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12.19.10

The Biggest Secret Santa Gift Exchange in the World

What began as a fleeting idea for a holiday gift exchange for users of the website Reddit has ballooned to 17,000 participants in 90 countries. Brian Ries talks to the Secret Santa's founder, hears about the wacky presents—and finds out what happens to those left giftless. PLUS, see pictures of bacon-themed holiday gifts, a Reddit obsession.

For thousands of denizens of the social news website Reddit.com, the North Pole is in a tiny town just across the bay from San Francisco, in the home of a computer programmer named Dan McComas.

It is there that the father of two runs the world’s largest Secret Santa gift exchange, where 17,000 members representing 90 countries are now swapping gifts with total strangers.

McComas was working on freelance projects at Christmastime last year when he first had the idea for a holiday gift exchange for Redditors. It was fleeting, but he posted the idea on the popular site, asking if anyone was interested.

The response was overwhelming.

Within the first hour, a few hundred people had left comments in the thread expressing support. By midday, there were hundreds more. But they faced one problem. The complexities of a large-scale gift exchange could never be maintained by one man and a spreadsheet. They would need a system to administer the exchange.

So Dan McComas did what Dan McComas does best: The web programmer built a website. By Christmas, the site, RedditGifts.com, had registered 4,500 users in a Secret Santa gift exchange of massive proportions. It was promptly declared the largest ever—a title it held until this year, when it broke its own record.

2010’s Secret Santa has grown fourfold over last year’s. The group considered calling Guinness World Records to confirm the feat, but the records-keeping organization charges between $5,000 and $8,000 for an official adjudication.

After spending all that time on his own gift for a stranger, Seth received his present in the mail. He found himself glaring at a USB-powered refrigerator that can fit, at most, a can of Red Bull.

That’s not worth it, they say. This isn’t about setting records. RedditGifts is for spreading happiness.

Seth was in a giving mood this year when he decided to sign up. He’s one of the original “big names” on the site and asked I not use his last name due to the fact he’s so well-known (”a blessing and a curse”).

For his gift, he built a Reddit-themed infinity mirror, a 5-inch-by-7-inch wall of glass and light that looks like something people might have used to snort cocaine in the ’70s, he explains. As Seth worked on his mirror, he helped a recently imprisoned friend take part in the exchange too. He printed out the profile picture of his friend’s assignee and mailed it to the prison. The jailed Redditor then drew a picture of the photograph he received using red and blue Kool Aid as dye, provisions bought from the commissary after 20 to 25 hours of labor at $.20-$.25 an hour.

This gifts are impressive, but not all that unexpected. “It’s just something where people put in an extra amount of effort because they want to be a part of a community,” says Seth.

“There’s so much niceness going on, so many people giving thoughtful things to strangers,” adds McComas, who a year later still administers the website, with a major assist from his wife, Jessica Moreno. The stay-at-home mom handles all the customer service inquiries, while McComas maintains the code. “It’s crazy, a full-time side project,” he acknowledges. “A crazy labor of love.”

It’s taken McComas and his wife “hundreds and hundreds of hours” to get RedditGifts where it is today. They make no money, having pulled the Amazon-affiliated ads briefly had on the site. A donation form on-site has brought in nearly $2,000 to date, but that goes to the PTA at the McComas' children’s school.

In the past two weeks, the site’s attracted more than 500,000 visitors, who have racked up 5 million page views. It’s all hosted on one web server, making the operation a tad difficult to maintain.

“I’m sure it sucks down a lot of his time,” says Seth. “I think it’s more than a labor of love.” He believes that it’s not just the Christmas spirit that is driving McComas, and the community at large.

“It’s not about money, it’s not about glory, it’s about, ‘I did this, I made this, this is who I am,' ” says Seth. “And it’s something to be proud of.”

McComas readily attributes RedditGifts’ success to the passionate community involved through Reddit. Whenever he’s crushed for time, all he has to do is ping the crowd: Can anyone help with copywriting? Can somebody help send a few hundred emails?

“The thing that I’ve noticed about Reddit,” says Barbara Hallock, herself a two-year user participating in her second RedditGifts’ Secret Santa, “is that Reddit as a community really likes taking things offline.”

It’s not always a perfect system.

After spending all that time on his own gift for a stranger, Seth received his present in the mail just the other day. Opening the package, he found himself glaring at a USB-powered refrigerator that can fit, at most, a can of Red Bull.

That’s what his Secret Santa figured Seth really needed, he sarcastically told me, after presumably going back through Seth’s commenting history to build a picture of what he might have liked for Christmas.

“That’s a really cute idea and I appreciate the sentiment behind it, but it’s not exactly something I need,” Seth explains. But such is the challenge in giving thoughtful gifts to total strangers. If you put too much thought behind it, you may come off as a bit of a creep. If you don’t put much at all, you’ll wind up shipping USB-powered kitchen appliances.

Hallock’s assigned recipient posed a challenge. There was little to be gleaned from the “disparaging comments towards other people” that he had left on the site, she says.

“I definitely got a troll,” she says. “I thought about it for a while and briefly considered getting a ‘trolly’ gift, but then I thought, ‘You know what? No, that’s not what this is about.'” Barbara ultimately decided on sending the book Getting Started with Arduino, a how-to guide for a popular do-it-yourself electronics prototyping platform.

This year’s gifting range is as wide as can be imagined. There are mystery boxes, stuffed with items unknown, to be opened only on Christmas morning. Attire featuring Reddit’s alien mascot is popular.

This being the Internet, there seems to be an ongoing affinity for bacon. A quick perusal through the posted gifts gallery revealed everything from bacon pillows, bacon soap, bacon candy, bacon mints, bacon chapstick, and bacon popcorn, to bacon-flavored lollipops, bacon air fresheners, bacon jelly beans, a bacon wallet, a bacon scarf, bacon dental floss, bacon gumballs, and just plain smoked bacon. In a sense, it’s been, a minor stimulus for the bacon-related gag gift economy.

Want proof?

“Bacon sales are definitely up this year,” says Shane Peterman, PR manager at ThinkGeek, an online store that sells a slew of bacon-related products. He says the uptick is likely related to the company’s diversification in bacon-related offerings, but adds that a small percentage of overall sales could very well be due to Reddit’s obsession with pig products.

On the flip side, one member received an Apple gift card worth more than $1,000. Another received a 50-inch high-definition TV.

McComas is intrigued by all the weird social dynamics that go on when people are compelled to give a nice gift to a stranger. “What inspires you to sign up and give someone $1,300 on an Apple gift card?” he asks. “That’s insane!”

“It’s not about what crap I’m going to get, it’s about what crap can I give, because that’s so much more fun,” adds Seth. “If you’re like ‘I want something free from the Internet,’ you’re going to be disappointed.”

The unlucky few who get what users call “The Shaft,” or no gifts at all, are thrown back into a pool with other jilted givers and rematched. The community leaves no man behind.

After last Christmas’s Santa exchange, Redditors just couldn’t wait until this year to do it again. To overcome this minor inconvenience, they invented a holiday. Arbitrary Day now falls halfway between Christmases on June 25, existing simply as “an awesome excuse for strangers to mail each other presents, and then talk about it on the Internet.” Like the Secret Santa exchanges, it’s nondenominational.

Looking ahead, McComas hopes to make RedditGifts into a year-round exchange by focusing on interest-specific subcategories of Reddit. For instance, there might be Secret Santa-style gift exchanges for people interested primarily in books. The community for marijuana, a subreddit known as “Trees,” might be one of his first pilots.

Administrators interested in guns even reached out expressing a hope of a Secret Santa-style exchange for gun-related items.

“I have no idea how that would work,” Dan says. “I’ve never actually been to the subreddit, but I think it’s really interesting.”

Brian Ries is tech and social media editor at The Daily Beast. He lives in Brooklyn.