PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The Web is terrible at offering gift advice. Consider this scenario: It's your sister-in-law's birthday in a couple of days. She's one of those super people who's always sending you gifts and cards. Wouldn't it be nice to get her something nice, too?
Yeah, but it's such a hassle. First, what does she like? You have no idea. You've heard she likes to read, but you're not sure what sort of books she's into. Well, maybe you could get her something you like? You love "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- what about getting her the first-season DVD set? But wait a second; lots of people can't stand Larry David. Or maybe she's a huge fan and already has the DVDs. You realize there are also social red lines here, too. She's your sister-in-law, so you want something friendly but not too intimate. You love "The League," too, but that show's raunchy, sexist banter might offend her ...
Maybe you're overthinking this. How about a nice box of chocolates? (She's probably not allergic, right?)
OK, but second problem. Do you have her address? You have an address -- but that was from a year ago. Is it still good? OK, maybe you can call your mom to ask. But then you'd have to talk to your mom. And anyway, her birthday is in two days; you'd have to spring for express shipping to get it there on time. This is becoming costly. Just then you get a call from a client and completely forget about the gift. (Epilogue: Your sister-in-law wins the Powerball and shortly thereafter dies from an allergic reaction to a Snickers bar. You are conspicuously absent from her will.)
Notice that none of this is quite the Web's fault. It's better to call it a first-world social problem -- the problem of giving nice gifts in a society where people are far-flung and loosely connected. But this is a problem that the Web, which exists to both sell things and connect people, should have solved long ago. Yet gift-giving has improved very little in the Web era. Amazon's Wish Lists, which were launched in 1999, are the biggest innovation I can think of, but they're only useful if your giftee is an Amazon shopper who maintains a list, which is a rare combination. The other major recent innovation is electronic gift cards, which are basically just another way to give cash.
Earlier this year, though, a startup called Karma launched a mobile app that I considered a breakthrough for gifting. The app alerted you to your friends' special occasions, recommended gifts they might like, took care of all the pesky gifting logistics, and, best of all, gave the giftee a sense of joy even before the thing arrived. Karma did a lot of this by plugging into the world's most-comprehensive repository of social relationships -- Facebook. It wasn't much of a surprise, then, when Facebook announced that it had acquired the small firm last spring.
The Karma team began working at Facebook on May 18, 2012 -- which happened to be the day that Facebook's stock went public. Lee Linden, Karma's 30-year-old co-founder, told me that the group skipped Facebook Bootcamp, a six-week orientation program that new engineers at the firm take to get up to speed with Facebook's technology. Instead, they got right to work on a new service, called Facebook Gifts, which is a version of Karma that's built into Facebook's mobile and desktop sites.
That service launched in September, and it's slowly rolling out to Facebook's users. Facebook Gifts is a work in progress, but in my experience, it's the best way to give gifts on the Web today. It's also a perfect synthesis of Facebook's grander business aims -- to combine social relationships and commerce in a way that's profitable for the company and not annoying for users. It has the potential to become something more, too: a solution to the world's gifting woes, a way to quickly, easily, and thoughtfully make the people around you feel like you care.
Last week, I bought a gift for my wife using the service. I cajoled her into buying me one, too, so that I could experience Facebook Gifts from both sides of the transaction. I found the whole thing fantastically easy. More than that, though, it felt special -- even though the situation was self-engineered, when I got the gift in the mail, I felt like my wife had put a lot of thought into the process.
If you have access to Gifts, you'll see small links for it all over Facebook -- for instance, under announcements of your friend's birthday, you can click, "Give him a gift." You can also just go to anyone's page and click the gift button. Do that and you'll see a pop-up menu of potential presents for your giftee. Facebook has signed up more than 200 large and small merchants to source its gifts. They range from the generic (Starbucks and iTunes gift cards) to the helpful (a ride in an Uber cab) to the artisanal (my wife bought me Grady's Cold Brew iced-coffee concentrate, made by a small Brooklyn firm) to the quirky (a kitchen apron you can doodle on). Gifts range from $5 all the way to hundreds, not including shipping and tax.
The service recommends a handful of gifts that your recipient might like, but it also lets you choose anything from its catalog. Choose something, pick a digital greeting card to go along with your gift, and then add a nice note. If you've never given a gift on Facebook before, you've got to enter your payment details, too. You can also decide whether you'd like your gift to be announced on your recipient's Facebook Timeline. Then press send.
• Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology reporter.