Facebook’s little digital gift

Last week, Facebook unveiled a gifting feature. For $1, you can purchase a gift for the person you most adore. If you choose to make the gift public, you are credited with that gift on the person’s profile under the “gift box” region. If you choose to make the gift private, the gift is still there but there’s no notice concerning who gave it.

Before getting into this, let me take a moment to voice my annual bitterness over Hallmark Holidays, particularly the one that involves an obscene explosion of pink, candy, and flowers.

The gifting feature is fantastically times to align with a holiday built around status: Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is all about pronouncing your relationship to loved ones (and those you obsess over) in the witness of others. Remember those miniature cards in elementary school? Or the carnations in high school? Listening to the radio, you’d think Valentine’s Day was a contest. Who can get the most flowers? The fanciest dinner? This holiday should make most people want to crawl in bed and eat bon-bons while sobbing over sappy movies. But it works. It feeds on people’s desire to be validated and shown as worthy to the people around them, even at the expense of others. It is a holiday built purely on status (under the guise of “love”). You look good when others love you (and the more the merrier).

Of course, Valentine’s Day is not the only hyper-commercialized holiday. The celebration of Christ’s birth is marked by massive shopping. In response, the Festival of Lights has been turned into 8 days of competitive gift giving in American Jewish culture. Acknowledging that people get old in patterns that align with a socially constructed calendar also requires presents. Hell, anything that is seen as a lifestage change requires gifts (marriage, childbirth, graduation, Bat Mitzvah, etc.).

Needless to say, gift giving is perpetuated by a consumer culture that relishes any excuse to incite people to buy. My favorite of this is the “gift certificate” – a piece of paper that says that you couldn’t think of what to give so you assuaged your guilt by giving money to a corporation. You get brainwashed into believing that forcing your loved one to shop at that particular venue is thoughtful, even though the real winner is the corporation since only a fraction of those certificates are ever redeemed. No wonder corporations love gift certificates – they allow them to make bundles and bundles of money, knowing that the receiver will never come back for the goods.

But anyhow… i’ve gone off on a tangent… Gifts. Facebook.

Unlike Fred, i think that gifts make a lot more sense than identity purchases when it comes to micro-payments and social network sites. Sure, buying clothes in virtual systems makes sense, but what’s the value of paying to deck out your profile if the primary purpose of it is to enable communication? I think that for those who actively try to craft a public identity through profiles (celebrities and fame junkies), paying to make a cooler profile makes sense. But most folks are quite content with the crap that they can do for free and i don’t see them paying money to get more fancified backgrounds when they can copy/paste. That said, i think it’s very interesting when you can pay to affect someone else’s profile. I think it’s QQ where you can pay to have a donkey shit on your friend’s page and then they have to pay to clean it up. This prankster “gift” has a lot of value. It becomes a game within the system and it bonds two people together.

In a backchannel conversation, Fred argues with me that digital gifts will have little value because they only make people look good for a very brief period. They do not have the same type of persistence as identity-driven purchases like clothing in WoW. I think that it is precisely this ephemeralness that will make gifts popular. There are times for gift giving (predefined by society). Individuals’ reaction to this is already visible on social network sites comments. People write happy birthday and send glitter for holidays (a.k.a. those animated graphical disasters screaming “happy valentine’s day!”). These expressions are not simply altruistic kindness. By publicly performing the holiday or birthday, the individual doing the expression looks good before hir peers. It also prompts reciprocity so that one’s own profile is then also filled with validating comments. Etc. Etc. (If interested in gifting, you absolutely must read the canon: Marcel Mauss’ “The Gift”.)

Like Fred, i too have an issue with the economic structure of Facebook Gifts, but it’s not because i think that $1 is too expensive. Gifts are part of status play. As such, there are critical elements about gift giving that must be taken into consideration. For example, it’s critical to know who gifted who first. You need to know this because it showcases consideration. Look closely at comments on MySpace and you’ll see that timing matters; there’s no timing on Facebook so you can’t see who gifted who first and who reciprocated. Upon receipt of a gift, one is often required to reciprocate. To handle being second, people up the ante in reciprocating. The second person gives something that is worth more than the first. This requires having the ability to offer more; offering two of something isn’t really the right answer – you want to offer something of more value. All of Facebook’s gifts are $1 so they are all equal. Value, of course, doesn’t have to be about money. Scarcity is quite valuable. If you gift something rare, it’s far more desired than offering a cheesy gift that anyone could get. This is why the handmade gift matters in a culture where you can buy anything.

I don’t think Facebook gifts – in its current incarnation – is sustainable. You can only gift so many kisses and rainbows before it’s meaningless. And what’s the point of paying $1 for them (other than to help the fight against breast cancer)? $1 is nothing if the gift is meaningful, but the 21 gift options will quickly lose meaning. It’s not just about dropping the price down to 20 cents. It’s about recognizing that gifting has variables that must be taken into account.

People want gifts. And they want to give gifts. Comments (or messages on the wall) are a form of gifting and every day, teens and 20-somethings log in hoping that someone left a loving comment. (And all the older folks cling to their Crackberries with the same hope.) It’s very depressing to log in and get no love.

I think that Facebook is right-on for making a gifting-based offering, but i think that to make it work long-term, they need to understand gifting a bit better. It’s about status. It’s about scarcity. It’s about reciprocity and upping the ante. These need to worked into the system and evolving this will make Facebook look good, not like they are backpeddling. This is not about gifting being a one-time rush; it’s about understanding the social structure of gifting.

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24 thoughts on “Facebook’s little digital gift

  1. Sam Jackson

    What about the TechCrunch / GigaOm criticism (or maybe just TC? I forget) that the real test of this feature will be the elegance of the payment system?

    Personally I feel like Facebook could have made this more ‘desirable’ if, like Gmail and so many other things (Hello, Facebook pre-everyone? Cachet, bling bling) they kept it limited and selective for a little while. Even if gifts are dumb, then, lots of people would feel bad that they couldn’t give them out. So simple a concept and so well-exercised in this framework that I am surprised FB didn’t draw out the concept more, as their ‘limited deployment’ wasn’t limited for very long at all.

  2. Rod

    Isn’t gifting really about establishing and cultivating relationships? I agree FB will have trouble sustaining the gift economy unless they can establish an internal culture of gifting which enhances the nature of the relationship between the provider of the gift and the recipient(s). If they can get their users accustomed to giving gifts based on FB cultural cues it may very well work. Relationships based on status will require more and elaborate gifts, but for many of us Feb. 14 is mostly about sustaining an existing relationship, let alone enhancing it!

  3. ardief

    Piggybacking on what pwb said – not using PayPal is a big mistake I think…I know you lose a big cut when the purchase price is so small, but really, why would I want to give Facebook my credit card details…which they kindly offer to store for me?

  4. Jim Greer

    I used to work at Pogo, Electronic Arts’ web games site, and they have a very successful gifting program. The key is that the gifts really are meaningful, not useless rainbows and kisses – they have gameplay value. They’re “Badge Books” – badges are an extremely popular subscription feature, similar to achievements on XBox Live. The books were collections of additional achivements – once the player has the book, they still have to unlock them through gameplay. So the gift had 8-12 hours of gameplay value.

    You can also give avatar clothing items & accesories – at the time I left these were not quite as successful.

  5. Steve Baughman

    I can’t really see people paying for these as long as these systems are open for people to paste in their own text / images / etc. Especially since the user’s of these sites are generally those who are used to getting things for free, and I have a hunch that a lot of people would consider it a impersonal, and a slap in the face, to receive the digital equivelant of a ‘greeting card’. The most appealing part of comments is the freedom of expression, something you will never get when you convert this interaction into a predetermined ‘gift’. And to know someone actually spent money on it would make me sad because of the fleeting nature and lack of true value of these gifts.

    I think Flickr & livejournal have a better approach, unlocking added functionality for payment, which can also be given as a gift. MySpace has done this as well, with companies paying MySpace to have unlocked functionality when their advertisement (x-men myspace page, for example) is added as a ‘friend’.

  6. Ryan C.


    I ran across your name while looking into the ‘wikinomics’ book in Barnes & Noble in Iowa. Your work seemed very interesting. I was hoping you could refer some resources that could help me. I am looking for information on social networking and the communication that takes place on these sites…why, how, the motivations, what members expect, whats to come, etc. Just any information on social networking/communication, etc. Any books, magazines, websites, blogs, podcasts, newsletters, anything you have time to recommend I would appreciate.

    I’m currently relocating to San Francisco from Iowa to create project ‘earthstepper’…a web2.0 site that has been evolving for the past 6 months. But I need to learn more.

    Thanks & Best Regards, Ryan

  7. Sara

    At the same time that Facebook gifting caught my eye, I picked up CyberSounds, for a class, and I’m in the middle of reading this great article by Markus Giesler “Cybernetic Gift Giving and Social Drama: A Netnography of the Napster File-Sharing Community.” Giesler relates file-sharing to gift giving and the meta-reciprocity involved (so, a bunch of people are gifting and receiving). He also points out that when we’re gift-giving (file-sharing) on the ‘net we’re doing something really new: not only are we giving a gift, but we’ve got a copy of it too.

    I think Facebook’s gifts might be more sucessful (and fulfilling) if there was a similar effect with gifting. While one does get the recognition (if one chooses to), it isn’t quite the same as having a share of your gift. With the popularity of p2p networks and file-sharing, Facebook might want to take note of that form of gift giving and implement something similar. Maybe one could purchase an awesome song/video/media object for me and a friend?

    I haven’t finished Giesler’s article yet, but I’m glad to have another form of virtual gift-giving to relate his ideas to!

  8. james hong

    I’m not sure we were the first to implement in the states, although we did come up with the idea of doing it on our own (hadn’t heard of cyworld at the time). I think there was a site that executed on it before us, but they tried to establish a whole community around gifting, perhaps a little TOO strongly.

    The way we saw it was this: There are 2 use cases we identified where somebody would be interested in purchasing a digital good.

    1. A purchase for yourself, in order to “pimp your page”. The utility gained from this is one of SELF EXPRESSION. Of course this model is greatly enhanced if you close the system and don’t allow people to just upload their own goods, but even in that case, you could have an “official area” too.. where people who put their digital goods outside it just look.. lame.

    In this case, scarcity matters, but creating scarcity is probably best achieved not by pricing high, but rather by creating a large catalog and only allowing x items of each time to be claimed.

    The purchase is about users expressing themselves and wanting to feel differentiated from others. Spending $20 on an icon that anyone else could have spent $20 on is NOT differentiating. I believe the price should be lower in this case. The platform should concentrate on just having a billion items for sale.

    2. A purchase from one person to another. The utility gained from this is one of SIGNALING. What is it you are trying to signal? In the case of HOTorNOT’s virtual flowers, one is trying to signal extraordinary levels of interest. A user on the site can say “yes i’m interested” to every other person on the site because it costs nothing (but time) to click “yes” on people’s profiles. However, it is presumed that money IS a limited resource. By spending money in order to purchase a flower, becaues the # of flowers I can afford is finite, it signals to the recipient that S/he is very very EXTRA special. So we chose to price the flowers high.

    If the flowers were cheap, the system would be rampant with them. Girls would receive them from all over the place. They would DROP IN VALUE, because it is natural human instinct to value things that are scarce. Another thing we did to increase scarcity was have flowers “die” after 2 weeks.

    In fact, the signal or “gesture” is only one part of the value of our virtual flowers. The other value is the fact taht flowers are displayed on the recipient’s homepage.. Not for the recipient to see, not for the sender to see.. but for EVERYONE to see. This is the equivalent of someone putting flowers on her desk when s/he receives them at work.. It’s BRAGGING. and people like to brag.

    Sending real flowers in real life has one added benefit that we could think of.. the value of the intrinsic beauty/smell of the flowers. Capturing 2 out of 3 online seems to be good enough.

    We found, last time we ran the numbers, that sending flowers increased the likelihood of a “double match” on our system by 4x.. meaning as a signal, they are well received and really work.

    If we had priced them low, the flowers would have been worthless to everyone.

    Here is what our flower ordering page looks like, for those interested:

    click here to see a picture of HoN flowers

  9. david ingram

    Have you seen snadder.com (I am NOT affiliated with them), you can give people gifts like “Burger” “moped” and all sorts of wonderful things. he he.

  10. David Evans

    Paying a dollar for a little icon will be fun for a while, but the bloom will be off the rose soon enough unless they continue to grow the gifting ecosystem.

    I love the concept of wilting flowers that pwb mentioned. I can’t wait to see a rating and feedback system that reflects measurable actions that have some kind of usefulness past “pay a buck get a silly icon that doesn’t mean much”.

    Several videoconferencing and chat/forums companies offer rating systems based on the number of messages. Personally, just because someone likes to type does not necessarily put them on a higher plane than everyone else, but giving points to people you like to communicate with is interesting, until you get the 5 million point hotties and the -5 million point freaks, then everyone else is just shades of intelligible gray. Hardly useful.

    Sending people and icon of soap because they smell is going to have interesting repercussions, same with the hoax/play gifts.

    Why aren’t people talking about Myspace gifting and begging on Helio?

  11. Arian Kooshesh

    Behold the Creation and the Destruction of the Internet.
    Behold Shiva, Incarnated as a spammer.
    Behold another bitter 29 year old and her comment lackey friends. None saying anything but all speaking.
    Behold Brahma as a roll a toilet paper. See how it mends friendships between siblings with an inside joke?

  12. Randy

    There is another great oganizations that using the 4th monetization strategy (gifts) for charitable causes. 411karma.com is the name and I do like their plan. Leverage basic guilt to get your friends to donate to your cause.I gave your cause $ now ou give to mine.

  13. Randy

    There is another great oganizations that using the 4th monetization strategy (gifts) for charitable causes. 411karma.com is the name and I do like their plan. Leverage basic guilt to get your friends to donate to your cause.I gave your cause $ now ou give to mine.

  14. Steve


    You give an analysis couched in value-neutral terms focused on the pragmatic question of whether the Facebook gifting feature will be a commercial success. To me, the more interesting question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I am inclined to think it is a bad thing.

    Why should people have to pay money in order to show kindness and thoughtfulness. Some of the most precious gifts I have ever received were hand made artistic messages from people who were unable to purchase a gift commercially. The thought, love and caring that went into those gifts meant more to me than any amount of money they might have otherwise spent.

    And, they were in no way associated with “status games”, which I think was positive.

    (Yes, status games are a pervasive part of society, associated with gift giving among other things. I associate myself with the tradition that has been explicitly against that sort of thing for at least 2000 years.)

    I see the facebook gifting feature as nothing less than an attempt to put a price tag on love itself. (and an absurdly low one at that – but presumably that can be negotiated upward if the concept takes off.

    To paraphrase the Master Card Commercial – Nothing in the world is pricesless anymore. For everything at all, including every deep and profound human emotion – there’s e-commerce.

    Interested to hear your thoughts,


  15. zephoria

    Steve – my goal in this post is to analyze what people do and what they’re likely to do. In other words, it is intended to be value neutral. To properly address your concerns would require a critique of capitalism which is beyond the scope of this blogpost and not something that i’ve found a way to comfortably and simply do.

    Do not forget that time is also a commodity and it depends entirely on the giver/receiver as to which is worth more – money or time. Part of why most privileged folks i know value handmade gifts more is because they take time and emotional energy – two things that many of us are drained of. On the other hand, in working class culture, there’s a higher value on purchased artifacts precisely because that is the hard thing to do and you see many families going into obscene debt over Christmas just to be socially appropriate.

    I’m not a fan of contemporary capitalism but to bring that into the argument here would make many people glaze over another valid and needed critique.

  16. Steve


    I think I understand what you are saying here. And, I did sort of get, based on your expressions about commercialized holidays, that in your heart you’re not necessarily 100% onboard with that sort of program. And perhaps that was part of why I was disturbed enough to raise the issue. The thing that really got to me was when you were noting that to be effective they really should show who gifted whom first, in order to enable more effective status play.

    To use an analogy which is certainly much darker than the present issue, I get this image of a pacifist physicist with a morbid fascination with the details of nuclear device design, and he’s like “you guys will never get this thing to trigger right using this design. Now, look here – if you just tweak it like so….”

    And I’m surely not trying to pose as some standard of moral purity myself. I know the seductive joys of value free analysis from the inside. I get in moods where I can enjoy the armchair analysis of military conflict situations, almost like I was kibbitzing a chess game, with utter disregard for questions like which side I favor, or what was the human cost of the enterprise. Just analyze the game. Analyzing the game is fun. Player A should use this strategy – but player B could counter thus. etc.

    But on to more pleasant thoughts.

    Perhaps this would be an appropriate moment to speak of the most memorable person who ever gave me a non-commercial gift that touched my heart. Now to be fair, I should note that this individual touches my heart a lot, in many ways. But it’s also true that precisely the things about her character that would lead her to give out copies of one of her drawings as her Christmas gifts, are the things that cause me to think of her as “good people”.

    Now I’m glad you mentioned class as a factor in gifting styles. Because there are things you can say about this person’s class background which are interesting, and perhaps even a bit counterintuitive. (Although it turns out that I will be able to say less about class issues than I had expected, since a lot of the relevant family background simply cannot, in decency, be publicly discussed).

    So, let’s get names and some background for the actors in this story. Casey, the person who gave out her drawings for Christmas, was peobably about 16-17 when she did that. She’s perhaps 19-20 now. And, parentheticaly she and some of her friends were the first people I knew on MySpace, which was what caused me as an older adult to get a MySpace account so I could leave them comments. Casey’s mom is Sue, who passed away recently from breast cancer. I don’t think the depth of Casey’s humanity is understandable without considering Sue and her life struggle. (And, unfortunately, I am only going to be able to give a very limited and superficial account of that struggle, as I find, upon reflection, that most of the details that would give her story depth are simply not mine to speak about).

    Sue grew up in an abusive home and foster care (respect for the privacy of those involved won’t let me give details. But things were not good at all.) and married at a young age to a fellow who ran out on her as soon as she got pregnant. So she entered adulthood as a welfare mom. But, unlike many in that situation, she was diligent and dedicated to her kids and, although there is profound alcoholism in her family background, and she certainly enjoyed her beer, she never became a drunk, and never drank to the point where it would disrupt the stability of her home. She eventually had two more kids, of which Casey is the youngest.

    Now all the family of Sue’s generation are artistically talented in one way or another, and Sue expressed that through her sewing. She was always able to make nice looking clothes, or enhance stuff from the secondhand store. Eventually, when welfare reform forced her to get a day job, she became a professional seamstress for a local bridal shop, and she was very good at it. And, now that I think of it, Sue also was one to give handmade gifts. Another memorable Christmas present from years further back was a small Christmas basket held in the arms of a delightful stuffed elf figure.

    So, here’s Casey. Growing up in a poor home, but with a loving and creative mom, but also subjected to a lot of the chaos that seems to be a universal part of welfare mom lifestyle. And, somehow, she found her way through that to a profound strength of character. She told me once that she was perfectly able to say and do the right things to be accepted by the “cool” kids of her school, but chose not to, because those people were shallow and lacked depth. Nor did she hang with the “ghetto” kids. She made few friendships, but deep ones, and always with conscious thinking people.

    So, what does it mean when such a person chooses to give a handmade gift. On one level, it was simply a matter that if you have time and not money it’s easier to make than to buy. But, on another level, I really think that she was conscious that she would prefer to give something from her deepest true self rather than her superficial self. Rather than give a gift that might have come from anybody, she gave a gift that said “this is me”. (The piece in question is more self-portrait than not). I never asked her what thoughts went into that gift decision, but I never felt I needed to. Because I know who she is.

    And when I think of MySpace users I think of Casey and her friends. My notion is that these are “real” MySpace users that I can see and touch. And I use what I see of their relation to that medium as a (sometimes critical) counterpoint to the conclusions of scholars such as yourself.

    And, I find that I have given a limited and one-dimensional account, despite my original intention which was to immerse you in these people’s lives so you could see them as I have. But something is better than nothing, and perhaps I have conveyed some of the flavor of what I wanted to express.

    Thanks for listening,

  17. maiki

    I was sitting here thinking about what communications I value. I feel that most of the time I blog into the void, and wonder what it would be like to write on a political blog with all that interaction, even if it was heated discussion.

    I run a mailing list that started as an experiment to get a bunch of people that I know in contact with each other, many of whom have never met. It is a private list, no censorship, and is only invite only, but by anyone on the list, not just me. It is one of my primary tech thrills, I just love getting e-mails on the list.

    I am also obsessive-compulsive when it comes to metadata and filters, I love tweaking my junk filters and “fixing” my mp3 tags. So, I am beginning to realize the means by which I create my standards of enjoying the gifts of communication I receive. I work diligently to not see hundreds of spam messages so the only e-mail I get is from my friends (or more importantly, the list, since it feels like we are talking).

    I had never really thought about this part of gift economics in an interface, and am now realizing all kinds of ways that I use my computer in intentionally archaic ways so that I have rituals for my gifts. I openly despise Valentine’s Day, but I crave correspondence from a mailing list.

    This is just the beginning of my coincidence.

  18. Sage Brushire

    If someone bought a gift for me, I would find them in real life and slap the hell out of them. Then I would demand to have the dollar that they spent on me.

    If you’re going to waste a dollar on me, GIVE ME the dollar so I can spend it because I really don’t care one bit about an image that I could easily take from the website and stare at all day for absa-freaking-lutely free.

  19. Annie


    I am an older mom in Michigan. My teenagers were on Facebook and I made them let me look at both their accounts so I could see what was going on. Nothing too worrisome.

    I got an Facebook account so that I could easily distribute photos. I did not do it to snoop on the lives of my kids. They added me to their friends list so that we could work with the photo albums.

    I found your post about gift giving on Facebook because I wanted to know what was going on with it. I had no knowledge of the fact that you are an expert on social networking. (Do you know Carl Page?)

    I was amazed and discouraged that you seem to regard gift giving entirely as a status seeking or competitive activity. I give more gifts to people then anyone I know and it is because it makes ME happy. If a waitress admires my purse, I take the stuff out and give it to her. I have given away at least 5 purses.

    I gift loved ones, neighbors and total strangers. Sometimes the objects actually make people happy. Many times the gift is about the gesture, not the object. We don’t give each other enough attention. None of us do. Sometimes the gift shows that we are paying attention.

    Most of the gifts I give are cheap or free, but since I pay attention to what people like, they are always just what the person wanted, even if they didn’t know it. They know that I was paying attention and remembering things about them, which delights them.

    I could spend about ten minutes around you and then go out and get you something for under ten dollars that you would love and that would make you feel special. FACT.

    Not all gift giving is about the object and social climbing. Some of us just like to give stuff to other people.

    I have gifted my son on Facebook twice in 7 months. I gave him a slice of bacon and a lime jello mold. Was this a waste of money? No, because the gift meant that I love him and that we both have a weird sense of humor.
    It is hard for parents to stay connected with their teenagers and anything that will assist us to communicate and help them feel loved is worth a dollar once in a while.

    I appreciate the work you are doing and am glad that there are people trying to figure out the new world. My sons were born in 1990 and 1994 and were online by ages 3 and 1, respectively.

    They are the first generation of children to grow up online, so they are pioneers. I can relate, because I was in the first generation of woman who tried to “have it all”. Even 30 years later we haven’t got it right.

    Food for thought?

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