By way of a Facebook contact, Jesper Tække, I found this article on what the author calls the IRL fetish. Jenny Davis, one of the editors at Cyborgology, describes the sense of importance that comes with old-fashioned birthday greetings, and she gives this a name: the IRL fetish.
This resonates with Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together, which I have written about earlier. As I expressed in that post, the communication efforts before and after the internet have changed so much of the framework, that to be nostalgic for the analogue past, romantic as it may feel, blurs the hindsight.
Jenny Davis is however on to something, even if I think she errs when she appreciates one thing over the other, as if a handwritten card is more "real" than a birthday greeting on Facebook. Where she is right is that the specially made greeting is more significant of the connection between her and her loved ones than the quick Facebook greeting from that guy in the dorm 15 years ago. Of course it it, and, seriously, would you want it any other way?
Back before Facebook, if you knew about somebody's birthday you'd congratulate them. The effort you'd put into that gratulation depended on the closeness of the relationship. It also depended heavily on reciprocity, and carried with it expectations. If I knew about a colleague's birthday, or heard somebody else congratulate him/her, I'd congratulate them. They would do the same to me, for my birthday. I would however not make a big effort for their birthday, unless it was somebody I was already closely connected to. I would avoid that in order to not be pushy. Being too nice and generous is a way to force your way into an intimacy the other person might not desire. Giving attention, gifts, cards, whatever, carries with it a demand in return: See me, return this, make us even, make us friends.
It's still like this. It hasn't really changed. The people who might have said "happy birthday" in the corridor now say "happy birthday" on Facebook (ok, some of the Facebook Happy Birthdays are from people I'd invite to my party if they were here). The people who might leave a regular, store-bought card now text you or email you. And the people who would craft their own card lovingly do the same now, and you most likely do something similar in return. And then there's the ones that call you on your birthday, and the ones that come over with cake, and the ones who have carefully chosen presents, lovingly wrapped. Those are the same people as they were 30 years ago.
That is because no matter how the technology has changed, the investments we are willing to make in communication are pretty much the same. To a person I know vaguely, I am willing to say "happy birthday" once, effortlessly. It's a nice thing to do, it doesn't cost me anything, and if they want to they can hit "like" - which is an effort equal to a quick "thanks" or a smile and a nod in passing. The person I know a bit more will receive a more elaborate greeting. This may mean a longer email, a call, a card - perhaps I'll chase down a place where I can create a silly electronic card if I know about one, or perhaps I will send them a gift in a game.
Because it isn't necessarily the materiality of the present which is important. I get presents in World of Warcraft and SWTOR - and I love it. A stack of virtual crafting materials, a piece of armour, or just a sprig of flowers - yes, it's electronic, but it reflects real effort. I know how much time goes into finding some of these things, and they are willing to sacrifice that for me!
This is what birthday greetings, christmas presents and all that have always reflected: The effort we are willing to put into the attention we give each other. An expensive gift feels overwhelming, not because of the quantitative value, but because we appreciate the effort that goes into gathering the resources used to purchase the gift. It gets its significance from the initial effort money symbolises. This is why a very expensive gift and a cheap, but thoughtfully hand-made gift can carry the same emotional value.
It all depends on whether the recipient is able to value it, though. I brought a pair of hand-knitted mittens to an American woman. She was offended at the weirdness of the gift: what the hell was she to do with something that useless, a pair of unfashionable ugly mittens, and she couldn't even take them back to the store and get something useful. It wasn't until her partner pointed out that I had knitted them myself, and talked about how intricately made they were, that she managed to thank me for them. We need to understand the effort to appreciate it.
I suspect that the current confusion about what is appropriate, not to mention the snobbery of the hand-made object (which is nothing new), is a confusion about effort and the appropriate level of effort to invest in for instance a birthday greeting. As Jenny Davis doesn't ask for expensive presents, but rather thoughtful ones, I suspect that what she fetishises is effort and attention, not the physical presences of something.
And effort is real, no matter what medium it's presented in. It's why money is so extremely important: it represents effort. In a way, I guess what Turkle and Davis are getting at is: Effort is the real real.
It's just hard to recognize. But personally, I'd rather have a Facebook greeting than nothing at all, which, for 90% of the people who sends one, would be the attention we would be able to give each other across continents and time-zones.