How Facebook Has Revolutionized Gift-Giving on the Web

What to eat, drink, buy, and think during that special time of year
Dec. 6 2012 5:06 PM

Gifts That Say You (Kind of) Really Care

How Facebook has revolutionized gift-giving on the Web.

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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.)

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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.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.