Facebook now prodding us to give gifts – A good idea?

A new thing is happening on Facebook. When you “like” something, Facebook can detect that it is a celebratory event, and show you something like the following:

facebook gift suggestion

I saw that for a friend announcing his marriage. When a different friend posted about getting tenure, Facebook suggested I give a $3-5 Starbucks gift card.

When you go to the profile page of someone who has one of these events, here’s what the bottom corner of their picture looks like:

facebook give gift

A quick Google search reveals the back story: Facebook bought a gift giving startup company called Karma, and now use natural language processing to detect events that are likely to be of significance, and uses them as a cue to suggest gifts. Facebook apparently doesn’t expect to make any real money off this in 2013, but I’m more interested in whether this is good for consumers or not.

Pros:

Research suggests that people can be happier when they spend money on other people than when they spend it on themselves. Giving gifts can provoke unusually strong warm and fuzzy feelings.

Research has also shown that people become far more likely to do things when you make it easier for them – that might sound obvious, but it can be surprising how powerful. For instance, Work on school cafeterias suggests that you can sometimes increase the uptake of white milk by over 40% simply by placing it as the first item in line. Similarly, the intake of fruit can as much as double simply by moving them to more accessible areas, and  highlighting them better. Given that small nudges can have such powerful effects, then it might be a pretty good thing if we are nudged in directions that potentially make us happier.

Cons:

The obvious risks are with increasing yet further the commercialization of our lives, and the potential for creating feelings of obligation to purchase.

Every November-through-December we are deluged, not just in saccharine jingles, jolly sales displays, and forced merriment, but also in a tide of complaints about how the true meaning of the winter holiday season is being submerged beneath saccharine jingles, jolly sales displays, and forced merriment. The root of these complaints may lie (at least partly) in an overly rosy view of a lightly fictionalized past, but the raw volume of commercial hubbub has become incredibly loud and omnipresent in recent years. Winter sales form such a large portion of retailers yearly turnover, that they are motivated to push them as strongly as possible, and push they do. Facebook’s new move may help to place even more of the milestones of our lives under the chattering weight of a thousand brands.

While we often enjoy giving thoughtful gift, it can become a mirthless, even stressful, grind when we feel obliged to give. Gifts prompted by Facebook are likely to lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum that is anchored at one end by  joyful masterpieces of sentiment, and at the other by the cockle-deadening frustration of a fruitless pre-birthday mall-trawl. That said, one suspects their bias would lie somewhere towards the latter, less salubrious, end. You already hear anecdotal evidence of people feeling pressured to click the “like” button on all the good news events that come through their Facebook News Feeds, and this could serve to exaggerate that further, sending it from potentially unsettling to costly.

Bottom Line:

We won’t really know how this new feature plays out until we see it happen. My personal subjective feeling, though, is that this way of making it easy to buy gifts at suitable moments is probably somewhere between good and harmless.

I am not so fond, though, of Facebook’s current (at the time of writing) format of pushing a specific product as the first visible thing to click on. I can guess why they do it – they surely receive a cut of the resulting sales, and the easier they make it the more sales they will get – but I don’t like two things about it.

  1. It makes the happy occasion feel branded, which contributes to a feeling of omnipresent commercialization.
  2. It robs the gesture of meaning. As the old  cliche reminds us,  it is the thought that counts with gifts. Prompting good behaviour is well and good, but a gift devoid of thought is not really a gift at all. A nudge to give could be useful, and removing the bureaucratic hassles of delivery is wonderful, but let the prompt connect me to a real set of choices. Demand of me at least a little thoughtfulness, and then perhaps the recipient and I can feel that we have done something at least a little meaningful together.
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