In the year 2023, there are people on Facebook who wish happy birthday to all of their Facebook friends. I don’t mean there are still people who wish happy birthday to other people on Facebook — a perfectly normal, if antiquated gesture depending on your age and relationship with the platform. I mean there are are people who wish Happy Birthday! to every single person they are friends with on Facebook.
You’ll be reminded of them every year on your birthday, when you pop in to check in on the 15 or so souls still kindly observing your previous revolution around the sun. Some messages will leave you genuinely touched that said person is thinking about you, but then there’ll be one or two that leave you puzzled. Why is this long lost high school friend’s sibling wishing me a happy birthday? Why is this person I met at college orientation 15 years ago but never spoke to again wishing me a happy birthday?
After poking around a little, you discover that these people are wishing you a happy birthday because they wish everyone a happy birthday. They probably do this as a reflex, a bit of muscle memory in their daily online routine: check email, scroll TikTok, open Facebook and wish happy birthday to everyone whose birthday it is, scroll TikTok, etc. Maybe they think they’re being thoughtful, and maybe some recipients feel that way too. But I’m willing to bet most folks share my feelings about it, which is that you don’t have to wish me a happy birthday. No one will hold you accountable for not wishing happy birthday to people with whom you have no ostensible relationship.
On the list of ways the internet has made us maladjusted weirdos, this isn’t near the top. There are worse ways your brain can get warped by social media than by thinking you need to wish happy birthday to hundreds of people you don’t speak to in real life. But there is one unnerving, macabre dimension to this whole practice, which is that these people aren’t just wishing happy birthday to people they don’t speak to in real life, they’re wishing it to people they can’t speak to in real life, because these people are dead.
Indeed, they will wish happy birthday to everyone, not bothering to double-check whether or not that person is still alive. I’ve seen this on the pages of former classmates and acquaintances who have passed. It’s easy to discern who is writing on the deceased’s wall because they had a personal relationship with them and miss them, and for personal therapeutic reasons wanted to leave a message on their page, and who wrote Happy Birthday! because that’s what they write on everyone’s page on their birthday. They clearly do not and did not have a meaningful relationship with the deceased (as if their jaunty Happy Birthday! message years after they’ve passed wasn’t strong enough evidence). It depresses the shit out of me and makes me incredibly bummed about all the maladjusted weirdos who are bringing balloons to a wake and don’t even know it.
This kind of person was a starkly visible reference point for me when Colin Cowherd went on his FS1 show The Herd on Tuesday and included Dwayne Haskins on a list of QBs drafted in the first round since 2013 who, according to Cowherd, can’t win a Super Bowl. Not only was Haskins on Cowherd’s 20-QB-strong laundry list, but Cowherd mentioned Haskins by name as he smugly surveyed the group. As many justifiably aghast critics pointed out, Haskins died 16 months ago after being struck by a truck on the side of the road in Florida.
The impulse was to gang up on Cowherd and the production team at his show who all let this get to air without a cursory fact check. They deserve your ire, and we’d all be better off if blowhards like Cowherd didn’t own as significant a piece of sports media real estate and influence as they still do. It’s an inexcusable lapse in editorial judgment that demands apology and accountability, and will likely get neither. (Cowherd did offer a snap correction of the graphic — he pointed out that the headline said QB’s that “can” win Super Bowls, not “can’t”.)
But this error did not happen in a vacuum. It’s very much the natural result of the culture that brought us here. Like the person who writes Happy Birthday! on the dead person’s Facebook page, Cowherd is just the symptom of the disease. If the former is an example of the way social media has eroded thoughtful and critical thinking before speaking, the latter may just be the nadir of the Hot Take Era of sports programming. What struck me about that Cowherd segment wasn’t just the Haskins error, but the fact that there is still a supply and demand for sports TV like this, where a host blithely dances through a list of athletes who experienced some degree of misfortune at the pro level, denigrating for the sake of denigration, without the slightest whiff of valuable insight to add to the discourse. This is what audiences want? This?
When the goal is to get the hottest take in front of the most eyeballs as quickly and as loudly as possible, it makes sense that editorial judgment is the price paid. And logic follows that eventually, some blowhard was going to do something dunderheaded like including a dead quarterback on his list of quarterbacks who can’t win a Super Bowl. I don’t think it led to any more self-examination on Cowherd’s part than it does for the people who unknowingly and thoughtlessly write Happy Birthday! on dead peoples’ Facebook walls year after year. These things will keep happening because the systems that enable them churn as smoothly as ever. They do not stop out of respect for the dead.