Gifts That Say You (Kind of) Really Care

How Facebook has revolutionized gift-giving on the Web.

Facebook gifts
Facebook gifts

Screenshot via Facebook.

The Web is terrible at offering gift advice. Consider this scenario: It’s your sister-in-law’s birthday in a couple of days. She’s one of those super people who’s always sending you gifts and cards. Wouldn’t it be nice to get her something nice, too?

Yeah, but it’s such a hassle. First, what does she like? You have no idea. You’ve heard she likes to read, but you’re not sure what sort of books she’s into. Well, maybe you could get her something you like? You love Curb Your Enthusiasm—what about getting her the first-season DVD set? But wait a second; lots of people can’t stand Larry David. Or maybe she’s a huge fan and already has the DVDs. You realize there are also social red lines here, too. She’s your sister-in-law, so you want something friendly but not too intimate. You love The League, too, but that show’s raunchy, sexist banter might offend her …

Maybe you’re overthinking this. How about a nice box of chocolates? (She’s probably not allergic, right?) OK, but second problem. Do you have her address? You have an address—but that was from a year ago. Is it still good? OK, maybe you can call your mom to ask. But then you’d have to talk to your mom. And anyway, her birthday is in two days; you’d have to spring for express shipping to get it there on time. This is becoming costly. Just then you get a call from a client and completely forget about the gift. (Epilogue: Your sister-in-law wins the Powerball and shortly thereafter dies from an allergic reaction to a Snickers bar. You are conspicuously absent from her will.)

Notice that none of this is quite the Web’s fault. It’s better to call it a first-world social problem—the problem of giving nice gifts in a society where people are far-flung and loosely connected. But this is a problem that the Web, which exists to both sell things and connect people, should have solved long ago. Yet gift-giving has improved very little in the Web era. Amazon’s Wish Lists, which were launched in 1999, are the biggest innovation I can think of, but they’re only useful if your giftee is an Amazon shopper who maintains a list, which is a rare combination. The other major recent innovation is electronic gift cards, which are basically just another way to give cash.

Earlier this year, though, a startup called Karma launched a mobile app that I considered a breakthrough for gifting. The app alerted you to your friends’ special occasions, recommended gifts they might like, took care of all the pesky gifting logistics, and, best of all, gave the giftee a sense of joy even before the thing arrived. Karma did a lot of this by plugging into the world’s most-comprehensive repository of social relationships—Facebook. It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, when Facebook announced that it had acquired the small firm last spring.

The Karma team began working at Facebook on May 18, 2012—which happened to be the day that Facebook’s stock went public. Lee Linden, Karma’s 30-year-old co-founder, told me that the group skipped Facebook Bootcamp, a six-week orientation program that new engineers at the firm take to get up to speed with Facebook’s technology. Instead, they got right to work on a new service, called Facebook Gifts, which is a version of Karma that’s built into Facebook’s mobile and desktop sites.

That service launched in September, and it’s slowly rolling out to Facebook’s users. (At the moment, a mere “tens of millions of people” have access, Linden says.) Facebook Gifts is a work in progress, but in my experience, it’s the best way to give gifts on the Web today. It’s also a perfect synthesis of Facebook’s grander business aims—to combine social relationships and commerce in a way that’s profitable for the company and not annoying for users. It has the potential to become something more, too: a solution to the world’s gifting woes, a way to quickly, easily, and thoughtfully make the people around you feel like you care.

Last week, I bought a gift for my wife using the service. I cajoled her into buying me one, too, so that I could experience Facebook Gifts from both sides of the transaction. I found the whole thing fantastically easy. More than that, though, it felt special—even though the situation was self-engineered, when I got the gift in the mail yesterday, I felt like my wife had put a lot of thought into the process.

If you have access to Gifts, you’ll see small links for it all over Facebook—for instance, under announcements of your friend’s birthday, you can click, “Give him a gift.” You can also just go to anyone’s page and click the gift button. Do that and you’ll see a pop-up menu of potential presents for your giftee. Facebook has signed up more than 200 large and small merchants to source its gifts. They range from the generic (Starbucks and iTunes gift cards) to the helpful (a ride in an Uber cab) to the artisanal (my wife bought me Grady’s Cold Brew iced-coffee concentrate, made by a small Brooklyn firm) to the quirky (a kitchen apron you can doodle on). Gifts range from $5 all the way to hundreds, not including shipping and tax. The service recommends a handful of gifts that your recipient might like, but it also lets you choose anything from its catalog. Choose something, pick a digital greeting card to go along with your gift, and then add a nice note. If you’ve never given a gift on Facebook before, you’ve got to enter your payment details, too. You can also decide whether or not you’d like your gift to be announced on your recipient’s Facebook Timeline. Then press send.

Now your friend immediately gets a notice that she’s received a gift. She clicks or taps on it, gets your snazzy digital greeting card, and then sees what you bought her. The item itself usually arrives in three to five days. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Digital greeting cards are cheesy. You’re right. But that’s only because they’re usually empty; they say it’s the thought that counts, and pressing a few buttons on the Web to congratulate someone is nearly mindless. (That’s also why the mindless rush to write “Happy Birthday!” when Facebook alerts you that it’s some random person’s special day is, to quote Slate editor David Plotz, “a symbol of all that is irritating about the social network.”)

But the digital greeting card that comes along with a Facebook Gift is different. Because it carries news of an impending real-life gift, the card feels special and substantial. Yes, the gift might arrive a few days after your birthday, but at least you know that your pal is thinking about you right this minute. You feel a connection across space, and it’s not the least bit cheesy.

There’s something else that’s magical about Facebook Gifts. Say your recipient doesn’t like your gift. You bought her a box of chocolates, and she’s allergic. Or maybe you purchased a jumper for her baby, but you chose the wrong size. Facebook Gifts allows her to adjust your gift to her preferences, and you remain none the wiser—she can choose the right size, a more appropriate color, or even swap your gift for something else entirely. Facebook shows her a menu of other gifts that are similarly priced, and she can pick anything she likes. And, finally, she’s the one who enters the address she’d like the gift shipped to. You, as the sender, don’t need to call your mom to ask for your Aunt Bertha’s ZIP code.

In many ways, Facebook Gifts represents a completely new path for the company. It’s the first time Facebook is selling physical products, for one thing, and the Karma team had to do a lot of work to make sure its system can scale to Facebook’s huge user base. The Gifts team’s software plugs right into its merchants’ ordering systems. Many of the companies that work with Facebook ship their goods directly to end users, but Linden says that Facebook leased its own warehouse to stock and ship gifts from some of its smaller merchant partners. Gifts is also one of the few services at Facebook that requires a customer service department. When your gift arrives, it bears a packing slip from Facebook, not the third-party merchant; if you have a problem with your order, you email or call Facebook’s helpline. (One bummer, though: The gifts aren’t gift-wrapped. My coffee came in a U.S. Postal Service box and the box of caramels I bought my wife came in a plain white box. Both had a Facebook sticker on them.)

At the moment there are two major problems with Facebook Gifts. First, there’s limited selection. In order to be truly useful, I’d need to be able to choose from items made by thousands of firms, not just a couple hundred. Linden concurred; he says expanding the number of available gifts is one of the team’s main priorities.

The second problem is that Facebook Gift’s recommendation engine isn’t very good. Right now, when suggesting a gift, the service only takes into account your recipient’s most generic demographic information—age, sex, location. Among the top gifts recommended for my wife were toys for cats and dogs, but we don’t have any pets. When I pointed this out to Linden, he smiled and—without telling me when or how the company would improve recommendations—he suggested that it was the firm’s next big areas of focus. “Ultimately we do think recommendations are important,” he said. “We want to help people find products that resonate.”

If the Facebook Gifts team gets recommendations right, it will become a really wonderful thing. A few firms have already tried using social-networking data for recommending gifts; the best of these is Wal-Mart, whose recommendation app, called ShopyCat, combs through your friends’ Facebook profiles to figure out what they might like. But with all of the data that Facebook has on us, it’s natural to expect that the social network itself could come up with much better gift ideas. In a few years’ time, perhaps, shopping for the holidays may be something you can do in a half-hour’s time—click on each of your relatives, choose what Facebook tells you they’re sure to love, press Give, and get on with the rest of your day.