Happy Birthday to Me

by Chloe Kiparsky

I was having a bad day on November 27th. It was the Sunday at the end of Thanksgiving break, I had been isolated with Covid for the entire break, I was stressed. Life was monotonous, and I didn’t know how to guarantee that Monday would be a good day.

That evening, I was texting in a group text with two friends who don’t live in Ouray, and I was expressing how hopeless my life was feeling. If my birthday was tomorrow, I would be happy, I thought, Wait. Why NOT? Why CAN’T it be my birthday tomorrow?”

“OMG GUYS!?!??!” I texted, “i should gaslight all my followers into thinking it’s my birthday tmrw, and get mad bc no one posts.” The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. It was 10:45 pm on a Sunday, I had a temporary solution to all my problems, and my friends were telling me “YEAH!” I posted on my Instagram story a countdown titled “BDAY” with a series of uncharacteristically obnoxious emojis following it and went to sleep with the gears in my head screaming like a smoothie blender.

I awoke to people blowing up my phone. It turns out that a mediocrely fabricated lie on the internet is indistinguishable from the truth. “HAPPY BIRTHDAYYYY,” said an estranged middle school friend. “YOOOOOOO HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!” said someone I have met in person once before. “GOOD JOB BEING BORN HOPE U HAVE A GOOD DAY,” said an old friend, now graduated. 

Unspoken teenage Instagram culture dictates that one should post about their friends’ birthdays with pictures of them (sometimes flattering, sometimes embarrassing) and a brief note about how much they value the friendship. I hadn’t taken this into account and was pleasantly surprised when farflung friends dug into their photo archives to find adorable videos of me from elementary school to pair with a birthday wish.

When I arrived at school, various people wished me happy birthday and it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. I hadn’t realized until then just how much of a wall the internet builds between people. On Instagram, when people sent well wishes, I was able to lie graciously, but once faced with real-life interactions, it was difficult to keep my poise. 

The day continued like this, with 7 story shoutouts, dozens of people telling me happy birthday, 9 story “likes,” and a few scattered “wait, isn’t your birthday in February?”s. I decided to break the news to everyone that night. “Guys it’s not my birthday,” my announcement began. “I thought it would be hilarious (it was) to gaslight the internet into thinking it was my birthday and it worked so well?!... Anyway, I love all of you that wished me happy birthday, and I genuinely appreciate you and how much you care about me. You bring me so much joy.”

The response was immediate.

It was extremely interesting because way more people had reactions to it NOT being my birthday than had reacted to my birthday itself. I received 21 messages along the lines of “wait, this is so funny,” and several similar to “I felt so bad that I didn’t wish you a happy birthday, but now I don’t have to!” People to whom I have barely ever spoken responded in all capital letters saying “HAHAHAHA.” I had been worried that people would be upset at me for tricking them, but nobody was: the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Lying on the internet is frighteningly easy, and I have now learned that it can be fun - in a twisted sort of way. This was a harmless prank, and I am lucky to have friends with a sense of humor, but I was aware of the fine line I was walking. Was it fun? Yes. Did it make me feel better? Absolutely. Did I learn? So much. But was there a lingering sense of discomfort throughout the process? One hundred percent.

Adults warn us kids to be careful what we believe online, but I (and probably every other teen in my generation) have dismissed this with a simple “what does ANYONE have to gain by lying about random things?” After doing this, I now realize that it is not necessarily what people have to gain per se, it is the thrill of being in control. The feeling of being a puppeteer in control of hundreds of tiny minds is unarguably a powerful one. In retrospect, I have mixed feelings about it, but I understand how people would enjoy it. A lot.

My experiment is a benign example of misinformation on social media, and more extreme examples include photoshopping one’s body to look an ideal way, spreading news without knowing the original source, clickbait, and statements not founded in any form of truth - all of which are unavoidable daily phenomena in a social media scroll.

I wish I had a solution to this, but I don’t. Honestly, this experiment opened my eyes to how perilous misinformation can be, how easy it is to fall into a trap without even noticing, and how dangerously close this feeling of control is to pleasure. Now more than ever - in this age of social media - we need to look at everything with a fine tooth comb, even if it may seem unnecessary. Get your news from a reliable source, double-check everything from a birthday to an election result to a miracle cure, and be conscious in your scrolling.

BREAKING NEWS: Cinderella has just become our first female president, your hair will grow thicker if you buy the new iPhone, there is a unicorn living in the math classroom, and my birthday is…. Hmmm…. TOMORROW!