Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Participation through Gifting: Pass It On


Last week, a coworker came in with a big smile on his face. When I asked what had happened, he explained that he had been the recipient of an act of tollbooth goodwill; the person in front of him in line had paid his toll.

This simple act, a $2.50 donation to the universe, is a gift. We've all received (and hopefully given) gifts from strangers before--the woman who lets you go to the bathroom first, the family that hands you some carnival tickets on their way out and your way in. We're suspicious of gifts given by corporations and organizations, casting a wary eye on the cheerful Red Bull guy or anyone handing out religious leaflets. But a gift given from one person to another, however small, feels magical.

Why discuss gifting on Museum 2.0? No, I'm not angling for a present. One of my greatest interests is the "participatory museum," in which there is substantive, unfacilitated visitor-to-visitor interaction. When I heard the tollbooth story, I started thinking about gifting as a model for participatory experiences in museums.

This post discusses participatory gifting in three parts: the why, the what, and finally, the how.

Why is gifting a model worth exploring?

  1. Gifting is a powerful game mechanic. In her fabulous presentation on game mechanics in functional environments, Amy Jo Kim lists "social exchange" as one of five key elements that make experiences sticky. These exchanges can be explicit (trades) or implicit (gifts). Why does Ebay email you a certificate to celebrate "your first positive feedback" on their site? Why do people pay a dollar to send each other virtual hot dogs and pinatas via Facebook? Giving and receiving gifts is a strong reason to come back to a site (whether virtual or real). Collect the e-card. Spend the certificate. And when the gifts are public, as on Facebook, the perception of the site as a "place of giving" serves both the individuals using the service and the site's image.
  2. Gifting makes you feel good. The University of British Columbia recently published a study in the journal Science demonstrating that people who give away a small amount of money in the form of a gift are happier than those who spend the same amount on themselves. One of the authors of the study commented, "This suggests that even making really small changes in how one spends money can make a difference for happiness." Often, when we think of stranger-to-stranger participatory experiences, we think of stressful events like elevator outages. It's hard to convince a museum or other institution that they should intentionally create stressful environments to encourage visitors to talk with each other. It's much more palatable to use something that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, like gifting, to get there.
  3. Gifting extends your message. If your kid gets his photo taken at the museum and can instantly "send that photo to grandma," two things happen. 1: kid gives gift to grandma (and both are happy). 2: museum brand leaves the walls and goes to grandma's house. When you give someone a brochure or take-home element in an exhibition, it ends up in the trash. But if you give them something to give to someone ELSE, then your content spreads, packaged in a bundle of goodwill.

OK, so gifting sounds good. What are its forms, and which are most effective?

Most gifting is personal, both in real life and on the web. I give my friend a cookie. My dad sends me a NYTimes article. Personal gifting makes for powerful participation because you are directly interacting with another individual. But it's small-scale and typically occurs between people with a pre-existing relationship. We aren't culturally comfortable giving gifts directly to perfect strangers.

Web 2.0 encourages a lot of semi-anonymous gifting. Whenever you review a restaurant on Yelp, post a video on YouTube, or heck, write a blog post, you are giving content to an unknown audience of other user/recipients. You're not recommending something to a specific stranger, so it lessens the ick factor. There's a lot of argument about whether the Web 2.0 gift economy exploits users, but the benefit for the content creators is a kind of fame and recognition. There's some participation among givers and receivers, but that participation most commonly takes the form of "in kind" actions. You gift the community a book review, I gift an overlapping community a music review.

Then there's anonymous gifting. My Hebrew school teachers told me this is the best kind because it's truly selfless, yada yada. That may be true. But when it comes to encouraging participation among givers and receivers, this kind of gift is low on the list. Whether you are writing checks to charities or sticking quarters in expired parking meters, you have only an abstract relationship with the other people involved in the transaction.

How can we improve on these models to becomes sites for participatory giving?

The real participatory power comes when we create a kind of hybrid model of facilitated or site-enabled giving. By serving as a safe barrier, websites, museums, and other venues can triangulate and match-make personal gifting, packing the punch of one-to-one giving without the ick factor of dealing with strangers.

This is where the tollbooth fits in. It would be extremely strange to walk up to someone's car window and offer them $2.50 for the toll. They might be offended. They might be suspicious. But by giving this gift through the toll booth operator, you shuttle the unsafe personal transaction through a safe transaction venue. It's semi-anonymous: the receiver can perceive the giver and his little blue Honda, but neither party is threatened by the requirement to actually engage with the other. And rather than impacting two people (giver and receiver), it impacts three (tollbooth operator).

The tollbooth enables personal giving between strangers and brings a third person into the experience. Arguably, three people who would never have met now get to share a nice experience and memory of generosity.

But we can take it even further. In the tollbooth case, it's up to the giver to take the initiative to pay for the person behind him or her. It's not a ready option that the tollbooth operator provides; in fact, in some cases it may take a bit of convincing to make this gift happen.

Sites that are serious about participatory giving don't leave all the work to the inspiration of the giver.

Here are some
key actions that encourage gifting:
  • provide "gift kits" that are easy and rewarding to assemble (e-cards, lanyards).
  • make it easy to send or share the gift.
  • make the gifts public so that others who are neither the giver nor recipient can bask in the glow of the giving experience and be encouraged to participate themselves. This is what Facebook does. I've also been to ice cream shops and bars that feature a "gift wall" of statements like "Ben buys Susie a pint" so you can pick up your free beer next time you visit. An interesting public version of the formerly private gift certificate.
  • find a way for givers and receivers to track the gift if it passes from hand to hand. This can be Web-enabled, like sites that track messages written on dollar bills via serial number. Or, it can be charmingly low-tech, like books with previous owners' names written in them.
  • thank the giver for giving, suggest to both giver and receiver that they give again.
How can you integrate facilitated gifting into your institution? Where have you seen it succeed (or fail)? Give us the semi-anonymous gift of your comment, and we'll respond with affection and interest!

2 comments, add yours!:

Christopher said...

The gift is so important to the social contract. And if someone is going to create a social space, than giving and exchange must be present.

While reading this post, I thought of Marcel Mauss's The Gift. Via Wikipedia:

"Mauss's essay focuses on the way that the exchange of objects between groups builds relationships between them. He argued that giving an object creates an inherent obligation on the receiver to reciprocate the gift. The resulting series of exchanges between groups thus provided one of the earliest forms of social solidarity used by humans."

Alan said...

Nina,
You write:
<< Then there's anonymous gifting. My Hebrew school teachers told me this is the best kind because it's truly selfless, yada yada. That may be true. But when it comes to encouraging participation among givers and receivers, this kind of gift is low on the list. ... >>

It's only low on the list if the focus is on making the gift giver feel warm & fuzzy. If the emphasis is on the gift recipient, then an anonymous gift preserves that person's sense of dignity & self-respect. A hungry person who receives an anonymously gifted free meal is grateful to... someone, anyone, everyone. He's grateful to the community; and the anonymous giver, if s/he is religious, knows that G-d knows about the gift -- and that is more than enough.

But if the hungry man knows the meal comes from, say, Nina, then he's also somehow beholden to Nina. The relationships can get weird & unbalanced real fast.

To sum up: Anonymous giving isn't "yada yada"; it's the highest form of giving because everyone wins.