Gmail frenzy

In our modern culture — addled to the point of delirium with celebrity culture, wealth worship, the nanofame of reality TV and the Washingtonian/Nietzchian pursuit of power for power’s sake — there’s nothing so intoxicating as an elite club. Particularly when you get to be on the inside with the kewl kidz, sneering at the unwashed masses crushing their noses against the glass!

Nobody understands this better than Google — and they’ve proved it, with the fiendishly brilliant rollout of Gmail, their new email service. Gmail is technologically very cool, with its enormous 1-gig storage space and intelligent “conversation” threading. So I wasn’t surprised when Gmail Beta launched last month, and people began wondering: How could they score one of these rare, exclusive, first-peek accounts?

By cosying up to the cool kids, that’s how. Google set up its Beta as a sort of influence-peddling scheme: It handed out a bunch of accounts to its friends and family and admirers, and allowed each of them to have a few “activation codes” so that they could invite their own friends and admirers in. And so on and so on. The end result? By last week, my circle of high-tech friends was consumed by people frantically sucking up to those who were on the inside, in hopes of someone letting them past the velvet rope. You can’t buy buzz like that. What Google realized was that while Americans love to prattle on about the democratic flatness and meritocratic fairness of their country, what they love even more is the ability to lord social power over others like nobleman at the Elizabethan court. It’s high-school dynamics as marketing!

Anyway, this freaky little Milgram experiment that Google is conducting has produced a rather funny side effect: Gmail swap. It’s an attempt to derail the Buffy-at-the-prom dynamics of Google’s marketing scheme by setting up an open trading board. People who want a Gmail account make an offer of something they’re willing to trade with people who have invitation codes. If the two agree, then voila! The transaction occurs.

What’s most interesting about this exchange is that — much like Ebay — it fixes a price on things that you’d otherwise consider intangible or priceless. Here are some of the things people are offering today as a trade for Gmail:

nekura offers “Your name in credits of my first game.”

sweet82 offers “a frienship with a sweet girl”

redredwine offers “$25 worth of underwear and socks”

got gmail offers “FREE lunch in San Rafael, Ca”

abazoe offers “a lukewarm poem and a mix cd”

db5z offers “Swap an Apple iPod”

pacmanfan offers “Few video clips of a redneck’s habitat”

collins619 offers “9/11 powerpoint pictures”

RadicalSpaceDude offers “Jesus Action figures!!!”

coco82173 offers “my homemade spring rolls”

Feedback offers “Original pictures of Adolf Hitler-1940s”

sammyafrikan offers “video thanks in tribal language”

By the way, if anyone here thinks my grumpy little rant here is prompted by my inability to score a Gmail account myself — you can send your comments to

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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