The text messages began arriving last month. "Facebook is starting to get a little Skynet on me," my friend Matt said. The text message included a screenshot of the birthdays feed from his notifications. "Help Casey Newton Celebrate His Birthday," blared a bolded message at the top of the feed. Above it, ethnically diverse cartoon characters attempted to wrangle some birthday candles onto an oversized donut. "If you're getting together June 19, invite friends by making an event," Facebook said. A big blue "create event button" sat just below, inviting a tap.
As it so happened, I didn't really want to plan anything for my birthday this year. I'm turning 36, one of the very most boring birthdays you can ever celebrate as a human being. I mean, every day is a miracle and all that, but seriously — who cares? Last year was a round number, 35, and I celebrated by inviting people from various corners of my life to a bar in my neighborhood. Pretty standard stuff, but I remember feeling defeated by the whole thing — fewer people came than I hoped for, and everyone ultimately withdrew to the cliques they had arrived in, and I felt like I spent the entire time trying to get strangers to talk to one another. It was exhausting.
"Look at Mr. Big Shot, getting Facebook to organize his parties for him"
And so when my birthday approached this year, I thought I might invite one or two friends to dinner and enjoy the relative calm. But Facebook's growth team had other ideas. A short while later, another friend sent me a screenshot similar to the one that Matt had, asking me what the hell was going on. I imagined dozens of my friends receiving the notification and simultaneously rolling their eyes. Look at Mr. Big Shot, getting Facebook to organize his parties for him. What will it be for you on your name day, Your Majesty? A tour of the Seven Kingdoms, perhaps?
Suddenly, the birthday party I didn't want to throw (and technically did not exist) was giving me a level of anxiety on par with my actual birthday the year before. Not only had Facebook planned a birthday party on my behalf, it had selected the hosts! And like, I always invite Matt to my birthday parties, but I can't imagine asking him to take charge of one. He's a busy guy! (Also he only goes to, like, two bars.)
I stewed about it a while longer, and then this week Matt sent me another text. Seriously, he said, let's do something on your birthday. Maybe some day drinking? Let's start with brunch. It sounded like the birthday party I had always wanted: small-scale, low-key, focused on carbs. Let's do it, I said. And so today we will head to the Castro, and drink sangria, and I will feel a little less alone in the universe.
There are a hundred things wrong with Facebook's party-planning software, starting with the fact that it doesn't ask for consent. But then it never does, does it? Every time I think we've located the outer limit of the company's presumptuousness, someone sends me another screenshot. Facebook is the party you couldn't leave if you wanted to. And it's always suggesting you stay for just one more drink.
For his part, Matt insists he would have organized something today with or without Facebook's help. But at this point, it doesn't really matter. The invitations have been sent, and the reservation is booked. Skynet has called for a celebration. Who are we to say no?