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Virtual birthdays and gifts seldom given

Blake J. Graham | Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Birthdays are the quintessential unit of social interaction on Facebook. From the beginning of Facebook time, birthdays have been prominently displayed, and ever since it’s practically been law that you respect the birthday and always pay your dues. In a way, it’s the most basic form of virtual commerce on the site. Whenever a birthday rolls around, we essentially throw our hands up in the air and think, I don’t really know this person, but I appreciate him letting me look at his photos and friends and statuses – essentially peer into the fabric of his social identity – so I should probably wish them a happy birthday so I can keep looking at his photos and friends and statuses for the next year.

It’s this type of behavior that makes Facebook work, and it represents the last stronghold of manners on the social web. Now Facebook is trying to ruin it by making the entire social mirage startlingly real. On Sept. 27, Facebook announced Facebook Gifts and the death of the virtual and benign birthday.

In May, right after its IPO, Facebook purchased a small social-commerce company called Karma for a cool $80 million. The Karma app, which only launched in February, connected to Facebook to pull information about your friends and recommend gifts for them. If it was, say, Suzie’s birthday, Karma would pull Suzie’s profile see she liked One Direction, Arrested Development, Planet Earth and Huey Lewis and the News. From that it would recommend something else Suzie would want, e.g. a season of BBC television show The IT Crowd. You’d then spend your hard-earned money on a completely lazy gift for your dear friend. She’d receive a notification and be asked to enter her shipping information, and the gift would arrive at her door. Facebook saw this as the perfect opportunity to waltz into the e-commerce market and potentially make some money.

This isn’t the first time Facebook tried to get into the gifting market. In 2007, Facebook launched an initiative to sell what was ostensibly digital garbage. The program, which allowed you to pay $1 to put a troll avatar on your friend’s wall, was such a failure that Facebook seldom mentions it.

The new Gifts allows you to search through a collection of physical goods from things like sunglasses to Starbucks cards and cupcakes and send them to someone on Facebook much like Karma originally did.

The problem is Facebook (or more accurately, Facebook investors) really want to see this work so Facebook can start actually generating the cash it needs to in order to maintain its astronomical valuation. This means that in the future, gifts will be completely and totally in your face wherever you go on the site. Some users have already reported that the quick option to write on someone’s timeline for his birthday has been replaced with “give him a gift.”

The net benefit for Facebook could be massive. If someone has 1000 friends and 300 would normally post on his wall for his birthday, maybe they can convince one – just one – to buy the birthday boy a present through Facebook. If this happens to all Facebook users, that’s nearly a billion gifts every year. Even a miniscule fraction of that would be an incredible success. But when a company really wants to push that type of conversion, the cost is always its customers’ tolerance.

Facebook will be mining personal data harder than ever while simultaneously attempting to expand their gift options. The ideal result is that Facebook can recommend the perfect gift every time – mind you all of someone’s friends will also have access to Facebook’s perfect gift. Gifts will take priority over the casual “happy birthday” post and therefore threaten the glue holding mutually assured friendship together.

Facebook wants the unit of commerce underlying the reciprocated Facebook friendship to be gifts and no longer just a simple wall post. The problem is many users don’t know their Facebook friends as people, but rather as a collection of information – I’d like someone with 1000+ friends to attempt seriously to tell me otherwise. Gift giving is a particularly intimate thing, even if the version of it present in Facebook Gifts is severely malformed, lazy and desensitized. Gifts are meant to embody thought and caring and act not just as a good to interchange but as a symbol of the mutual affection and respect that builds friendships and makes them last. It’s hard to imagine someone who normally buys a gift for a close friend to now defer to Facebook in hope of finding the right thing. And it’s equally unlikely that the Facebook stranger will now start buying gifts for those he or she only appreciates as an amalgamation of data. In one swoop, Facebook is now challenging the merits of both substantial and virtual birthdays.

Blake J. Graham is a sophomore. He can be reached on Twitter @BlakeGraham or at bgraham2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.