must be a publisher rather than just a nice guy for whom people might feel some genuine affection, and therefore knocked me down in its rankings along with all the other clickbait. I know, it’s a stretch, but it’s better than wallowing in social anxiety.

My current working theory is simply that, like the stock market, my friends are just not that into Facebook anymore. Maybe it was the way the company tried tracking us across the web, or how it got busted sharing our private information with advertisers and then stopped and said sorry, and then did it again. Or the way the platform’s content reviewers applied rules that wound up favoring hate speech by conservative white men over political speech by leftists and people of color. Or how it gave people a free, easy-to-use tool to broadcast anything, including gun violence and sexual assault. Or how it researched our emotions without our consent. Or how it facilitated the sale of deadly weapons. Or how it published decapitation videos and winked at pages endorsing rape while banning images of breastfeeding. Or how it kept up posts calling for the murder of Muslims in Sri Lanka, allegedly contributing to deadly riots, until the government shut down the site altogether. Or how it enabled Russia to wage a successful propaganda campaign against the United States for a measly $100,000 payday.

Over time, maybe that slow, steady drip of news stories gave us cause to wonder if the $600 billion corporation (whoops, make that $500 billion) didn’t maybe have some questionable goals of its own besides letting us see pictures of that adorable newborn baby of yours. That cute little munchkin, whose precise facial coordinates — brow shape, skin texture, the distance between those big brown eyes and that cute little chin — are no doubt already in a database somewhere. Mazel tov.

Which brings me back to the birthday thing. My only excuse is simply this: I like you, but I hate Facebook. And now that we’re all tangled up together, it’s ruining our relationship. It’s making me seem inconsiderate when, in fact, I’m just desperate to preserve whatever genuine feeling you and I used to have for each other, back when it was just us.

Remember that? We were just kicking it, vibing, having a good time, and Mark Zuckerberg came bounding up, grabbed a seat, and was like, “Hey, what are you guys talking about?” And we both rolled our eyes, and it was super awkward, but Zuck didn’t take the hint, and somehow we wound up letting him hang out with us and tried to ignore him.

And then, one day, we find out he’s been writing down everything we said and recording our feelings and preferences and little secrets and sorting us by more than 50,000 unique attributes and charging Cambridge Analytica to target us, narrowly, efficiently, in a cost-effective way, with toxic garbage.

And then he gets called into the dean’s office and sits there with that choirboy face and acts all contrite, and the dean is like, “Mark, I thought you were better than this,” and he’s like, “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry,” and the dean is like, “It’s okay, son. We all make mistakes.”

The problem is it wasn’t a mistake. Facebook’s insinuation into our friendship and its exploitation of us was and remains its business model. Zuck built an empire, one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world, out of our sentiment for each other. So now, when Alex Jones says Robert Mueller is part of a child sex ring and seemingly tries to convince one of the supplement-addled Travis Bickle wannabes among his fan base to take the man out, Facebook checks its troubled balance sheet and teetering engagement numbers and reports that while Jones has been given a suspension for other posts, the video targeting the special counsel did not violate its community standards.

Okay, but it violates mine.

I can’t let Facebook mediate my relationships anymore. I can’t trust Mark with my intimate thoughts. You guys are all invited to celebrate my birthday with me. But this corporation is not. So, if you truly love me, mark your calendar for July 18 and send me an email next year. I promise to reply. But don’t expect a notification from Facebook. I just went into my settings and changed my birthday to May 14, 1984 (that’s the date Zuck came into the world) and then set it to private for good measure.

Am I ditching Facebook altogether? No, actually. I still find it useful for research, like when I want to reach out to a total stranger and get them to talk to me for a story I’m working on. It’s kind of awesome for that. And to those of you who don’t want a reporter rooting around in your timeline or pestering you for an interview, blame Facebook.

As for the birthday wishes, sorry I didn’t express my gratitude sooner. Many heartfelt thanks to everyone for the kind words. I mean it! And to the 1,027 of my friends who didn’t wish me a happy birthday on Facebook, thank you even more.

Lots of love,

Aaron Gell

Written by

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶ aarongell.com

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