I want to expand on my previous post about Etsy Gifts. I’ve been thinking about this some more and I want to pose the argument that Etsy gifts is a mediocre gift suggestion system because it is based in structuralism, when the best gifts come from a phenomenological understanding of a persons lifeworld or a relationships fusion of horizons.

We’ve explored phenomenology over the course of this semester. Phenomenology as an approach to studying culture“stresses the role of the individual consciousness in understanding. Here understanding is either something that individuals do or something that happens to individuals :either way it is the product of specific, intentional, historically and spatially located individual awareness.” It “principally concerned with the elements of human experience” [1]. Barnard discusses how the interpreter as well as the artist (author) both have intentions. These intentions are the “beliefs, hopes, fears, and desires about the world and its contents an individual has at any one time.” [2]  These intentions are all different for each individual. They change and are dependent on an individual’s context. Each individual also has a lifeworld of their own; a set of horizons which are constructed through an individuals experiences.

Giving a gift is a phenomenological action because it requires the giver to interpret and understand the lifeworld of the gift receiver. This is wrapped in context, interpretation, subjective understanding of a person, and awareness of the other individual. If we related gift giving to Gadamaer’s explain of understanding in a hermeneutic perspective, it is a “mediation, a fusing of the horizons” [2].

Etsy gifts fails to take a phenomenological approach because it does not take into account that the computer doesn’t recognize the lifeworlds of me and Jeff. I am a student he is teacher. It doesn’t consider that he is male (earrings). It does not take into account that toilet paper with Obama’s face on it was not meant for someone who supports Obama. The application removes context from the item being presented, the meaning of a search term (supporting Obama vs not), and the relationship between the giver and receiver of the gift.

We’ve also discussed structuralism. Barnard discusses this in terms of the mind saying that the mind “operates in terms of categories. These categories, sets of distinctions and oppositions form structures. These structures may be used to understand the external world. Consequently, they may also be used to understand the culture that is itself using them. These categories, these structures, are not under the control of individuals. They are a product of mind, or consciousness, but they are not the products of individual minds or consciousness” [2]. Facebook uses these structures and categories to help users construct a profile or online identity of themselves. You can select if you are a part of the population that identifies themselves as a swimmer (or not), singer (or not), shopper (or not), etc.

A friend’s profile consists of terms that create an identity of themselves. What they are interested in or like, what they see as important to share and represent, etc. In a way, the actual creation of this profile is somewhat hermeneutic because they have determined what information is important to share or not. They have selected the language used to describe themselves. However, the profile itself is situated in a structuralist way through the links created by Facebook. Clicking on “swimming” will go to a swimming page which connects everyone in the “I like swimming” category. The same thing happens when an Etsy seller posts an item. They use “tags” to assign labels to each item. These tags categorize and group certain items together


It is this profile information that provides Etsy Gifts with the information for the gift recommendations. When Etsy Gifts gives a user recommendation, they use these categories of interests to search for items. Each interest just becomes a word or a phrase, but does not take other pieces of information into context. Barnard stated “These categories, these structures, are not under the control of individuals” but these structures have been created by developers of the Facebook API and the Etsy application. They have completely left out social context, and rather based the recommendations on word or phrases.

So, again, Etsy gifts is a mediocre gift suggestion system because it is based in structuralism, when the best gifts come from a phenomenological understanding of a persons lifeworld or a relationships fusion of horizons.

What improvements could be made to make this gifting application more phenomenological? Take context into consideration. Look not only for key search terms but also at the relationship between the friends, ages, gender, context of the terms (Obama example), etc.


[1] Dourish, Paul. (2001). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[2] Barnard, Malcolm. (2001). Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture. New York: Palgrave.