Nobody likes lame Zoom birthday parties — so cancel them and move on

In a pandemic, celebrating a birthday isn’t a piece of cake.

That hasn’t stopped people from firing up their laptops and dutifully showing up to virtual birthday parties on Zoom, FaceTime and Google Meet. More than six months into social distancing, these screen-based soirees — attended by a grid of familiar faces — have become a regular part of our strange, homebound schedules.

But some guests say it’s time to blow out the candles on digital birthday parties.

“I think we all have Zoom fatigue,” said Jill Applebaum, an advertising executive who lives on the Upper East Side. Early in lockdown, she said she was happy to hop on crowded video calls to pass the time: “It started out like … let’s celebrate everything ’cause we can pour wine! And then, as time wore on, it’s like, there’s nothing there.”

Applebaum, 50, said her daughter Zoe had her 15th birthday in July. “She begged me not to organize a Zoom,” she said. “The social awkwardness was more than she could handle.”

Shelley Barandes, a mother of two in Cambridge, Mass., said that she reached her Zoom breaking point after her 12-year-old daughter Sadie was invited to a friend’s nearly five-hour virtual birthday.

“[The parents] wanted their daughter to have time to spend with each of her groups of friends,” said Barandes, 41, a letterpress printer who also owns a stationary store. “The party started at 1 p.m. and went to 5:30 p.m. You were assigned a half-hour time slot within that. There were several communications — ‘Is this time slot OK?’ ”

Barandes, who said she is “drowning” in e-mails, was not amused, especially when she realized that the party came with an at-home assignment. Guests were expected “to sign back on at 5:30 p.m., with some kind of baked good that you baked specifically for this party, so that … we could all eat cake together.”

It’s not just attendees who are wishing they could turn off their cameras.

Lydia Elle, a writer living in Los Angeles, went to Cancun with two of her girlfriends for her 40th birthday on Sept. 9. She left her 10-year-old daughter, London, home with her mother, and planned to celebrate with them when she returned.

But her family had other ideas. On her birthday, Elle’s mom surprised her with a Zoom of about 25 friends and family members. Elle — sitting on the beach in a bathing suit with a drink in her hand — was a little off her game.

“I’m trying to keep to a minimum any wardrobe malfunctions and still pay attention,” Elle said. “And then the guy’s coming and asking me if I want another drink and of course I’m trying not to look like an alcoholic. I’m like, ‘no no.’ ”

She said that while she was touched by everyone’s kind words, the whole thing was a bit uncomfortable: “I want to show my gratitude but there was also a part where it was like, all you guys are just gonna talk about me? You don’t want to talk about anything else?”

The birthday bind — how to celebrate when we can’t breathe near each other — has yielded a number of creative on-screen solutions. Cameo — a Web site where reality TV stars and low-level celebs charge up to $2,500 to record messages for strangers — has seen a 500 percent increase in usage for the first half of 2020, compared with the same time last year, according to its publicist Brandon Kazimer. Tribute, an online service that allows people to record testimonials for their loved ones and then edit them together for under $100, created its millionth video in May, a milestone that co-founder Andrew Horn attributes to the “massive surge in traffic due to COVID.”

If you’re going to host a Zoom fete, the “secret sauce” is having an activity prepared, whether it’s cookie decorating or wine tasting for adults, said Alexandra Adamo, who charges between $300 and $500 to plan customized virtual parties for kids. The New York native turned suburban Boston resident said that this works because “it gives everybody something to do with their hands, feel proud about, nobody’s left out.” But she says hosts should also prepare in advance by mailing out supplies, so that guests don’t feel like they’re stuck with homework.

But for Applebaum, trying to salvage pandemic-era birthdays is a lost cause. She and her husband, Rick Polinsky, both celebrated the big 5-0 in the past six months, but they decided that Zoom couldn’t substitute for the trip to Belize they had to cancel.

“I just think there’s nothing sadder than a Zoom birthday,” she said. “We’ve decided this year, we all get to stay the same age.”

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