Happy Birthday to Me, and How Distributed Cognition Enhances Relationships

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It’s 9am on my birthday, and already, 65 people have posted birthday wishes on my Facebook wall.


Several more have Skyped me.


Sure, it’s just a simple act – some might argue it’s only slightly more social than a poke, but I disagree. Frankly, I think this is really what the social web is all about: using distributed cognition to truly enhance relationships.

How so?

Ever heard of Dunbar’s number? Basically, it’s the theory that the size of our social network is limited by the size of our neocortex, and for human beings, the maximum number of “close” relationships we can theoretically have – the number of people whose names and faces you remember easily, who you can remember details about them, like what they do for a living, the last conversation you had with them, etc.

But what happens when our capacity for social relationships is no longer limited by our brain capacity?

Some people think that tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even CRM or contact management systems have created an illusion of having more “real” friends than we actually do. I suppose, for some, that’s true.

I look at it differently, though. I look at these tools as distributed cognition. Essentially, we’re making our brains larger by using external tools to enhance our memory. I can “remember” hundreds of people’s faces, because they’re right there when I interact with them. I can call them by name – one of Dale Carnegie’s most important tips for winning friends and influencing people. I can easily recall the last conversation I had with them with a couple of mouse clicks. I can see what they’re up to and ask specific questions about it rather than wasting my time and theirs with small-talk questions like “So what are you up to these days?”  LinkedIn already knows, so I already know.

Social media isn’t just a way to have a bunch of trivial relationships; used properly, it’s a way to treat more than 150 people that you truly care about like you treat those 150…like you would if you were smarter, or had better memory.

This isn’t a new concept, by any means. It’s the same principle behind The Mackay 66, a collection of 66 questions that uber-networker Harvey Mackay used to build the strong relationships that allowed him to build a phenomenally successful company in the face of much larger competitors. It includes information such as the client’s college fraternity/sorority, children’s interests and birthdates, their immediate and long-term business objectives, health conditions, etc. Before every call, Harvey would pull out the client’s file so he could have that information at his fingertips. As he gleaned little bits of information during the course of the conversation, he would note it in their file.

As a result, his customers were constantly amazed at his apparently great memory, and the remarkable personal interest he took in them.

Cynics might say that it’s just a brilliant ploy to manipulate people. Harvey will tell you that it’s just the only way he could keep track of the information that helped him show how much he truly cared about people. And that’s also good business.

So this is why you should wish your Facebook friends happy birthday. Congratulate your LinkedIn contacts on their promotion or new business venture. Comment on their blog about how adorable their new baby or puppy is. It’s not being manipulative. It’s not being trivial. It’s acting like you want to act towards people you truly care about, and like you would on your own, if you were just smarter. Let social media make you socially smarter.

P.S. In the 30 minutes it’s taken to write this post, 7 more people have posted to my Facebook wall and 4 more have Skyped me. What a great way to start the day!

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  1. I’ve thought about the birthday thing. I mean when I post Happy Birthday on someone’s page along with everyone else, it doesn’t seem so special. But then when my birthday came along and I saw the pages of posts, I was glad that each and everyone posted, that they were thinking of me, seeking ways to stay in touch. They that cared.

    It didn’t matter whether they thought of some cool birthday greeting or not, but that they took a moment out of their day to think of me. And you knew something, I decided those birthday wishes gave me a list of people who cared about me, better than one I could build myself, a list to go to when I need something, to use their services, products, advice, etc.

    Thus I added checking for birthdays when I log into Facebook, and posting a short message on their page.

    Happy birthday Scott!

  2. Scott, my friend… I LOVE this post! We wouldn’t really have a relationship if it weren’t for social media. Yet here we are friends and I have to tell you that knowing today is your birthday is extra special for me because Nov 17 was my grandfather’s birthday. He was an important man in my life just as you have become, even though we’ve never “met”.

    I admire you and am grateful for our friendship, even if it is just virtual. That’s so brilliant!

  3. I hear it all the time how social media is a waste of time and you “don’t really know those people”. I suppose there are some people I don’t know well, but I know people I would never have known without social media. The simple act of touching base with people on their birthdays or dropping a quick comment goes a long way in creating that relationship. Too many people are afraid to take that relationship to a new level and move it off-line. I believe that to be a big mistake. I’ve had phone conversations with multiple dozens of people I’ve met through social media. I’ve done business with several of them. The use of Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn to provide an extension of not only our memories, but increasing our network is a reality of today. Those that do not understand this will be left behind.

    • I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met through social media and then moved to phone, Skype or in-person. It’s become such a standard part of my communication mix that I don’t even think about it any more.

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