FB Friends: Thanks for Participating in the Birthday Experiment!

Yesterday, I officially turned 25. Another complete year older – complete with the feeling of being mellow, feeling somewhat helpless and going about my day as usual. I woke up at 7am in the morning to build a veroboard interface between an Arduino and the 34-pin floppy drive connector, modify my old code to make it work and analyze the signals from the drive with an oscilloscope. The results from that experiment will (or might) be posted later.

DSC_5543 DSC_5545

DSC_5546I also spent some time to build a motor forwards/backwards switch for use later with a benchtop power supply to try and drive a linear-actuator on a C-band dish. Nothing fancy, just a pair of DPST switches, one wired for off/regular polarity and the other wired for off/reverse polarity. Turning them both on at the same time will give you a dead short.





I had lunch with my mum, who gave me a small set of flowers and a cute cat card.


Then, I had the privilege of meeting with my recently separated aunt, helping her out with a new smartphone, her telephone and internet and her C-band dish, which turned out to be stuck (possibly due to years of non-use and weather). That took a fair amount of time, so when I arrived at my Dad’s GF’s place for dinner, I had no time to install a second TV antenna socket for them. That would have to wait for another day.

The food was lovely, as usual, and there was much to take home. But all of that kept me busy enough to not think about anything else for the day. That is, until I went to sleep that night.

The Plan

As it turns out, my mind never rests. Throughout the day, I was getting a trickle of notifications from Facebook about “[name] posted on your timeline“. Not having the time to deal with them as they came in, I decided I’ll leave it till tomorrow to deal with it.

The normal courses of action could include:

  • Liking each and every one of the posts.
  • Writing a batch thank-you post.
  • Replying with a humourous posting along the lines of:

FOR (all posts on my wall containing ‘happy’ AND ‘birthday’)
DO (reply ‘Thanks!’)

  • Ignoring the bunch and pretending it’s not a big deal.

I’ve probably done most of them before, so I thought I’d try something new this year. Since Facebook went public, I have lamented the fact that Facebook is slowly selling out to commercial interests. From advertising on the side, to pay-to-promote sponsored posts, to video-ads which autoplay in your news feed, it seems that the social element of social networking is turning into social advertising and monetization instead. Compounding the problem is the perception that Facebook is a “free” marketing platform (which it sort of is), and as a result, it’s filled with “like me, subscribe to me” cries from every corner. As a result, the News Feed is starting to turn into noise, and companies are starting to pull back from Facebook promotion because of the cost of promoting posts to make sure their audience sees their posts.

Of course, when you have shareholders, you have to please them. But then again, Facebook still has tremendous market penetration and significant momentum, for now. I’m surprised that Facebook stocks even held the value that they do today, given how their business seems to be significantly overvalued.

But as the tech industry has shown in the past, things can move and change in an instant. The relatively long lived nature of Facebook is considered an anomaly, and it’s inevitable that something new will come along and supplant it, just as Facebook unseated mySpace. In some sense, the signs of this are already happening, with less user time spent on Facebook from independent studies. Apparently, Facebook has also been shown to make people unhappy with their lives.

So, let me take a light hearted review of the data I have in my possession … let me just say, I’m in no way angered by the data – it’s actually somewhat pleasing to see what happens when you try to analyze something …


If people are less engaged with Facebook, and their friends, then you should see a trend of decreasing proportion of your friends posting on your timeline for your birthday over time.

This trend may even persist when you consider the fact that older Facebook accounts tend to gain friends over time, and hence more opportunity for happy birthday posts to be made.

In extreme cases, despite features reminding users of their friend’s birthdays and easy access posting features, they still won’t bother to post.

Furthermore, it is anticipated that the number of “template” style postings, consisting of “Happy Birthday”, “Happy Birthday!”, “Happy Birthday, [name]”, “Happy Birthday :)”, etc which don’t convey personalization would comprise a majority of the posts and the proportion may rise over time.


Archived Facebook wall postings from the opening of my account in October 2010 were reviewed, with special focus on the period around my birthday (18th-20th April). Figures for population and growth for the world, and for Facebook were obtained from the internet.

For graphs where proportion of friends are used, an assumption was made that the growth rate of my friends pool follows the same percentage trend as the growth of active Facebook users, and the values for previous years calculated back from the current number of friends (301).

Graphing and extrapolation of data was performed in Microsoft Excel, with the trendline function mostly used in Linear mode.

Results and Analysis


It is visible that the number of Happy Birthday posts since the account was opened reached a peak in 2012. The number in 2011 was slightly less, and this can be explained by the fact that the account was only opened late 2010. This would not have allowed sufficient time for the account to accrue significant numbers of friends, although the number of posts in itself is impressive. This year, saw the lowest number of Happy Birthday posts on my wall/timeline thus far.

Complicating the analysis is a plethora of social factors which may be related, including the lack of face-to-face contact with many of my friends which have since graduated and moved on with their lives, as well as my lack of interest in posting “Happy Birthday” messages reciprocally on their timelines. These factors could accelerate the decrease in “Happy Birthday” postings.

Plotting the number of posts excluding the year of 2011 makes for a more alarming result.


It shows that the rate of Happy Birthday post decrease is roughly linear at a rate of 8.5 posts lost per year. By my 27th birthday in 2016, it predicts I will have no posts whatsoever, provided the linear relationship holds.

It must be kept in mind that the number of Facebook active users is growing at approximately 188.9 million per year, about 2.4 times faster than population growth! This implies that the number of Facebook users is growing at a significant pace, and it is anticipated the number of friends one would have in their network should also be growing despite the reduction in posts!


By applying the percentage growth in Facebook active users over the period from 2011 to 2014, I was able to derive a “likely” number of friends for the years 2011 to 2013. By dividing the number of posts by the number of likely friends, it can be seen that the percentage of friends in my pool that post Happy Birthday posts on my wall has been decreasing as expected. In fact, I tend not to post them, except in special circumstances. Again, it implies that by my 27th birthday, I would see no posts whatsoever!

The reason becomes clear when we consider the number of posts which are based on a templated response, which is a “poorly considered” posting which shows a basic level of social empathy. By dividing the number of posts which were posted which consist of “cliche” messages with little personal relevance by the number of actual posts made, we can see the number of template responses have been on the increase.


Oh my, again, it seems to imply that, by my 27th birthday, all of the responses will be of the template variety (conversely, the above chart seems to show there will be no messages at all).

<sarcasm> The consistency of data is not a coincidence. Facebook’s years are numbered. </sarcasm>


Thanks to all my Facebook friends for inadvertently participating in this little experiment, whether you posted or not, this analysis wouldn’t have looked like this without your help!

While the analysis of the data is complicated by several social factors, it’s interesting to see that the hypotheses are, for the most part, borne out by the data. This may be due to a coincidence of factors, aside from people’s lack of interest in Facebook or social networking in the present form, such as a lack of personal connection outside Facebook, the coinciding Easter holidays, or the lack of reciprocal “Happy Birthday” posting in prior years.

Whatever the cause, the data suggests that I will continue to observe declining numbers of “Happy Birthday” posts. That, in itself, is not a bad thing when one considers that the majority of the postings are of the “templated” style.

It also implies that something bad may be happening to Facebook by 2016, although further observation is required to confirm this. The small sample size also reduces our confidence in the result.

It’s time for a new way of interacting? Perhaps face to face?

Note: This is really a light-hearted analysis just to show what stories you can weave with the data. I think it does illustrate some of the foibles of “big data” in analytics, where you think you can outsmart things by mining existing data to make predictions at a grand scale. Sometimes, it just is silly, and doesn’t make sense …

While I’ve done my best to make and present the results above as clearly as possible, if you look carefully at the small sample size, and the assumptions made, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that it’s not really meaningful when it’s extrapolated to the “whole of Facebook”. It’s probably just a reflection of how I engage with my friends on Facebook …

Another interesting lesson is to be very very careful when extrapolating – the choice of function, and how far you go with your extrapolation.

DSC_5540Hopefully everyone is enjoying a Happy Easter break, normal post service will resume as soon as possible.


About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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3 Responses to FB Friends: Thanks for Participating in the Birthday Experiment!

  1. Dante says:

    Finally, something on the same wavelengths as my own ideals on Facebook birthday interpretations.

    I’ve always looked at the Facebook birthday reminder as an external tool for simply telling us when what is due. Is it your brother’s birthday today? You don’t need to remember that; let Facebook do that for you.
    In short, we rely more and more on Facebook to remember things for us, that sometimes we even feel like we don’t even know the person to begin with!
    In my opinion, if you can remember a pal’s birthday WITHOUT a Facebook reminder, that, my good friend, deserves a post on your pal’s wall.

    Also, I agree with the “templatization” of these birthday statements and that, for the most part, these aren’t even personal any more. It is trivial; no longer an event that hits us like a brick.
    Sure, people may not be as creative or innovative as some out there, but it doesn’t take much to simply put thought into a birthday greeting that makes it truly ‘unique’ from everyone else’s greetings. Here’s a sample of one of my birthday greetings with some thought on individualisation (it doesn’t need to be this radical, but I would like to see more birthday greetings of this calibur out there on Facebook):

    “Your birthday commemorates the 2nd strangest interface change to Facebook I’ve seen yet. Good jorb, pardner”

    Contextually, this specific greeting I sent was to an old pal I knew since high school. We have some back story.
    And that, too, comes into play: Do we know the person as well as we think we do?
    A stranger you hardly know, or an old pal you haven’t heard from in eons? That could be difficult to reconnect, kinda like talking to a stranger on the bus. Will they even know they had friends like you on their Friends list to begin with?

    Facebook has surely changed our society in many ways, but can we break the noise? I have a weird feeling society will evolve much out of anyone’s control by 2016, and life as we know it will be dominated by corporate giants and mindless lackeys…euphemistically put.

    • lui_gough says:

      Thanks for that comment – very well thought out, and definitely sharing the same sentiment. Thanks for taking the time to post! I suppose social interactions will continue to evolve, and Facebook is merely a phase which we are going through. Maybe the pendulum will swing back towards “face to face” encounters once more, and a select pool of few, but closely connected, friends.

      You’re right in saying that it doesn’t take much to show some real empathy and connection, but it’s definitely important, otherwise you might as well just have a Facebook app that posts the same message on people’s walls automatically (and yes, there is one already!). The problem with that is, while you may “owe” someone a message of congratulations, the message itself has no (or little) value to the recipient. It’s merely a “heartbeat” to say “I’m still on Facebook, and I have an excuse to post on your wall, so I did.”

      In some ways, I excuse my lack of “Happy Birthday” effort in the fact that a template-based message is of little value, and if I don’t feel well-connected enough with them to be able to write something that’s meaningful, I might as well save clogging up the internet and wasting their time with another plain “Happy Birthday :)”. Socially, that might seem kind of strange, but it’s just how I feel about these things.

      – Gough

  2. Pingback: Happy Birthday: Facebook Post Experiment & SSH Honeypot | Gough's Tech Zone

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