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Social media birthday posts: How did Instagram Stories become the default way to celebrate our friends?

It used to be easy to wish your friends a happy birthday on social media. You’d go to their Facebook wall, type “happy birthday” with how many ever exclamation points you felt accurately conveyed your enthusiasm for your relationship and then you’d post it and move on so that later they could gauge their self-worth by how many people took the 30 seconds to do the same. No more. Instead, it’s at least 20 minutes of scrolling through your camera roll inside Instagram Stories (arguably the worst place to scroll through your camera roll), hunting for the best pics of whoever makes your “Close Friends” list when their birthday comes around so you can post a poignant, charming, and — most importantly — flattering portrait of your friendship that will disappear after 24 hours.

And then, if you’ve done your job right, your birthday-having friend will not only show their appreciation for you in private DMs, but on their own story. Because in 2019, the birthday gift that keeps giving is not cake or flowers or a sweetly worded Hallmark card, it’s the gift of content.

In some ways it makes sense. “Pics or it didn’t happen” has been taken to its extreme on Instagram, with its suite of tools (first the feed, then stories, live stories, and IGTV) that allow you to document even the most mundane parts of your life for your followers, whether they number 200 or 200,000. In January, Instagram’s parent company Facebook reported that 500 million users post or view Instagram Stories daily, a considerable amount more users than the app it basically knocked off, Snapchat, though still considerably less than Facebook proper. And often it seems like all 500 million of those users are represented by a tiny circle at the top of your app, waiting for you to spend a few minutes, or a few hours, or what feels like a few million years interacting with the moments people felt were too un-curated for their Feed but too important not to share with their friends (or “friends” as the case may be). If you didn’t Instagram Story it, did it happen? Did you even care?

For better or worse, most of our friendships have ascended the physical plane and settled into life in the cloud.

At a time when, supposedly, authenticity is the key to social media engagement, performative friendship is reaching its peak. Which isn’t to say that we don’t care about the people whose photos and videos and Boomerangs we dig for on their sacred day of birth. But among the options we have to celebrate someone’s milestones, we choose the option that not only shines a spotlight on our friend, but also on us. Look at me, I’m such a great friend, the birthday Instagram Story says, doubly so after the recipient of your well wishes reposts it. It can make the whole exercise feel like it's more about bringing attention to the person bestowing birthday greetings than the friend they're celebrating.

But that can't be all there is to it.

One day last week, I spent my commute to work choosing four images (technically two pictures, one video, and one boomerang) to capture my now years-long friendship with one of my former coworkers, whose birthday it was. I no longer get to see her every week day and though we live in the same city, we don’t get to see each other much in the midst of busy work and personal lives. Our main method of staying in touch is via Instagram, both in personal DMs and a group chat with others of our former coworkers. I could’ve just texted or DM’d her my birthday wishes. And yet...

For better or worse, most of our friendships have ascended the physical plane and settled into life in the cloud, whether that means via group text message chain, mutual likes on tweets, or constant heart-eye emojis on Instagram posts. When social media becomes our currency for not only hyping ourselves and our personal brands but also for maintaining intimate relationships, it only makes sense that we'd take our celebrations to those platforms as well. When we were all (active) on Facebook, posting on someone's wall was a way to show not only them, but all the people in their life that they were loved and cared for on their biggest days of the year. And now that for many of us Instagram has taken its place as the platform on which people share their daily goings-on, it only makes sense we bring our birthday wishes there — even if they come across like you're making someone else's special day all about you.

Next time one of my loved ones' birthdays rolls around, I'll text or call. But then I'll open up Instagram and endlessly scroll through my camera roll to find the most flattering pictures I can to wish them a happy birthday in front of whoever chooses to open my story that day. It'll be a little bit annoying, sure, and maybe make me feel like I'm doing a little bit too much to signal to the rest of the world that I care, but if it's showing the recipient I care, then really that's all that matters.