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What an MIT Sloan professor learned analyzing 1.5 million Facebook gifts

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From 2012 to 2014, a feature called Facebook Gifts allowed users to purchase and send digital gift cards to friends and family. In some cases, Facebook friends could see that activity.

Receiving a Facebook Gift made people 56 percent more likely to give a gift.

It may have been short-lived, but work by researchers at MIT Sloan, Cornell University, and Facebook found that people who received a gift through Facebook Gifts were 56 percent more likely to give a gift themselves.

“Nobody will disagree social influence matters, but the magnitude of how much it matters was surprising,” said study co-author René Kizilcec, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell University. “A third of the gifts could be attributed to social influence because they received one. That is a lot of gifts.”

The study, “Social Influence and Online Gift Giving” was co-authored by MIT Sloan assistant professor of marketing Dean Eckles. Among other insights, it found people 55 and older not only gave online gifts at a higher rate than younger givers, they also were more likely to give an online gift without first receiving one of their own. 

“You might expect the adoption of something like this would be shifted to young people, your traditional demographics of early adopters of some technology,” Eckles said. “But actually a lot of it is relatively older people, and part of that makes sense, because they’re giving to younger people, and they have these relationships where [they think] ‘Oh, I’m actually going to give this to a younger person, they’ll get it, they’ll be fine with receiving a gift on Facebook.’”

The researchers arrived at their conclusion by combing through more than 1.5 million birthday presents given through Facebook Gifts in 2013.

“If one were to redesign [Facebook Gifts] it would make sense to place emphasis on the cultivation of the norms around gift giving and showing people that is an acceptable practice,” Kizilcec said. “That people like you, friends of yours, people who you consider to share your values, are engaging in this behavior and are receiving positive reinforcement.”

Why older people were more likely to give gifts

One of the highlights for the researchers was the observation that exchanges tended to take place between people of the same age, except when it came to 50 to 60-year-olds; they gave gifts across a variety of ages.

That’s possibly because older people have developed friendships from different walks of life, as well as parent-child or grandparent-child relationships, the study found. They also likely have more money than younger users to spend on gifts.

Older users were also more likely to be “seeds:” people who gave gifts without first receiving one. 

According to the research, in a 30-day period after one’s birthday, 47 percent of gifts given by 18- to 24-year-olds were prompted by those same people receiving birthday gifts of their own. In contrast, 28 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds gave gifts after first receiving one.

Older users’ increased acceptance can be linked in part to the changing norms around online gift giving. People not only found it more acceptable to give an online gift, they appreciated it almost as much as giving a gift in person, Kizilcec said.Along with reviewing birthday gift exchanges — and gift giving in the days leading up to and right after users’ birthdays — the professors also surveyed 3,300 Facebook users. The survey allowed them to ask the users about their familiarity with the Gifts feature and their online gifting habits.

The researchers found that 66 percent of people who learned about Facebook Gifts through social means — such as seeing on Facebook that a friend had given a gift — felt as good about giving a gift online as they would giving a gift in person. But only 44 percent of people who learned about Gifts through a prompt from Facebook felt the same way.

Paying it forward, and social norms

Regardless of age, one of the biggest factors in determining the feature’s use was social influence.

What helped to drive that shifting norm, the researchers said, is the transparency of online giving. If you receive a gift online, or give a gift online, the giver and receiver’s mutual friends can often see that action taking place, and recognize it as an acceptable thing to do. “Gift giving is a fundamental part of social relationships,” Kizilcec said. “Giving gifts reinforces connections that we have with each other, and strengthening them in a way that few other behaviors do. It’s giving up something for somebody else. It’s an act of cooperation that makes both sides feel better.”

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