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February 13, 2007

Facebook's little digital gift

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Posted by danah boyd

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.

(See Apophenia for comments)

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