Algorithmic Gift Giving Not As Magical As You'd Hope

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sake set.jpg

I'm a big fan of Hunch.com, a site that provides personalized recommendations for all kinds of stuff based on your answers to a series of questions. So, based on questions like, "Do you find clowns scary?" the site deduces that I would really like Mark Twain and Dogfish Head Brewery beer, which I do. The whole process can feel sort of magical, as if the software knows you.

So, I was very excited when a Twitter acquaintance pointed out that Gifts.com allowed you to run Hunch for someone else. You log-in with your Facebook account, pick out a friend, and start answering questions based on your knowledge of them.

As you answer questions like "Does Salvador L. Madrigal [my dad] tend to: A) Go with the flow B) Paddle against the current?" gift choices show up in the left pane. As you answer more questions, the site's "confidence level" in its recommendations slowly climbs to 100%.

But I have to tell you: the magic gift oracle doesn't work. At least not for me and my friends and family.

It seems like Hunch ends up recommending a set of sake cups for everyone I put into the system. Dad? Yup, he'd like one. Girlfriend? Her, too. Best friend? Of course! Everyone I know also wants a "laptop caddy," Hunch says with 100% confidence.

The real problem, it seems, is that Hunch's algorithm is more sophisticated than Gifts.com's stuff selection. The universe of gifts dominates the software's ability to find good presents within it. To be a little unfair to Gifts.com, it's like being taken shopping at Spatula City with the world's most sophisticated personal shopper. At the end of the day, you still end up with a spatula.

That's why I'm still a big fan of small, offline retail stores for gift purchases. If you go into a well-curated place like. say, Gravel and Gold in San Francisco, it would take an anti-miracle to purchase something that wasn't better and more interesting for my girlfriend than a sake set.

Via GigaOm; H/t @Mgkarayan.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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