Good Karma?

It used to be that remembering someone’s birthday was a big deal.  If you called someone up, sent them a nice card or an email, it meant something.  That’s because remembering someone’s birthday used to rely either on your memory or on trusty File-O-Fax (or similar).

Then Outlook came along, and things got easier.  Birthday reminders would pop up on your calendar, but there was still some friction in the system since it was up to you to input each birthday manually. And then we got Plaxo (remember Plaxo?), LinkedIn and Facebook, and it became impossible not to remember someone’s birthday.  Birthday reminders became ubiquitous, and the effort of writing a Facebook wall posts (“Happy b-day!!”) became as minimal as the effort that went in to remembering the birthday.  So it’s easy, but it’s not special.

The other day I downloaded Karma, an amazingly slick new mobile app that launched last month.  It takes things to a whole new level (you should download it to see for yourself).  Karma is all about making gift-giving easier, with an oh-so-smooth onboarding (you can give your first gift without entering credit card info OR a mailing address for the recipient), a seamless user interface and an intuitive user experience that just begs you to start giving gifts.  No wonder Kleiner and Sequoia led a $4.5 million round.

The most surprising, glimpse-of-the-future feature of Karma is that it can read and interpret your Facebook friends’ status updates.  So when I downloaded it, not only did it show me friends’ birthdays for the coming two weeks, the app also told me that I might want to send a gift to someone who was having a bad day – because it has seen that someone had replied to his Facebook status update saying “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Wow.  Talk about crazy.  So the app not only knows how old each of my friends is and their birthdays and anniversaries, it’s also able to interpret their updates and their friends’ updates to tell me (or anyone in their network) when they’re experiencing highs and lows in their lives.

That terrified me a little, but I’m betting that it will feel run-of-the-mill 18 months from now.   No doubt sometime in the distant future (say, 2014), we’ll each have a futuristic virtual assistant every bit as knowledgeable and proactive as the best executive assistant of 20 years ago – prompting us with a mood-sensing dashboard for the goings-on and well-being of all of our friends and business contacts, and allowing us to chime in, send a kind word or give a gift the push of a button (or maybe the blink of an eye).

The Karma app is kind of amazing, and this interview with founder Lee Linden gives a sense that they actually care about the interpersonal connections we could be making with the help of technology.

But the big, complicated irony here is that as our apps get more intelligent, as they evolve from pushing us people’s birthdays to sending us smart updates about what’s going on in their lives, we run the risk of opting out of doing the work it takes to really be connected to one another. I know the tools are just tools, but if gift-giving (in all senses) is about putting something real and personal into something that you do, does the exponential reduction in friction that these apps create actually make it harder to give real gifts?  When the app does all the work, does it elbow us out of the picture entirely?

The question isn’t “should this evolution happen?”  It’s happening just as much as journalism will soon be unrecognizable and self-publishing is becoming mainstream.  The question is how do we understand these changes and make the best of them?

The Karma app is cool, I bet it will catch on, but having this all in our hands puts the onus on us to make our actions more genuine, more thought-out, more personal – like a hand-written three-page letter in the era of 140 character updates.

It will be our job to put the friction back into the system.