What do the Chicago Tribune, Netflix, and Rolling Stone have in common? They all used the event of Bart Simpson's birthday last week to promote themselves. Normally, I have no problem with Simpsons-related tweets, even for selfish reasons (I've posted almost 3,000 of them myself), but the thing is, Bart's birthday wasn't last week. All three of the above tweeted a Bart birthday post, and in doing so, they helped propagate a lie.
Maybe "lie" is too harsh a word, as it implies intent or even malice. The word "misinformation" is more apt. On Wednesday, the Twitter collective somewhat randomly decided that it was Bart Simpon's 32nd birthday. The Chicago Tribune and Rolling Stone, along with Netflix, Columbia College Chicago and thousands of other Twitter users, went along with the hype.
Of course, any Simpsonologist can tell you that February 23 is not Bart's birthday, and I'm here to tell you how I know and share what happened. This is a welcome variation for me; I'm usually telling people that Springfield is located in no specific state, that Springfield is a symbolic microcosm of the United States. Some Simpsons viewers have a hard time accepting the way that The Simpsons has created its own set of rules: because it's a cartoon and doesn't have to worry about its actors aging, the show follows sitcom conventions only when it feels like it. Springfield isn't limited by geography, climate, weather, gravity, or the aging process. This system allows a character to have mulitple birthdays or no birthday at all. It also allows Homer to bounce down a cliff and walk it off.
I wouldn't have believed the events if I hadn't watched them unfold. On Tuesday, a Paraguayan soccer player wore a Bart Simpson T-shirt during the Liberadores Cup. Shortly thereafter, "Bart Simpson" became a trending topic on Twitter simply because enough South American soccer fans found it worth a tweet. I watched as hundreds of people asked, "Why is Bart Simpson a trending topic?" Some users just went with it and tweeted their favorite Bart quotes. Within hours, the tweets stopped asking why Bart was trending and stopped sharing favorite quotes, but shifted to wishing Bart Simpson a happy 32nd birthday.
Strangely, illogically, somewhere along the the line, Twitter users decided that the reason Bart Simpson was trending was because it was his birthday. Rubbercat.net thinks it may have successfully isolated the tweet that got the birthday ball rolling, posted by @moodgagdet, which reads, "Bart Simpson would be 32 today." This tweet doesn't necessarily suggest it was Bart's birthday; it seems more hypothetical, as in "If Bart had been 10 in 1989, he'd be 32 now." Via email, I contacted Jakub Alexander, who tweets on behalf of @moodgadget, and asked how he meant that tweet, and he explained, "I didn't think it was Bart's birthday; I just saw it trending and saw a few tweets and I decided to just announce that he'd be 32 now." (I called it!)
@Moodgadget was retweeted countless times so it is certainly probable that this one, single tweet caused the avalanche of tweets wishing Bart a happy birthday.
When I realized the birthday meme had gained momentum, I asked some tweeters where they learned that today was Bart's birthday, several of whom led me to this article. In the comments, I asked where the author got the idea that it was Bart's birthday, and he responded that he saw it on Twitter.
By Wednesday, Rolling Stone unquestioningly embraced the meme, and tweeted: "Bart Simpson is 32 today! Read our 1990 cover story: 'We keep hearing there's some TV show based on us,' says Homer" (With a link to the story.)
Netflix had a similar tweet: "Don’t have a cow, Man. Bart Simpson turns 32 today! Tell us, what’s the greatest Simpsons episode?"
And PosterRev tweeted: "Don't have a cow man, but Bart Simpson is 32 years old today. To celebrate we're having a sale on all Simpsons posters."
These three quickly became re-tweeted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times. The Chicago Tribune even announced Bart's birthday in a short article on their site. The Post Chronicle, to their credit, relegated Bart's birthday to the gossip pages.
The masses had decided and believed something that is not supported anywhere within or outside of the Simpsons canon. This myth was disseminated with an impressive swiftness, especially for something so completely innocuous. Really, who cares when Bart Simpson's birthday is? The majority of tweeters had nothing to gain by spreading the misinformation (poster vendors excepted), which is why it's so understandable that political topics — issues that people do have a vested interest in — are spread with rousing speed. Tweets with links in support of Wisconsin unions make the rounds in minutes. Toxic ideas are also spread and sustained: Birthers continue to use Twitter to raise questions about Obama's birth certificate.
A handful of tweets informed the Twittersphere that it was not Bart Simpson's birthday, even explaining that the reason Bart was trending was because of soccer (I retweeted this from a Twitter user in Brazil) but there weren't enough to have an impact. I am surprised that even Rolling Stone didn't take the time to Google Bart's birthday before posting; it's easy to find various levels of "evidence" to support several other dates (Feb. 11, April 1, June 25, and Dec. 17) as the "real" date of Bart Simpson's birthday.
Rubbercat.net stands by the Simpsons Archive's suggestion of June 25 as Bart's birthday. They explain: "According to the 1992 episode 'Lisa's First Word,' Lisa was born during the 1984 Summer Olympics. Specifically, Marge started going into labor during the women's 100 meter butterfly, which was scheduled on August 2nd. In the 1997 episode 'My Sister, My Sitter,' Bart exclaims that he is 'two years and thirty-eight days' older than Lisa, which would put Bart's birthday on or around June 25th." I'm compelled to like this hypothesis as it involves both research and math, two very sexy things. However, the episode "Radio Bart" clearly shows that Bart's birthday takes place during the school year, suggesting that his birthday cannot be in late June. Arguments have been made for April 1, which is the date that the UFA (Uncensored Family Album) gives for Bart's birthday (which is also the date the Simpsons Wiki has chosen). The Simpsons Archive also cites the 1993 Simpsons calendar, which gives Dec. 17, 1979 as the date of Bart's birth. Most Simpsons scholars will agree that just because an item sports Matt Groening's name, it is not necessarily canon. The books, comics, and calendars (except the Our Favorite Family Guides and Simpsons World, which are true reference guides) should, for the most part, be considered novelty items only.
If four possible birthdays aren't enough, consider the Season 7 episode "Bart on the Road." The fake ID Bart makes for himself at the DMV has a Feb. 11 birthday. Couldn't one make the argument that the date that Bart gives himself should be considered The One?
It's esoterica like this, plus jokes and contradictions, that make The Simpsons adored by fans and admired by scholars. The show is called things like "subversive," "irreverent," and "Seth McFarlane's inspiration." The Simpsons is not bound by sitcom conventions and the limitations of working with live actors; importantly, it has fun disregarding rules and playing with new chronologies. We know that Homer and Marge met in high school in the late '70s, and we also know that Marge went to college before she married Homer in the '90s (while Homer was inventing grunge). Both cannot be true and yet, both are true. (And I'm fine with that.) The show is constantly creating new backstories and chronologies, making it so that Bart has no birthday and five birthdays. And that's okay. But for every fan who embraces The Simpsons' rules (or lack thereof) there is a fan who can't handle it and needs definitive answers, feeling the need to assign a state to Springfield or celebrate Bart's birthday.
Twitter has chosen February 23 for Bart's birthday. Bart has no birth certificate, so if the Twittersphere likes February 23, I say, hey, why not? Another option is celebrating all five; it's not like he'll age.
But I do not advocate unquestioned consensus reality; it's usually not this harmless. Meme with caution, my friends.
By the way, President Obama was born in Hawaii; that's a fact that Twitter Nation can dispute but cannot change. As for Bart's birthday, February 23 just might stick.
Denise Du Vernay is the co-author of The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. For tweets about The Simpsons, follow @Simpsonology. To find out what she had for breakfast and what she's watching, follow @duve.