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Gift guide update -- virtual goods and the world of billionaires

I’ve made some updates to my Better to Give than Receive Gift Guide for Christmas Eve.

In particular, to help understand the philosophy of the guide (which forbids cash and gift cards, among other things) I propose you imagine the world where you, and all those who you would give gifts to are billionaires. The reality is the money amount of gifts between adults is normally a blip in the annual budget, so reality is not too far from this hypothetical.

In this world of billionaires it’s immediately clear why you would not give cash, or gift cards, or easily ordered generic gifts, as the gift guide advises. They contain nothing of you, just your money. In a world where the money is unimportant, nothing is left.

The second new topic to discuss is virtual gifts, which can’t be given in the physical world. This includes coupons for services, and the growing market of codes for electronic goods like music, apps, e-books, software and the like.

The temptation to give these is strong. Frankly, if you felt moved to give me a book, I would not want you to give me the physical book. My shelves are overflowing. Nor a physical CD, in spite of the ability to personally give it.

This pulls us in two directions. One would be to say that these goods have now become not much more than gift cards, and as such they should be highly discouraged as gifts. Find something else.

Alternately, among the “manufactured” goods, books, music and their ilk can be a good way to express yourself in a gift, so long as you are giving them a book you recommend rather than a book you think they’ll like. As such, it’s important that what you give be a specific code only for that particular item. Not anything like an iTunes gift card. You’re not giving them money, you’re giving your care and consideration in picking something that signifies your relationship.

The makers of virtual goods perhaps should work hard at making them easier to give in a meaningful way. Some do provide a nice page with graphics and a custom message to be printed and given. For remote recipients, it’s much less practical to be physical like this. It would be nice if there were easy mechanisms to give virtual items directly to the accounts and devices of people without entering a long code. For security reasons you want them to confirm acceptance, and you want to have some actual token of exchange, but otherwise the ideal experience would be to give them a card that says, “I put this book on your e-reader” and a quick photo of the card (perhaps with QR code) imports it. A code which works with all readers, ideally — though they don’t all have cameras.