Google Calendar’s Enforced Birthdays Show The Ugly Side Of Algorithms

You may recall that Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information”. So if you’ve been seeing the Birthdays of people you hardly know appearing UFO-like in your Google Calendar lately, never fear — this is just Mountain View doing its thang organizing your stuff.

Specifically, this bit of Googly info-admin boils down to its algorithms harvesting the birth dates of all of your Google contacts (which means anyone you might email regularly) and any Google+ users you added to the circles of your (in all likelihood Google-enforced) Google+ profile, and then inserting those dates into your calendar so you don’t have to.


Q: how useful is it to have the birthdays of people whose birthdays you don’t at all need to have in your calendar mixed in with the birthdays of people you do need in your calendar, cluttering up the place where you record other stuff you do really need to know?

A: not useful at all!

Google is probably too busy organizing the world’s information to register the universal indifference (to put it charitably) to this bit of information it’s “organized” unasked into your digital life. The delivery medium for this latest stinker was a recent Google Calendar update, also enforced on users. There’s a theme here, eh.

Mountain View should probably take a little time out to study its own mission statement in full. Which — for the record — currently reads:


Emphasis on the word useful.

Admittedly the “universally accessible” clause is in apparent contention with the “useful” clause. Universal accessibility — a criteria which an ‘enforced Birthdays calendar’ algorithm clearly meets — is also higher up the mission statement’s food chain, with “useful” appearing to be only tacked on as an afterthought.

Add to that, Google doesn’t specify to whom usefulness is aimed. It’s not, for instance, specifying a mission to be useful ‘to Google users’. So perhaps the mission statement is actually palindromic; and there are two implied words that come after useful. Namely: “to Google”…

But let’s give Mountain View the benefit of the doubt — and accept its mission statement at face value, with utility to us, the users, still clinging on there at the finale by a few pixels.

In that case Google should really take a little more time to study its own stated information. Because of course it is not even slightly useful to have random birthdays injected into your daily schedule, mixed in with the information you do find useful. Au contraire. It’s the opposite of useful. It’s confusing at very best.

Mostly, as one of my TC colleagues put it, it’s “so annoying!!”. Another described it as “a source of major annoyance”, adding that this is “because my Google+ follower’s [sic?] birthdays are showing up in my calendar, many of whom I don’t even know”. So we can add: ‘annoying’ and ‘Google+’ to the themes in play here.

What is useful — or rather was — is this how to guide, put together by engineer Brenden Mulligan, on removing Google enforced Birthdays from your otherwise carefully curated Google calendar. This guide was useful enough to have garnered some 12,000 views in the month or so since it was posted to Medium, according to Mulligan.

I can vouch for it. I was one of the 12,000 who viewed the guide, and used its instructions to successfully excise Google’s Birthday Calendar cancer over the holidays. Truly that felt like a Christmas miracle.

The guide is not currently useful, however, because Google appears to have removed and/or disabled the squirreled away removal option that Mulligan had carefully tracked down.

He actually warned this sort of thing might happen — that Google might “obnoxiously” force Birthdays on its users again, as he put it. Sadly he was spot on.

The removal method Mulligan unearthed was already buried way down in the sort of web sub-menus where only the equivalent of digital dust spends any time. It required you to click through to a random-sounding page labelled “Browse interesting calendars”, and then ignore the massive list of national holiday calendars which made the page look really, really boring and instead click on an unassuming “More” link.

At that point a far shorter list of calendars would appear, including a calendar called “Birthdays”. And lo you would find the below option to unsubscribe from it:

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 12.41.05 PM


So basically this option was buried where no one would ever stumble upon on, and even those who went looking had to go on a Dantean quest through multiple circles of Google Settings hell. You could say the elusive unsubscribe information had been very well “organized” by Google.

(Add to that, the inoffensive name of the offending calendar compounded the quest to locate a specific setting from the underbelly of the corporate Internet. It would have been far more clearly labeled if it had been called ‘Birthdays Of The People Whose Birthdays You Don’t Need To Have In Your Calendar Calendar’. But that would have started to sound very Kafka-esque.)

Anyway, the long and short of it is that unsubscribe option for Birthdays is now an ex-option. It has gone awol. It has been disappeared entirely. And/or greyed out:

TechCrunch contacted Google to ask all about this — such as whether Google’s removal of the ability to remove its obnoxious omni-Birthday Calendars was a bug or a feature, and what sort of utility Google believes is being injected into users lives by enforcing knowledge of all your non-friends’ birth dates?

A Google spokeswoman initially ignored our specific questions, and instead sent a link to this support page claiming it is still possible to hide Birthdays if you don’t want to see them.

Our celebrations were very short lived, however, as unfortunately this claim is entirely misguided. The settings page it links through to does not offer the prior unsubscribe option unearthed by Mulligan. So it absolutely does not offer the utility we crave: namely the ability to continue to view only the birthdays we human users have consciously added to our Google calendars, and NOT to view those annoying ‘Birthdays’ that Google’s algorithms are uselessly forcing on us.

Human choice vs algorithmic organization is another pertinent theme here. (On that score, see also: Twitter polluting human curated information feeds with algorithmically selected content.)

However it’s not surprising that the Google spokeswoman sent us this misguided advice, being as the Google settings page itself makes a grand claim that it’s possible to “easily hide” Birthdays if you don’t want to see them.

“Birthdays and holidays are already added to your calendar so you’ll never miss an opportunity to celebrate. But if you don’t want to see these events all the time, you can easily hide them,” it chirps.

The problem is that’s basically not true. Or so impossible to action it amounts to the same thing. It does not in fact appear that Google is sanctioning even a ‘nuclear option’ of nixing every birthday and Birthday in your calendar.

We looked for such an option. We couldn’t find it.

Certainly there is no obvious way to unsubscribe from Google’s Birthdays Calendar when you’re noodling around in its settings swamp — which means that even if you can hide those birthdays you yourself have added to your calendar (which of course you probably wouldn’t want to anyway), you’ll still see your Google+ ‘buddies” Birthdays because there is no unsubscribe option for Birthdays.

Look here, at this description of the Birthdays calendar — and the total lack of any unsubscribe option for that specific calendar:

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 2.02.11 PM


Further details about the Birthdays calendar also offers no obvious unsubscribe option:

Screen Shot 2015-01-09 at 12.01.34 PM

On a scale of useful to not at all useful these settings are definitely not at all useful.

To further increase your pain and suffering, Google’s Birthday Holidays Settings page notes the following procedures for editing or removing individual birthdays (so removing them one by one, which would obviously be annoyingly time-consuming):

If the person is in your Google+ circles, you can only remove their birthday from your calendar by removing them from your Google+ circles.

If the person is in your contacts, but not your Google+ circles, you can edit or remove the person’s birthday from the People or Contacts app on your phone (if your contacts are synced with Google), or from

If you aren’t sure whether a birthday comes from your contacts or Google+, you can go to a computer and open the contact details for that person.

So basically in order to escape Google+ Birthday hell Google requires you to descend into Google+ hell and manually delete individuals whose birthdays you don’t want to be spammed with from your circles (and so stop following entirely their Google+ activity). Well I suppose that’s one way for Google to enforce engagement with its zombie social network. But it’s very wrong-headed, to put it mildly.

At the time of writing Google’s spokeswoman is “checking” on whether there is any way at all to unsubscribe from Birthdays, and says she’ll get back “as soon as possible”. So if there is a very elusive option to re-unsubscribe I’ll be sure to update this post and add it in. As, doubtless, will Mulligan to his original Medium post.

Whether that option re-materializes or not one thing here is amply clear: Google does not want you to unsubscribe from information it determines should be universally available. That is not part of its mission. It is, in fact, the polar opposite of its mission. Hence making unsubscribing such a wild goose chase. So the theme of reducing user control and increasing algorithmic enforcement is not going to go away anytime soon.

On the contrary, as more and more information piles online — via connected devices and the like — expect more levers of human control to be quietly disappeared or disabled because the algorithmic entities conducting this increasingly pervasive digital symphony really prefer if you just sit there and lap everything up. It makes the big data so much more quantifiable if you do. In short: eyeballs, know thy place!

Still, it’s worth us humans remembering that other calendars are available. Which is one short-term way to route around this sort of TFBS. So vote with your clicks while you can.

Update: You could also try this:

But see also this — about manually adding an onclick handler to get the above workaround to function.

Featured Image: Scoble/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

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