Facebook has started to test a feature that will make it a lot harder for you to "miss" the birthdays of your closest friends - by displaying a big, friendly banner at the top of your news feed announcing that it's someone's Big Day.
The banner is similar to the polite greetings that some users have started to see, wishing them a good morning, afternoon, or evening by name. "Thanks for being here," the greetings read. "Enjoy Facebook today!" Those greetings seemed to quietly roll out in late October, puzzling, delighting, and/or creeping out those who saw them.
But the birthday message - which, in an email to The Post, Facebook called a "birthday experience" - takes that to another level. The feature is still in testing, but essentially, it's designed to remind you when one of your closer friends (according to Facebook, at least) has a birthday, so that you don't "forget" to post the customary birthday wishes on his or her timeline.
Last week was my friend Niraj's birthday. Niraj and I have known each other since middle school, and we now work at the same company. There's a pretty substantial digital trail on Facebook that would indicate to the network that he is one of my "top" friends, to use their terminology. So at least three separate times on Niraj's birthday, when I navigated to Facebook, I saw a large reminder: "It's Niraj's birthday! We thought you wouldn't want to miss a chance to wish him a happy birthday."
There are many fine people who dutifully post birthday greetings to their friends on Facebook. I am not one of those people (sorry, friends). Until the giant banner with Niraj's face started to haunt my day, I had found it pretty easy to ignore the notifications that Facebook currently uses to remind you about birthdays.
Eventually, I gave in and wrote something on Niraj's timeline, just to see if it would trigger Facebook to make the banner go away (it seemed to).
A Facebook spokesperson said that the birthday greeting I saw was one of a handful of different features the site is currently testing, all aimed at making Facebook itself more "present inside of the product, to build positive emotional experiences and show people that we care."
That idea seems to resonate with what Chris Cox, the company's chief product officer, told the Wall Street Journal recently about how the company addresses issues like privacy with its users - Cox emphasized the need for Facebook as an entity to adopt a "warm" tone while communicating with the site's users directly. He gave the example of Facebook's "privacy dinosaur," a friendly blue dino that recently started walking users through their privacy settings.
In another recent piece, the Wall Street Journal recently pointed to a different reason Facebook might want to convert me into a part-time birthday greeting writer: Although a GlobalWebIndex survey found that 65 percent of the network's users visit the site daily, their results also indicated that fewer users are actually posting content these days. Instead, a portion of daily visitors are "lurking," reading the news feeds from their friends, but not contributing anything of their own.
If Facebook's engagement slides downward, that could have long-term consequences for the appeal of the network. What's clear is that the site has rolled out several different experiments to trigger more posts in recent months.
Those include the widely-seen "On this Day" feature, which encourages users to re-share an old post from a previous year. The site has also rolled out some event-specific posting prompts, including a collaboration with AMC that coincided with the return of "The Walking Dead," the Wall Street Journal noted.
In that capacity, the birthday guilt trip worked. Although my birthday "greeting" wasn't exactly what Facebook asked me to do, the feature did successfully convince me to post something in response, even out of spite. And by the way, Niraj, I got you a card.
© 2015 The Washington Post