Did Facebook Make People More Generous? How Tech Is Changing Gift-Giving

People get more presents than they used to. 

by James Dennin
Assembled festive gift bags for the holiday season
Unsplash /

An interesting study from last Spring suggests that, at least in one sense, Facebook may be making us more generous.

The (relatively) new paper, published back in March in the Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, examined the impact of technology on the cultural perceptions surrounding gift-giving. They started with raw data from 2013 about which people sent and received the Starbucks gift-cards Facebook suggested buying friends when it reminded you about their birthday, and then followed up with the recipients with a survey.

Studies about gift-giving abound, but they tend to be primarily anthropological and sociological in nature, explains Rene Kizilcec, a professor of information sciences at Cornell and one of the paper’s authors. This means that as far as technology’s impact goes, there were a lot of unanswered questions.

We know that technology makes giving presents easier, for example. From gift-cards to e-commerce, it is simply less work to get someone a present than it used to be. But, at least until Kizilcec’s team looked into it, we didn’t really know much more beyond that. If it’s too easy to give a gift, then, does the gift still mean as much? Fortunately, the answer, at least according to this study, is yes.

“Gifting is really bridging the digital divide,” Kizilcec tells Inverse. “It seems fine to people to receive a gift online and give back in person, and vice versa. It wasn’t that you felt compelled to give back in the same modality you received. This new tech is really getting integrated into one of the oldest human practices that exists.”

People like presents, and don't seem to care whether they're given in-person or online. 

Unsplash / Aaron Burden

There are some demographic differences that play out about how you’d expect they would. The longer someone’s been receiving in-person gifts from the people they love, the more likely they are to think that this is the right way to go about it. But the extent to which gift-giving has bridged this digital divide is still pretty striking. Kizilcec says that this is because online gifts both substitute for in-person gifts and complement them. Whether or not that gift could have been given in person is simply not as important. Interestingly, this may be a consequence of, or a manifestation of globalization. Kizilcec explains:

“It’s hard to give my friend in San Francisco a gift in person, but it’s still meaningful. It might be less meaningful than me flying to San Francisco, but we don’t expect that anymore,” he says. “We have globalized friendship networks now, so the expectation of someone showing up at your door is being reduced.”

In other words, technology both makes it easier to get someone a gift, and lowers that person’s expectations for what constitutes socially acceptable gift-giving. It’s a double-whammy, which leads to more gift-giving overall.

I think that’s nice. But the fact that giving gifts is easier, and that we’re probably getting more of them than we used to, doesn’t really answer the question of which gifts are better. Fortunately there’s some fun studies about that too. If you’re still working through your shopping list, keep a few things in mind:

Facebook may have amplified our capacity for generosity by prompting people to send one another presents. 


Don’t Buy Experiences (Unless They’re Lazy)

The cliche advice for buying presents is to “buy experiences, not things.” This advice sucks ass. Don’t make your presents work, people! When you do go for an experience-based gift, go for the time-saving ones. A babysitter for busy parents; a gift certificate to the local restaurant your friend eats at whenever they’re too busy to cook; a house-cleaning for a fellow slob. These gifts seem unglamorous, but they have a much bigger impact on the recipient’s happiness. You can trust me on this, they did a study.

Be More Practical

One of my favorite studies about gift giving (yes, I have favorite studies about gift giving, personal finance can be a dry beat) is a 2014 paper from the Journal of Consumer Research. They identified a crucial disconnect between the gift-giver and the receiver. When you get someone a present, you want a ‘wow’ factor. But the receiver doesn’t care about this wow factor at all, they just want something that they can use.

Embrace the Warm and Fuzzies

Besides the aggressively practical gift and the time-saving gift, some research suggests there’s a third unjustly underrated category of gift: the nostalgic one. A study at Carnegie Mellon looked into this question back in 2017, and found that gift givers tend to view sentimental presents, like a framed photograph, as a bigger risk than more consumer-oriented gifts, like a jersey from a person’s favorite sports team. But in fact, the opposite is true. Framed pictures, old letters, they break out the warm and fuzzies. That is the point of this whole exercise, no? So break out the (now digital) photo albums and get some stuff framed, people. And if it’s too late and you already bought all your back-up booze, there’s always next year.

This has been an adapted version of Strategy, a weekly rundown of the most pertinent financial, career, and lifestyle advice you’ll need to live your best life. I’m James Dennin, innovation editor at Inverse. If you’ve got money or career questions you’d like to see answered here, email me at — and pass on Strategy with this link!

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