For Christmas, Christine Louie has already found a pair of pointy red shoes for her girlfriend, tucked them into a pink box with a white bow and slipped them under the tree. Only her friend will never wear the red shoes. Nor will she match them with her clothes, store them in her closet or exchange them for a better-looking pair of shoes. In the latest example of how our real world is colliding with the online one, Louie’s gift exists only on the Internet on her friend’s Facebook page. Per Louie’s instructions, it can be “opened” on Christmas, when the gift wrap can be removed to reveal the red shoes.




“It’s something I’d give her in real life, but I haven’t gotten around to it,” said Louie, a 22-year-old recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.




Virtual goods and gifts are taking on new meaning as people spend more and more time on the Internet. Consider them social currency. They may appear as cartoonish icons on a person’s social-networking profile, a collection of pixels that don’t exist unless the computer is turned on. But as people invest an increasing amount of time building and enhancing their




presence on the Internet, the virtual bottle of beer, virtual bouquet of flowers and virtual lingerie are becoming valuable assets. In some cases, they may even have monetary value.




“People’s lives have shifted online so much that there’s meaning associated with buying things online,” said Max Levchin, founder of Slide, a San Francisco Internet startup.




By some estimates, the worldwide virtual-goods market could reach $7 billion by 2009. Though much of the activity has taken place in Asia and in online games and virtual worlds, such as Second Life, the phenomenon is swiftly moving to the United States and into the mainstream.




Facebook in February introduced $1 gifts that users can send to their friends. Since then, gift-giving has become one of the social-networking site’s most popular activities, with 24 million Facebook gifts given.




Outside developers have created additional applications, such as Growing Gifts, a potted seedling that sprouts into a flower, and My Christmas Tree, the application that Louie used to select a present, gift wrap it and leave it under a friend’s Christmas tree.




In a twist, San Francisco’s Mokugift, at, is adding a real-world component to the virtual gift. Consumers purchasing a $1 virtual tree not only will receive a virtual tree, but also will help plant a real tree through a partnership with Sustainable Harvest International, an environmental nonprofit.




“The old saying is, ‘It’s not the gift. It’s the thought that counts,’ ” said 33-year-old Mokugift founder Hans Chung. “We want to take it further.”




Similarly, Facebook Causes, the social-networking-meets-philanthropy project started by Joe Green and Sean Parker, this week introduced Facebook gifts that are tied to 20 charities. In a partnership with the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child, for instance, Facebook users can pay $200 to receive a virtual laptop on Facebook and donate an XO laptop to a child in a developing nation.




For $50, Facebook users can purchase a Facebook pet and rescue a dog through the Humane Society. They also can contribute $10 to an insecticide-treated bed net to protect people in sub-Saharan Africa from malaria-infected mosquitoes through a partnership with Malaria No More.




“Being able to give a gift in that way is powerful,” Green said. “Here you can give something virtual, but it (also) has some meaning.”




Even without a real-world component, virtual gifts carry value.




When Tina Nguyen, a 28-year-old credit analyst from Hayward, was in a car accident earlier this year, a friend sent her a teddy bear on Facebook.




“I felt like I was hugged,” she said. “She wanted to let me know she was there.”




Virtual gifts, like an e-card, send a message. But they can do more.




“It’s sort of like when you get holiday cards and you’d put them on your piano or your mantel. People could come and enjoy them,” said Susan Wu, a partner with Menlo Park-based Charles River Ventures and an expert on the virtual-goods industry. “Now you can do that on Facebook and collect cards and tokens of appreciation.”




Certainly, some virtual goods are worth more than others. In some online worlds, club members receive exclusive gifts that are rare or collectible. Others have functions — a car that can be driven through Second Life, for instance — or can give a user a special power, such as a magic wand. And just as in the real world, the ones that cost more are perceived to be more valuable.