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Reddit plays global Secret Santa with strangers

By Eric Johnson | 24 Dec 2011

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A version of this article also ran on page A-1 of the the San Francisco Chronicle.

Since 2009, users of the social news site Reddit.com have exchanged anonymous gifts with people they don’t know. What began with 4,000 participants in the first year has ballooned to nearly 40,000 this year. (Photo: Eric Johnson/ Peninsula Press)

You might get a new video game, or you might get a stuffed purple unicorn. You might get an iPad, or you might wind up empty-handed. No matter the outcome, RedditGifts is quickly becoming a holiday tradition. It’s Secret Santa, but online and on steroids.

Since 2009, users of Reddit.com have exchanged anonymous gifts with people they don’t know, each receiving the name and physical address of another Redditor, as they are called. What began with more than 4,000 participants in the first year has ballooned to nearly 40,000, from 113 countries, this year.

“For a lot of people, this is their Christmas,” RedditGifts founder Dan McComas said. “This has become a lot of people’s one Christmas gift.”

Reddit is a social news site where users vote on links and discussion topics that others submit to the site’s thousands of sections, or “subreddits.” McComas began Reddit Secret Santa as a side project in AskReddit, one of the most popular sections.

The anonymity baked into Reddit’s design means that many Santas, as noted in a recent New York Times Bits column, “stalk” their giftees online, using Google, Facebook and other online tools to dig up not-obvious information that can help them buy or make better gifts. Last year, one Redditor found his giftee’s Facebook profile and painted him a “classy and sophisticated portrait” using his publicly visible photos.

At the end of the day, it’s the Santa’s decision to either reveal his or her identity to the giftee or leave it a secret. Is that initial research creepy? McComas waves off concerns by calling Redditors’ detective work a “kind-hearted kind of stalking.”

“We spend our entire days on the Internet,” McComas said. “It’s like 12 hours, 14 hours, something like that. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what is on the Internet about me. I would think that most people, when they sign up, think about what somebody’s gonna be able to find.”

Anonymity and Generosity
Being paired with a stranger, who might live down the street or across the globe, means not everyone is guaranteed to get a gift in the end. But the site encourages generosity and bans Santas who get but don’t give.

Redditors can fill out profiles on RedditGifts.com to help their secret santas determine what to give them. But the site also encourages santas "stalk" their giftees by doing independent research online.

“You don’t know this person, and so it’s just kind of a really fun idea,” said San Jose State graduate student May Nguyen, who first joined Reddit more than four years ago. “It’s fun to find out more about your ‘giftee’ and to put some thought into making another person’s day better.”

Secret Santa 2011 is Reddit’s 10th gift exchange in the past two years, and in that time, Redditors have continually demonstrated their generosity.

“Reddit is Reddit, and there’s nothing else like it,” said Mountain View Redditor Michelle Diederich. “I can’t say that there’s a sister or brother that I’ve made friends with on Reddit, but I can certainly say that that person gives me a desire to put a box together and make it really cool and make it happy.”

“When that person opens it, whoever they are, they’re gonna get that energy of just being loved for that moment,” Diederich said.

Besides the classy portrait, other generous gifts have included Kindles, iPads, electric guitars, digital cameras and $1,500 in cash. Early in this year’s exchange, a 24-year-old giftee from Atlanta who had been on Reddit fewer than two months received tickets for a four-day vacation to the Bahamas on Norwegian Cruise Line.

This year, the stakes for participation are higher than ever. Even before Reddit hired McComas and his wife Jessica as full-time employees in August, one of the site’s unpaid volunteers made setting a Guinness World Record his pet project for the year, McComas said.

The record won’t be official until the whole gift-swap process is finished and all the Santas are counted, but RedditGifts is practically guaranteed the record: Guinness has created a new category to recognize McComas’s efforts, “Largest Online Secret Santa Game.”

The Match Game
Because Redditors almost never know anything about their “giftees” at the start of the exchanges, visiting RedditGifts.com to find out their basic information on “match day” (held this year on Black Friday) is something of an event itself.

“I spent my Thanksgiving at a punk bar last night,” Redditor Meagan Tarantelli said in a video recorded on match day. “And I stayed out till seven in the morning. And the first thing I wanted to do when I woke up was find out who I got for Reddit.”

At Reddit headquarters in San Francisco, where a tiny staff oversees the 53rd most-popular website in the United States, even the site administrators can’t avoid being “stalked” by their Santas. Reddit General Manager Erik Martin said Redditors generally trend towards the nerdy and quirky in their gifts.

“My Secret Santa…detected that I had a dog and that I theorized that my dog would be good in the event of a zombie apocalypse,” he said. “So they got me a dog tag, with my address personalized, that says, ‘I fight zombies’ on it, and my dog wears that to this day.”

Martin said the Secret Santa exchanges put the Internet’s best face on display and could help buck some long-standing stereotypes about what a mostly anonymous online community can produce.

“I think there’s something kind of special about the Reddit community,” Martin said. “But I think this is kind of indicative of the overall Internet community. Often in the media, the Internet culture gets portrayed as ‘kids in their basement,’ and geeks and hackers and people who are socially disinterested and rude. But that’s totally not the case, and this is a great showcase of that.”

‘The Paper Clip Incident’
Despite all the good stories that have come out of RedditGifts, there have always been some Redditors since the beginning who are left disappointed by the results of the gift exchanges. In the four biggest exchanges so far—two for Christmas and two for “Arbitrary Day” (a made-up Reddit holiday)—nearly 16 percent of Redditors matched up with a giftee were left without a gift.

Dan McComas, the founder of RedditGifts, started the gift exchanges for fun in 2009. They proved so popular that, earlier this year, Reddit hired him to run them full-time. (Photo: Eric Johnson/ Peninsula Press)

And even when gifts arrive as planned, McComas said drama and debate about the gifts’ appropriateness or quality wind up in his inbox.

“People are just emotional around the holidays,” he said, standing in front of the shelves in his Alameda office dedicated to mechanical singing plush toys. “We get a lot of people that are upset, so when we get 200 emails in a day all complaining about the same thing, these [toys] are the things that get us through the day.”

Perhaps the most infamous story from Reddit Secret Santa is the “paper clips incident” from the first gift exchange, in December of 2009. Kyle Brady, then a computer science student at San Jose State, sent his giftee a quickly Photoshopped picture and four paper clips from his desk.

Brady said he intended to send a real gift afterwards as a follow-up to his initial “joke gift,” but changed his mind when his giftee complained about the red-and-green paper clips on Reddit.

“He could’ve come and found me, but he took it public immediately and whined about it in a very self-pitying sort of way,” Brady said. “And Reddit jumped on that and proceeded to persecute me.”

The site has been praised in the past for its ability to rally large numbers of people around social or political causes, but Brady said the “mob mentality” took over and made him feel unwelcome. His critics consistently maintained that his refusal to send a second gift after the paper clips was stubborn and uncaring.

Brady ultimately left the site “on principle” and changed his major at San Jose State to political science, partly due to his self-diagnosed inability to deal with the sort of people he had heard from on Reddit—the Silicon Valley “nerd crowd,” he said.

McComas declined to comment on the specifics of the paper clips incident, noting that “we are a large community and there are a wide range of experiences that happen within that community.”

“Kyle had a bad experience and I think we were able to learn from that experience and the community has been better for it,” McComas said in an email.

“Getting paper clips” has since become something of an in-joke or “meme” for RedditGifts users in the know, a fact Brady resents. Within a week of the upset post from Brady’s giftee, Redditors began receiving paper clips along with their other gifts.

Not every RedditGifts user walks away with an ideal present, but the Secret Santa exchanges do have one important thing in common with traditional Christmases: it’s the thought that counts.

“It’s just an interaction you don’t normally have,” Diederich said, adding that she was looking forward to finding something for her giftee with her family’s help. “I don’t think it’s the thing. It’s the energy you put behind it, just complete random kindness.”

Her husband, Dana Diederich, also a Redditor, said parts of the community would do things like Secret Santa even without the others’ encouragement.

“With such a large population coming together, even a small fraction of really altruistic people, like my wife, is a large set of people,” he said. “You will get those people who would’ve done it anyway, but someone who might be on the fence—they’re gonna do it, because it’s cool!”

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