A Confusing Social Media Birthday

I turned 48 on December 1st. I took a week off the grid (from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving until the Wednesday after my birthday) – part of my quarterly off the grid routine with Amy. We had a very mellow birthday this year, spent it with a few friends who came to visit us in San Diego at the tennis place we love to hide at, and basically just slept late, played tennis, read a lot, got massages, ate nice food, and had adult activities.

I returned to an onslaught of email (no surprise) which included a long list of happy birthday wishes. I had 129 happy birthday wall posts and about 50 LinkedIn happy birthday messages.

As I read through them, I was intrigued and confused.

  • The Facebook wall posts were nice – almost all said either “happy birthday” or “happy birthday + some nice words.” I received one gift via Facebook (a charitable donation – thanks Tisch, you’ve got class!) Ok – that felt pretty good.
  • The emails were mixed. Many of them were like the Facebook wall posts. A few of them were online cards. But about 10% of them asked me for something, using the happy birthday message as an excuse to “reconnect.”
  • About 50% of the LinkedIn messages were requests for something. The subject line was “Happy Birthday” but the message then asked for something.

I decided not to respond to any of them. There were a few emails with specific stuff that I wanted to say, but the vast majority I just read and archived.

I found myself noticeably bummed out after going through the LinkedIn ones. I woke up thinking about it again today, especially against the backdrop of reading Dave Eggers awesome book The Circle (more on that coming soon.)

I’m an enormous believer in the idea of “give before you get.” It’s at the core of my Boulder Thesis in my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City  and how I try to live my personal and business live. Fortunately, many of the people I am close to also believe in this and incorporate it into the way they live.

When processing my birthday wishes, especially the LinkedIn ones, there was very little “give before you get.” That’s fine – I don’t expect that from anyone – it’s not part of my view of an interaction model that I have to impose it on others. But I was really surprised by the number of people that used my birthday as a way to “get something” without “giving something” other than a few words in a social media message.

This confused me. The more I thought about it, the more I was confused, especially by the difference between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. When I tried to organize my thinking, the only thing I could come up with was that email was “variable”, Facebook was “generic”, and LinkedIn was “selfish.” I didn’t love these characterizations, but this prompted me to write this post in an effort to understand it better.

Oh – and the best thing I got electronically for my birthday was from Andrei Soroker via a different channel – Kato.

I’m going to ponder the “culture of different communication channels” more, but I’m especially curious if anyone out there has a clear point of view on the different cultures between email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Feel free to toss Twitter in the mix if you want.

  • Interesting – and provocative – categorization. I count myself among those who rec’vd no reply – didn’t need (or expect) one, but it’s oddly satisfying to read the rationale behind it.

    The ‘ask for something first’ behavior is tough to avoid if you’re raising capital. Everything’s nuanced, of course, but for folks who are still learning, this can be incredibly challenging. If the ‘ask’ is abrasive, rude or otherwise a-holeish, then by all means “POOF”.

    I quit using LinkedIn for ‘career’ stuff months ago (honestly, years ago) but I do check it a couple times per week as a source for ModernRepo customer development. Folks on LI (as a group) are by far less entrepreneurial than my other networks (which admittedly is mostly WOM + folks I met thru Defrag or my travels to San Francisco + the valley), and so I think this is ‘enterprise-y’ behavior.

    That’s one of the sucky parts of being in an enterprise-serving business, I suppose.

  • rhaphazard

    (After rereading my comment, it reads like a rehash and Captain Obvious, but I’ll post it anyways)
    I think there is a clear distinction between why you add people on different networks, and this pretty much defines the kind of relationships you should expect.

    Facebook: friends & acquaintances, therefore, mostly impersonal well-wishing with the occasional nice gift (equivalent to a high school classroom)
    Linkedin: professional networking; you add people because you expect to get something from them, therefore, no one really cares for the individuals (equivalent to sending out your resume to 100 companies)
    Email: mostly business contacts or how you stayed connected with people before social media; again, just a list of people you keep in case you need something (equivalent to a phone book)

    It’s hard to blame the individuals though, since it is difficult to keep up with hundreds of acquaintances without starting to sound monotonous.

    I’ve made it my personal policy over the years to hide my birthday on social networking sites and not congratulate people unless I have an active relationship with them and have something more to say than “happy birthday.”

  • I’ve been trying to change my behavior here, too. I was trained to “answer all messages” and be responsive, so it’s hard to just let messages go. On FB, for a while, I’d turn off my wall for this reason, but folks found a way. Unrelated, I can’t wait to read your review of “Circle.”

    • As part of the things I’m stopping doing, responding to all emails is one of them.

      • Ok, so a specific question here — and I realize I’m asking you to break a rule by doing this — but, how do you decide what email to process and what not to? Clearly, you must have to do some email (beyond the Foundry guys and founders in the portfolio)…what’s your process?

        • No process yet. Historically I’ve tried to respond to everything. I’m going to play it by ear for a little while.

          • Cool. You don’t have to respond to this 😉 … but I thought I’d share. This has been on my mind A LOT. In fact, it’s what I’m spending more of time leading up to Jan 1 trying to figure out my own rules and specifically my calendar for 2014. I read your earlier post about “what will you cut out in 2014?” and that was great timing because this has been a problem for me. So far, I’ve started to pre-block time on my calendar for 2014 and hoping I can be very strict about it — down the hour. Time at work, time in SF vs Valley, family time, weekend time. I’ve been horrible at unplugging from email, working late into the night, and it just cannot sustain. Yet…what holds me back every time is the notion that along my way, someone always made time for me. That’s not to say I have made it or am comfortable, but perhaps your idea of “random meetings day” is the right course. I don’t know what the right formula is for me, but I want to make sure I’m both selfish about it without forgetting many people made time for me in the past.

  • Regardless the social network used – a happy birthday should always be a standalone message. I have seen similar examples of companies who use holiday greetings to promote a new product or service. I typically find these type of messages off putting

  • Rebecca Self

    Do people, especially in your extended or professional networks, know how they can contribute to you or what you’d want? I can imagine what people ask you for, and would love to know how to contribute.

    • The best way to contribute is to do something that helps something I’m involved in – for profit or non-profit.

    • Matt

      I appreciate your post.
      “Giving before you get,” can be tricky because it comes down to
      definitions. Even if what you “get” is altruistic
      in nature, you still have to ask for it.
      I know this is getting a little meta, but I think most people I know
      would love to give before they get, but they need explicit “rules” on how to do

      I’m reminded from a couple of years ago, when President
      Clinton and President Bush teamed up for a Haiti relief effort after the devastating
      earthquake. President Bush urged people
      to avoid donating blankets or other items but to just “give your cash.”

      President Bush was roundly criticized as being impolitic,
      and making a personal money grab (which is ridiculous), but he was absolutely
      right. It was the most effective and
      efficient way for most individual American citizens to help the people in Haiti.

  • Intentional or not, the design of the features represent the constraints of the environment, which in turn effect how people behave.

    Whether everyone sees a post vs. only you, what the primary mode of self expression with these systems are, etc… it’s not all that different to traveling abroad and seeing how language and the design of cities/towns inform how people interact.

    Plus, if everyone’s reason for inhabiting a space (their inbox, linked in, fb, etc…) to begin with is to see the latest cat photos vs. to maximize their careers, that affects how people interact as well.

  • Yup. Weird experience.
    I find Foursquare as the most personal/intimate/genuine, followed by Facebook. LinkedIn is almost always associated with an “ask” of some sorts. Twitter is an eclectic toss up.

  • walter

    How would you like us to wish you a happy birthday?

    • I don’t have a specific idea. In fact, it’s not important to me that people wish me a happy birthday so the answer probably is “don’t bother.”

  • Josh Mollohan

    I could see how someone would use LinkedIn as a wish plus ask. It is setup as a professional network which can lose the personal aspect. Unfortunately some people consider it business a usual with no real interest in the people behind the business. It’s just another chance to expand their network. Regardless I hope that you enjoyed your birthday and it sounds like the people who are true friends were with you. Here’s to your new year!

  • Joseph Jones

    I use LinkedIn as a forum/community to build my brand in order to gain support & creditability. This in turns allows me to rally others. Which in turns allows me to execute business ideas. With the benefits of a successful business, I can be a blessing to others… You see, in the end it’s not about me.

  • Brad, your online bday experience parallels mine, except for I’d neglected to look at linkedin. When I did, I saw a similar picture.

    I think one of the challenges of linkedin is that the signaling of a linkedin profile is different for everyone. Some peope join linkedin as an invitation to be cold-approached. Others are on there for low-cost online presence.

    I sometimes wish there was a feature that would let me rebuild my linkedin contacts from scratch.

    • RBC

      @csertoglu:disqus You can remove several Linkedin contacts at once if you want to retarget your contacts/time/energy.

      On the Contacts page move your cursor over Network at the top of your homepage and select Contacts.
      Click Filter by and select Connections Only.
      Check the box next to the connections you’d like to remove.
      Click More above the first connection and select Remove from Contacts.
      Click Remove


  • Adam

    First let me first start off by saying Happy belated birthday! Second, I have a great idea i thought you may be interested in….

  • DaveJ

    A long time ago you tried to teach me the lesson (which I only partially adopted, because of exactly this problem) of: “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” I think this lesson has been broadly and deeply adopted by the wantrepreneur community – they’re just fishing on the off-chance that you’ll take notice. But if everybody knows the trick, it doesn’t work any more.

  • RBC

    Sagittarius sun sign: Sagittarius, the ninth sign of the zodiac, is the home of the wanderers of the zodiac. It’s not a mindless ramble for these folks, either. Sagittarians are truth-seekers, and the best way for them to do this is to hit the road, talk to others and get some answers. Knowledge is key to these folks, since it fuels their broad-minded approach to life. The Sagittarian-born are keenly interested in philosophy and religion, and they find that these disciplines aid their internal quest. At the end of the day, what Sagittarius wants most is to know the meaning of life, and to accomplish this while feeling free and easy.


  • I don’t discern a difference in media when it comes to birthdays. It’s just a way of people reaching out and touching you, letting you know they are spending a part of their day taking the time to think a little about you. You chose to spend it with those that you wanted to spend it with and that’s important. Remember, they have given you a lot of accolades and awards so far (and you are only 48). 12 more years and you might have feel like you have earned them!

  • Mahir Lupinacci

    I really appreciate your honesty and directness. Very refreshing…

  • Marc Pariser

    Brad, while the discussion of the “culture of different communication channels” might be interesting, your question really speaks to the nature of personal principles. You operate in your personal and business life from a set of principles that you apply across the board. I attempt to do the same. Those who are influenced by the channel to behave in different ways at different times simply do not have a strong set of personal principles which guide their actions, in my opinion. In my view, a “happy birthday” accompanied by a request for something (particularly from a stranger whose only relationship with you is via an online social network, is rude (and ineffective), no matter what. At the end of the day, no matter the state of technology, character and principles count far more in determining who we are and how we behave…period. Threaded throughout your blogs in your discussions about virtually everything, is evidence of your love of and attention to wife, family, friends, associates, dog, etc, etc, and how that influences the choices you make. The result is that you behave the same no matter which platform you communicate through. This is a matter of character, not platforms or channels.

  • John May

    Knowing that you would have a lot of emails/posts, etc.. a simple and short HB note was trying to accept that you hate long messages but wanted to convey best wishes.

  • I still feel email is the killer app. Who knows it could probably become the cockroach of the internet age. Slightly off topic, I’d explored the idea of RSS vs Email vs Twitter as a way of communication… http://josepaulmartin.com/why-email-is-still-the-killer-app-rss-is-not-dead-and-twitter-will-help-you-find-it/

    Studies show that the more birthdays you have, the longer you live!!!! Oh, and Happy Belated Birthday!

    • Benjamin

      Jose, posting a link to your article in your comment is exactly the disappointing behavior that is demonstrated in Brad’s story of his social media birthday experience.

      • Benjamin, sorry to have offended you with the link. But could you please explain two things… 1) how should I expand on a thought brad was pondering about, without filling his comment section with a lengthy post? 2) what “have you given” to the conversation, other than criticize others for their efforts?

  • Erick Calvo

    muy bueno tu artículo

  • I’ve had a similar experience, your classifications are accurate to me. But hey, Happy Birthday! And Happy Unbirthday every other day!

  • For me it goes like this: Facebook makes me hate the people I know, and Twitter makes me love the people I don’t know…