Surfing the Internet these days is like window shopping outside the greatest store ever created. Even if you’re not actively looking to buy something, you’re coming across things you could potentially buy, whether you’re checking out a neat Kickstarter project or trawling one of the web’s cool stuff aggregators like Pinterest or Svpply. So, in a time when our eyeballs gaze upon more cool products than ever before in human history, and one in which we’re connected to our friends and loved ones to an unprecedented degree, you have to ask yourself: Why are people still giving bad presents?
That’s what the people at Toast are wondering too. Their free iPhone app is a smartphone-age panacea to the bad gift, a solution that’s a bit more personal than the prevailing 21st-century standby of the Amazon gift card. In fact, their idea draws inspiration from Amazon’s other contribution to gift-giving as we now know it: the virtual wish list. Essentially, Toast lets you create lists of things you really want--be they specific products, like a new pair of Vans, or just general ideas, like a new houseplant--that your friends and family can reference when the occasion warrants. If your loved ones don’t have the app, you can still make sure they get the message by sharing your list via the web.
Travis Todd, one of Toast’s founders, told me that the app benefits both the person giving the gift and the one receiving it. His friends and family, he explained by way of example, "have a better gifting experience because they don’t have as much anxiety over what to get for me." And he, in turn, gets better gifts. The solution at work here is a pretty simple one; a wish list shifts the burden of "gift finding" from the giver to the recipient and fundamentally changes the timeline for when it takes place. Whereas before you had a friend scrambling to figure out a halfway decent present in the days leading up to the occasion, Toast makes that curation the year-round responsibility of the list’s author. "We’re trying to change completely the way people think about and participate in gifting," Todd says. It’s a lofty aim. But he thinks an app that alleviates some of that gift anxiety has a chance at realizing it.
Of course, a "wish list" app is not a whole lot different from any app on your phone that lets you keep notes on the stuff you want, and this is where Toast’s social component comes in. Users can "toast" their friends after they receive a gift, and in doing so friends earn "karma," a number that serves as a sort of "measure of generosity," as Todd describes it, on the app’s built-in social network. At this point, these components of the app seem a little bit secondary. But the idea behind them is an interesting one. Most people, I imagine, think of gift giving as an intimate exchange. But Todd calls it a "super powerful social experience." After all, in private, you thank someone; you only toast them when there are other people around.
Treating gifts as a more social property has the potential to introduce some new angles to whole endeavor. On one hand, it stands to let a wider circle of friends soak up the joy of a good gift. But it could also engender a sort of unspoken sense of competition; if you’ve got an app that shows you what everyone else got your friend for her birthday, you’re going to want to make sure your gift’s up to snuff as well. It’s sort of the same principle that leads to the public pile-on of wall posts every time a Facebook acquaintance’s birthday rolls around.
Frankly, having a feed that shows me every gift exchanged in my social circle seems like a potential source of anxiety I decidedly do not need in my life. But with a little tweak, I think, that feed could become an invaluable tool for old-school gift giving. If you give users the option to view the activity not just of friends but of everyone on the network, you’ve got yourself a handy little tool for discovering new gifts. One where you might find something your friend didn’t even know they wanted.
Check out Toast’s site for more info, or grab it for free from the iTunes App Store.
[Image: Parcel via Shutterstock]