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Friday, February 20, 2009

Birthdays in the Age of Facebook

My 44th birthday was last week and I received over 100 well wishes and birthday cards. Some of these kindnesses came from relatives, friends, old Army buddies and former high school classmates I haven’t seen in 25 years. I am grateful to each of them for remembering me in their busy lives. I will say this task is made a good bit easier for all of us, now that the social networking sites are all the rage.
A quick word of caution is in order: I realize these sites have a downside, especially for kids who are allowed unsupervised access to them. I would no more suggest unsupervised Internet access to kids, than I would suggest handing a teenager car keys without providing Driver’s Ed and a lot of supervision. On the upside, you can share everything from new baby pictures, family vacation videos to an electronic birthday card, which brings me back to the point of my column for the week.
As I mentioned, my birthday was last week; and while my birthday has never caused me any consternation, I do enjoy hearing well wishes from family members and friends, new and old. Having birthday cake and ice cream around the house for a few days is certainly welcome as well. While we haven’t figured out how to send each other cake and ice cream over the Internet, social networking sites are a great way to pass on, as well as receive, greetings and updates.
In our current society, there are very few of us who have both our immediate and extended families close by, and when you include close friends accumulated over the years, the chances really go down. Because of my military career and extensive travelling, I have friends on every continent except the Arctic and Antarctica, so keeping up with them has become much easier thanks to the networking sites. In addition, as a speaker and consultant I keep in touch with business contacts on these sites as well.
Of course, you may find a downside in that you can never live down throwing up in science class in high school, too much partying in college, or any number of other minor transgressions and embarrassing moments. The upside is these stories, told in and outside our families, serve to provide a backdrop for our story in relationship with each other.
On the whole, I have tried diligently to address the shortcomings I perceived in my character while I was growing up, especially in high school. However, over the week leading up to my birthday I was very pleasantly surprised to find that a few times I managed to rise above the all too often immature, selfish person I was, to actually have a positive impact on the life of a friend or family member. It is unlikely any of these people would have told me in any media other than a message over the Internet.
Our lives, individually and sociologically, are changing at an ever-increasing pace; and while raging against the storm has its own virtue, I maintain technology is a tool that can benefit us or hurt us depending upon how skillfully the tool is used. I encourage you to view these sites as a wonderful tool to cut the time and distance that societal demands too often necessitate. Besides, the website’s calendar feature will earn you brownie points with your Mom when you remember not just her birthday, but Aunt Agnes’ birthday as well.
Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He has graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is the author of Leadership For All the Mountains You Climb. He can be reached at

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