It’s Not My Birthday: The Internet vs. Reality

This is a lengthy and rambling “artistic statement” and I had not taken the time to outline my plans in order to keep it concise.  As there are inherent pretensions in something like this, I will assert that I need not write this concisely.  I’m tired now too, so I’ll reread it for typos later.  Don’t hate me if you see some…

Back in August, my installation of Mummified Squirrel National Park with Glenn di Benedetto and Sophia Cacciola garnered some local interest and inspired a front-page article in the Somerville News describing me as a “Somerville artist.”  Although I don’t really like the term or concept of an artist, as it evokes specific intentions and pretensions, I do like taking on prank-like behaviors that are built upon underlying social commentary.  Call me an artist, call me a jerk, whatever you’d like.  I do it for my own amusement as much as I do it as a way to creatively expose my ideas to people.  If I just complained about the false sense of personal connection Facebook provides, everyone would just ignore me. Instead, there is a lot more interested generated by my birthday nonsense.  My actions invite people to interact, to comment, to question, to join in, and to become part of the joke.  I’m doing this to get people thinking about their own actions, their behaviors, and about newer online social paradigms.  Thus, I’ve made the natural progression from dead-squirrel herder to Facebook troublemaker.

For those who don’t know what I am referring to, recently, I have been engaged in an experiment of sorts related to the delicate balance of public and private information available on Facebook.  In particular, I noticed that people are likely to wish their “friends” a happy birthday.  To me, birthdays are not public events (unless you were a founding father), but are rather quite private affairs. I consider my birth date, the day even more than the year, a piece of priveleged information.  I don’t share information about my birthday with many people and, in fact, I don’t actually celebrate my birthday.

So, back to Facebook!  I believe that Facebook is a wonderful way to gain and maintain acquaintances, to keep a finger on the pulse of the artistic scenes around me and around the world.  Unfortunately, I have seen a significant shift in culture over the last year or so toward the belief that virtual relationships carry equal real-world meaning.  This is both baffling and disturbing to me.  There is a tendency for people to think that they know me based on what I post on Facebook and the threads that I engage in.  I got a bit of surprising criticism and lash back for saying that I cultivate an online persona that reveals only a small portion of my thoughts, beliefs, and practices when I wrote an essay on effective uses of social media.  In fact, I don’t know most of you.  Most of you don’t know me.  I am, in fact, a highly private, introverted person by tendency, but I force myself to be as social as possible as it’s a necessary component toward achieving the goals I want to achieve.  It can be tiring frankly.  Nonetheless, even within the scope of simulated extroversion, I still wish to maintain the majority of my life as private.  Facebook is the world’s greatest simulation of extroversion for me.  I can loosely engage in conversations from the comfort of my couch.  The result is that people start to believe that they possess a piece of me, that they have a real look at what makes me tick.  I experience the same sorts of thoughts initially.  I feel like I know online personas or I know actors based on how they behave within the context of their roles.  There is some truth, after all, to every lie!

Birthdays are a tiny, but highly representative manifestation of my concerns.  Over a year ago, I set my birthday to be the same as Sophia’s.  My real intentions were not to hijack her birthday, but rather to celebrate it in solidarity as part of our debut DNFMOMD show celebrating her birthday.  I ended up getting hundreds of birthday wishes.  To me, it was patently absurd.  If you don’t know when my birthday actually is, why would you wish me a happy birthday based on a piece of information on a Facebook profile.  That’s not even taking into account that my profile is so clearly riddled with misinformation – I was born in 1990, graduated college in 1920, and most absurdly of all, I am a fan of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh (so I get to click on ads for associated groups, thereby costing them 60 cents or so every time I click).  I know that people wish one another happy birthdays on Facebook, but to me, it is really the emptiest of gestures.  I know people are doing it to be nice and I do appreciate every (even empty) gesture of kindness and respect from one person to another.  However, you didn’t really know when my birthday was until you saw it in a notification box on the side of the window.  It doesn’t really carry meaning.  We just click on those names and type “happy birthday” as if there is some enhanced personal relationship built upon that.  I’d like to know why we do it?  (I used to do it too!)  You are not really sharing my birthday with me and I can’t imagine why receiving 100 birthday wishes from Facebook acquaintances really could result in a person feeling “loved” or cared for.

The real point I am making is that I think that it is important for us to cultivate relationships that are appropriate for the medium that they reside in.  It’s important that we maintain barriers and understand the differences between those relationships.  I am honestly totally delighted to interact with people online.  It’s my favorite way to maintain “acquaintanceships” and Facebook allows me to get a steady stream of super-targeted news about what the people in my community are up to.  I like making jokes with you all.  I like sharing funny videos.  I like engaging in discourse.  I am really genuinely interested in what you are up to.  I learn from it.  I like having many acquaintances.  I like it more than I would like having many friends.  I don’t have the time or energy to provide fair commitments to thousands of friendships, but thousands of Facebook friends is great!  I don’t even mean to imply that one is better or worse than the other.  They are just different types of relationships.  Birthdays are personal enough in my world that I don’t want to share mine with any of you.  In fact, I usually share it with as few people as possible.

I might like your status and enjoy joking around with you, or I might enjoy saying hi and chatting for 10 minutes out at shows.  I really do value those relationships.  They are important components of my social circle, my social world, and my way of thinking and staying in touch with my community.  Unless you spend evenings in my living room, however, you don’t get very much insight into the real me…and you definitely don’t know the date of my birth.  Frankly, I like it that way.

So what is the project?  For several months, I kept changing my birthday to be tomorrow.  That is, every day, I changed it to the next day.  Starting on the 5th of November, I set my birthday to today.  That is, every day is my birthday.  This will continue until the end of 2010.