Virtual Giving

By Shae Hadden | Bio

Usually we think of the inevitable convergence of technologies as being beneficial for the majority of people using them. Take the introduction of video to the internet, or the internet to the cell phone, for example. As soon as we discover something that works that people want, then the advertisers and marketers are on the bandwagon, looking for opportunities to sell within the new medium. What has me shaking my head today is the obvious marketing spin on ‘virtual gifts’, iconic symbols of items one might give to someone in appreciation or sympathy.

In the world of traditional video games and shared virtual experiences like Second Life and World of Warcraft, we find it possible to choose and/or create characters (avatars) and props to ‘play’ with.  All these exist as images (icons) on the computer screen. We can purchase or improve our status with real-world cash or by mastering our game. Though the on-screen images may resemble real-world items, their value is solely within the context of the game we are playing.

Social networking sites like Facebook and Eons have now made icons for what might be considered ‘gift items’ readily available to be shared among their members. Yet, even when gifts are offered for free on Facebook, the site makes money through advertising dollars. For example, the “Sex and the City” logos and “Wall-E” character images recently available to members were underwritten by the companies that produced these films. Instead of charging a nominal fee (some sites charge $1/icon), Eons combines the setup of a loyalty program with the philosophy of ‘giving’: they gives members credits for participating in their online community that can be used to send gifts to other Eons friends. Hang out here, invite your real-world friends to join, and you too can give to them online. Quick, easy, effortless.

Although it is admirable to express ourselves through gift-giving, we have to remember: the sentiments we express in giving these iconic gifts are ‘real’, but the gifts themselves are not.

Whatever happened to ‘real-world’ giving?

Call me old-fashioned. I value a real phone call, email or gift much more highly than a virtual gift. And I don’t want to spend my nights wondering whether some advertiser somewhere is making money off of the ‘free’ message of gratitude, affection or condolence that a friend just sent me online …. 

 © 2008 Shae Hadden. All rights reserved.