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Happy birthday: The quintessential performance of friendship

By July 11, 2020No Comments

Aisling Keenan examines the ways in which we’ve taken our friendships online, and how all might not be as rosy as it always seems…

You have seen one in action, even if you have never heard the term itself. In all likelihood, you’re IN one.


Performative friendships are a very Instagram-age thing. We’ve all said at some point (either in jest or with the weight of its full meaning) ‘if it’s not on Instagram did it even happen?’. At the very least we’ve been adjacent to this thoroughly modern sentiment. And friendship, real or performed, is top of the list when it comes to Things We Must Display to the World Via Social Media.

Hanna Howard wrote for Mic in 2019 that “when social media becomes our currency for not only hyping ourselves and our personal brands but also for maintaining intimate relationships, it only makes sense that we’d take our celebrations to those platforms as well”, and so starts a whole new performative friendship phenomenon: Happy Instagram Birthday, friend.

Over the top

If you’re a social media user at all, it’s highly improbable that a birthday of yours has passed without some form of internet congratulation. Far from saying every well wisher is disingenuous – I think most of them are truly well-meaning – it feels sometimes as though there’s a pressure to out-birthday last year, to out-Story the person’s other supposed BFF. It’s like this one day is your moment to lay out in no uncertain terms just how close you and the wishee are. It’s time for a display. It’s time to perform.

One example that always sticks with me is the way the Kardashian family celebrate each others’ birthdays. Sure, they spend $10,000 filling a room/house/garden with an unnecessary and disgustingly ostentatious balloon display, but aside from that, they write gushing tomes about the love they have for one another as captions on pictures of whichever selection of siblings is involved at the time.

Maybe it’s because there are so many of them now, but it seems every week I’m re-reading an identical recreation of last year’s “Happy birthday Koko, you are an angel, a star, a gem, a treasure. You mean the world to me and I love you and we love you and we ALL love you and oh, have I mentioned that I love you?”. It’s done now as a reflex: What would happen in the media if one sister didn’t post about the other on their birthday? What would it mean? How would it LOOK?

Gemma, 33, told me that in her group of friends, there’s an almighty competition about getting in first with a birthday wish. “It’s gotten to the stage now that I actually wait up until midnight on their birthdays so that I can post as soon as the date changes. I’m embarrassed even saying that, but I have done it,” she admits.

For Abigail, 20, it’s the very same. “From when we were very young, like 13, 14, I remember writing posts – it was on Facebook then – saying things like “we’ve been through so much together”… What could we possibly have been through at that age? But it was all about showing off how you care the most, how you’re the BEST friend they have. It’s so stupid, it means absolutely nothing when you think of it.”

Who among us hasn’t celebrated friends’ joyeux anniversaires by sitting down on their date of earthly entry and hitting Canva for 20 minutes, birthing a fresh collage of your best pictures together. Ones where – IMPORTANT – both parties look great. A small performance, if not an intimate one. We’ve all texted them, sent a wee Whatsapp voicey and more than likely visited them on the day in question too… We’ve all done this with some semblance of love in our hearts. So why the need to perform it for strangers?

Oh, but it’s not for strangers, is it?

It’s in the same way nights out (how we miss those… Covid, you’ve robbed us in so many ways) are for an audience. We see them happen from eight different angles, through the lens of eight iPhones. Captions go: ‘Look who’s here!!’ but they’re really saying ‘look who’s NOT here, look how much fun we all have, and look what you’re missing’.

A group performance! Aren’t we all lucky.

We’re probably all familiar with the very specific brand of performative friendship that comes with the influencer world, too… While that is another day’s endeavour, I spoke to the former friend of one Irish influencer (with a following of 50K+) about her experience.

“I’ve known Amanda* since we were 5, I started school with her. I was at her 30th last summer and she posted about honestly 50 or 60 pictures of her with people she knows from being ‘online famous’ or what have you. Not one of me, not one of our group of school pals,” she told me.

“I think it was very obvious she knew the benefits of it, like she woke up the next day with about 10,000 extra people following her. At the time I didn’t see it but looking back I was hurt, and I wasn’t the only one,” she said.

“It changed our friendship, I don’t hate her and I still talk to her but I just saw a different side starting from that night… It was all for show. None of them are there for her at 2am when she fights with her fella and needs to cry, you know?”

Innocent enough?

So, while it might seem innocuous enough, relationships have broken down because of less. Michele, 38, told me she actually lost a friendship over what I suppose is, for want of a better phrase, a missed performance.

“I texted [my friend] that morning to say happy birthday, but I was back to back with interviews in work – I work in HR – and I didn’t get a second to post anything online. It was her 40th, I’d been to her party the weekend before. She rang me that night and gave out to me, “why did you post about Aileen’s 40th on Insta and not mine?”, all this. I was like hang on? Do I really need this? Instagram is not real life, like. Sometimes people forget that I think.”

One passing transgression led to that friendship, and probably countless others, ending prematurely.

And the truth is, we’re all locked in now. If next year I elect not to post about my best friends’ birthdays, or decide not to gush about my husband on our anniversary, at least one eyebrow will be raised. We’re waving a rose in the chorus, and one day a year we’re the star. But no matter what, we’re permanent fixtures on the big birthday billboard of friendship.

Photos by Liz Weddon, Cortney White and Luke Porter on Unsplash.

*names changed