By Francie Arenson Dickman
We had a crisis in our house this morning. It hit during the thirty seconds my daughters allot for breakfast. Instead of sitting stone still and staring at the counter, I noticed some last minute scrambling—not the physical kind, but the virtual—a frenzy with the phones, which I assumed had to do with school. They had math and science tests. A forgotten formula, maybe? Worse, it turned out. An almost forgotten birthday.The birthday of a good friend, no less, brought to their attention by another friend’s Instagram post…or maybe it was Facebook. I can’t keep track anymore.
I’m sure if you are a parent of a girl who has finished breast feeding and is therefore old enough to have an online presence, you know where I’m going with this. You’re already aware of the online protocol required to appropriately acknowledge the birthday of a friend (defined broadly to encompass anyone they’ve ever met) via social media.
The formula for online well-wishing for middle schoolers is complex and as incomprehensible to me as the formulas in my kids’ geometry books. It centers around “the post.” I’m not talking about a run-of-the-mill Facebook birthday wish. A simple, “Have a great day,” apparently won’t do. An acceptable birthday post is a multi-step venture. Step one involves digging. Deep and focused digging, one by one, through the eight trillion selfies and other shots in your child’s camera roll in search of pictures that show any sign of the birthday girl. (“Oh look, there’s her elbow.”)
Not all photos, I’m afraid, are created equal. I’m fairly certain (though if I’m wrong, perhaps one of my children’s friends who are now on Facebook will correct me) but the further back in time the picture goes, the better. As the adage (updated for social media) goes, new friends are silver, old friends are gold and old photos of old friends are even golder. In other words, a picture speaks a thousand words and if you’ve got a photo with the birthday girl from preschool, you have said, “I’ve been friends with the birthday girl longer than you,” without uttering a sound.
When we were kids, moms used to send their birthday kids to school with cupcakes that the birthday kid got to pass out with the help of a few chosen friends. Today, allergies have done away with the homemade cupcake tradition, but nothing will ever do away with the middle school girls’ ability to jockey for position. Human nature is alive and kicking: A one picture post (unless, as stated above, it’s a picture from way, way back), means you probably aren’t the girl who would have been called up to help with the cupcakes. But if you can amass 25 pictures or more, and then take the time to lay them all out in a collage, you are in the running.
I’m not talking about the kind of collages we used to make. The ones that required hours of combing through magazines, cutting out photos and words that related to your friend or your friendship, laying it all out on cardboard and then carefully gluing it down. The modern day collage is similar, except it is, naturally, done in an app. If a kid has the technical know-how and the eyesight, she can kick out a hundred picture collage during the two minute ride to school, which is really all the time she has because, according to what I’ve gathered, a post must be live by the time the well-wisher arrives at school.
To pass muster, the posts also incorporate words, or at least parts of them. Letters. Like H14BD ILYSM. While grammar lessons do not seem to be hitting home these days, kids really understand the value of the hyperbole. Sweeping statements like, “You are my best friend in the entire universe,” “I don’t know how I’d ever live without you,” or “I’d do anything for you,” are thrown about with abandon. On the one hand, I’ve got to hand it to these girls. They’re sure not stingy with the love, which is refreshing in a political climate plagued by constant hate and heckling. Furthermore, the unending love is not wasted on one birthday girl. Rest assured, the exact outpourings given to the birthday girl of today will be bestowed on the birthday girl of tomorrow. When it comes to effusiveness, today’s teens are equal opportunity employers.
Yes, one may contend that it’s impossible to actually harbor so much love for so many people. Those who know better (i.e. parents) might say that there’s an element of disingenuousness to this free love business, and that perhaps all of this online PDA is indeed for the benefit of public consumption. One might be inclined to invoke the adage, empty tins cans rattle the loudest and those truly close to the BDG shouldn’t have to take such grandiose measures to prove it. After all, the reality is that behind all the birthday love, there is a quiet sting felt by the other girls (yours, of course) who look at their screens and see that the person they thought was their BFF is now labeling herself BFF with the birthday girl. Love hurts, even if it is spread too thin to have any meaning.
The good news is, the hurt doesn’t last—well the hurt may but the post itself doesn’t. Unlike the collages we used to make and receive (some of mine still occupy space in my attic), the modern day collage is ephemeral. Blink and you’ll miss the outpouring of affection. The unstated rule is that birthday posts are only meant to last the length of the birthday itself. My kids, when asked, didn’t give a reason for this but my guess is (and again, my kids and their friends can correct me if I’m wrong) that birthday posts don’t garner that many likes since they are only of interest to the birthday girl and the BFF who posted. As much as all the BFFs would do anything for the birthday girl, anything does not include leaving up a post that isn’t popular.
It’s truly a strange new world, this world of social media. The only place I know where love seems to know no bounds except when measured by likes.
Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completing her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.