Monday, April 4, 2011

Paying It Forward – My 2011 Birthday Experience

[Posted both here and on my Yoeitzdrian blog]

Yesterday was an amazing day. It was my 56th birthday, and I spent the morning teaching Jewish music to kids at the SAJ, most of the afternoon on a bus back to Amherst, and a quite evening here with a wonderful birthday dinner and desert.

What made it truly amazing was the many, many birthday greetings I received on Facebook, e-mail, and other electronic fora. I was, frankly, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who sent me greetings. The vast majority of those greetings were not the product of some app, but the effort of an individual friend, colleague, or family member. Most, were, indeed, short and terse, but many were obviously individually crafted and not generic at all. Some of you may believe that’s important. I am no longer so certain that is the case.

Even those who turned over the task of sending me a birthday greeting to an automated app still had to take the time to add my name to the list of those they wanted to included among the recipients.

Sure, I got plenty of automatically generated birthday greetings from businesses like CVS, my insurance agents, financial planners, and from many of the online fora to which I am subscribed. Are those heartfelt? Probably not many of them. Are they just marketing tools?  Probably so. I don’t mind. And the coupons can be a nice bonus. At the same time, I don’t feel as obligated to acknowledge those birthday greetings.

Yet I felt so blessed for all those birthday greetings, that I am taking the time to respond with a thank you to each and every one-and believe me, that’s a lot.

I can already hear some of you thinking “it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality.” Like all supposed truisms, even this one has levels of subtle complexity. Quantity is relative, anyway. I don’t have the huge numbers of friends and followers that celebrities do. My numbers of friends and followers are actually pretty small in the scheme of things Facebook and Twitter. Nevertheless, I must admit that the quantity, in this case, did come as a surprise. I received far more birthday messages than I ever expected. So the quantity did contribute to the overall good feelings produced by this mass onslaught of birthday wishes. However, it wasn’t the quantity alone.

Made easier by the technology or not, people who are my friends and colleagues still have to make the initial decision to send me a note on my birthday. That’s quality. It tells me, I think, several things. It tells me that these many friends and colleagues are good people who care enough to send me a birthday greeting, to engage in a simple act of kindness. It also tells me that I must have, at some point, had an impact on their lives in some way.

The diversity of people who sent me greetings is amazing. Yes, that sheer diversity is the product of technology, and the ease with which it makes possible re-connecting with people. I heard from grade school, high school, college and grad school classmates. I heard from people at every synagogue, school, job with which I have ever been associated. I heard from people in every community in which I have ever lived. I heard from students I have taught, and from teachers who taught me. I heard from friends, neighbors, employers, colleagues and more.

The collective effect of all this has been to increase my own positive feelings of well being, and caused me to feel extremely blessed. As I stated in one wall post, I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to friends, colleagues, and family.

Here it is the next day, and I am still basking in the positive, reinforcing glow of this experience. I suspect it will last for a while.

I’ve had lots of nice birthdays over the years. In terms of some of them, this year was far less in terms of actual physical interaction, didn’t have much in the way of a party or presents. (Well, except for the best present of all which is the good feelings I’ve gotten from all those greetings.)  I’ve been thrown some humdinger birthday parties over the years, including ones that reunited me with people I hadn’t seen in a long time. I remember those experiences, and I also remember the relative lengths of the afterglow, the endorphin release. This year’s afterglow seems stronger, more resilient.

While songleading yesterday, teachers had their students sing me a happy birthday wish, and the effect was, indeed, heartwarming. Would that have had the same impact if it were virtual, sent as a video, or some other electronic form? I’m not sure. So there remains a power in face to face experiences. Yet I have discovered here a truly impressive power in a more virtual and electronic experience, and I cannot deny that it was no less impactful than the in-person experiences I had for my birthday.

Something, at least for me, made this Social Media birthday experience different. Many synagogues with which I have been affiliated have done things to acknowledge birthdays (and have even been using technology solutions for years to generate personalized letters or postcards from generic texts.) For me, those just didn’t have the power of this recent experience. Something is different, and trying to figure out what that something is is what we need to suss out.

So now comes the obvious question. How can we harness the forces of Social Media to help bring this experience to others, in general, and in a Jewish context? I’m not speaking here of the particular effect of birthday greetings, but the positive feelings I experienced as a result.

I’m aware of the risk that analyzing the effect of this experience could wind up imploding the experience for me. Nevertheless it’s a risk I’m willing to take. There’s something here – I can’t quite put my finger on it yet – but it is something that re-affirms my belief that the internet, like the aether that preceded it, carries more than simple bits and bytes, electrons, pieces of data. I could feel the warmth of the good wishes that people were sending me, despite the obvious lack of real-time, in-person interaction. I know the experience is reproducible.

As always, there are cautions to be observed. As a form of media, social media can be abused. I think of all the televangelists who used the power of television and radio to sustain their ministries financially. I was tempted to say “bilked their listens out of millions of dollars.” However, I feel I can’t be that cynical right now. If my theories and beliefs are correct, it is certainly possible that many of those listeners were actually moved and affected by their virtual encounters with a televangelist. Their desire to support those ministries was sincere. It is even possible that some of the televangelists were sincere.

It’s equally possible that some televangelists were masters of techniques and tools designed to produce endorphin release in their viewers. It’s possible my own birthday experience this year is similar, except that it wasn’t the result of a deliberate or intentional effort. So, as we explore the power of technology and Social Media for good, we can’t ignore the risks and perils as well.

It’s not just a matter of a risks vs. benefits analysis.  That can only tell you when something’s good marginally or significantly outweighs its potential for bad. For me, it is a matter of seeking to be as aware of possible of the potential negative outcomes, and structuring what you create the minimize or even eliminate them. I’m not so foolish as to believe we can really know and predict every possible outcome, but we certainly have the tools and experience to enable us to work towards the good.

Help me turn my good experience into something good for others. Let’s explore the possibilities, potentials and pitfalls together.

-Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy, aka Yoeitzdrian)

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

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