Etsy recently launched “Gift Ideas for Facebook Friends

http://www.etsy.com/gifts

Etsy.com describes the feature as follows:

“The Gift Ideas for Facebook Friends tool gives shopping for friends and family a new twist by connecting with Facebook to find gift ideas based on their public profile information. When you connect to Facebook using Gift Ideas, Etsy can suggest items to you related to the likes and interests of your Facebook friends.”

Great! I don’t have to work quite as hard coming up with Christmas gift ideas for Jeff! Let’s see what Etsy and Facebook suggested I get him:

etsy.com/gifts

Interesting, we have some nice accessories that relate to some class novels and embroidered toilet paper. Would I give any of these things to Jeff as a gift? Most likely not. This has not accomplished the task of making my Christmas shopping list easier to figure out.

Etsy Gifts, Netflix recommendations, Amazon recommendations, or other similar search and recommendation sites, all have a major issue. These features don’t have lifeworlds and can never have the context that we has humans have. These sites are built in a very structuralist way: does the key phrase “Barack Obama” appear in the title of an item on sale? Yes, put it in the results. No, don’t put it in the results. However, building search and recommendation results based on this binary opposition misses a lot of the key contexts. Someone who likes Barack Obama most likely won’t use toilet paper with his face on it — the connotations of that just don’t quite match up to real feelings about Mr. President.

Now as a shopper, I can look at these results and know that I’ve never seen Jeff in dangly earrings and he most likely won’t hang a crocheted Obama tapestry in his office as it would clash with his current decor. Because of my lifeworld and my interpretation of Jeff’s lifeworld, I can make a judgment on the appropriateness of a gift. This falls in line with the phenomenological perspective.

I want to take this one step further: how do we construct the identity of a person through applications like this? Jeff did his part by making a publicly available list of things he likes or is interests him:

This isn’t a holistic view of Jeff, but it is one that he constructed as a way to represent himself. This profile screen shot is only a fragment of Jeff. Etsy.com/gifts takes a fraction of this fragment by only displaying 11 of his many interests listed.

In modernism, the self is seen as static and unified where as in post-modernism the self is fragmented and is continually being constructed through remediation, appropriation, and construction of fragments. Initially, computers were designed for efficiency, and unity but as they become more ubiquitous, they have become “universal media machines” (Manovich) where information is fragmented and we must use them and our knowledge of culture to construct our understandings.

When one constructs an online profile, they pick fragments of who they are and post them online. There is a disconnect between who they are in a profile and who they are in real life. What I see on Etsy.com/gifts for Jeff does not do an accurate job of portraying the Jeff Bardzell that I know. Sharon Turkle wrote :

As we stand on the boundary between the real and the virtual, our experience recalls what the anthropologist Victor Turner termed a liminal moment, a moment of passage when new cultural symbols and meanings can emerge. Liminal moment are times of tension, extreme reactions, and great opportunity.

I don’t feel like etsy.com/gifts is using this liminal moment of self-identify as an opportunity. It isn’t exploiting the possibilities because it is stuck in its code, where ones identity, although initially constructed by themselves on facebook, has been distorted and reduced to a point where it doesn’t really grasp who a person is, what their interests are, or how to shop for them. Etsy.com/gifts doesn’t know that I am Jeff’s student, that I’ve never seen him with dangle earrings, and doesn’t know the connotations of toilet paper with someones face on it. It doesn’t know who Jeff is as a whole, or who I am as a whole, or any of that. Sure, it’s fun to play around with, but it doesn’t accomplish its intended  goal of finding gifts for someone.

Special thanks to Christian Briggs and his i310 material from Fall 2008, I hope I didn’t butcher it too much :)

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