Today’s practice: Choose gifts that celebrate the inspiring or inspired ways your friends and family use technology, instead of gifts that implicitly nag them to spend less (or more!) time geeking out.
I shared this list of geek-friendly gift suggestions last December, in a post for the Harvard Business Review. I would recommend all but one of these items as 2011 gifts, too — most are even more relevant this year (like the “feature phone” suggestion for your favourite smartphone addict).  And there are some new items I’d add to my own shopping basket or wishlist, below. 

The holiday season sends many of us into the aisles of Best Buy or the Apple Store. We might wander hopelessly through a collection of gadgets, looking vainly for something the geeks in our lives have not already acquired. Or we might scoop up the devices that our less wired friends have overlooked, seizing the opportunity to “fix” their lapses by gifting the technologies they ought to have adopted already.

In either case, we might forget that the gadget gift, while cool, is also the gift of putting someone on a technology treadmill. Come December 26, they’re immersed in manuals, learning how this thing works, transferring purchases, signing up for services, downloading apps, syncing contacts. Or, the less savvy are nervously eyeing the doodads, both intrigued and intimidated by this thing they now “have to” learn how to use.

I’m the last person to suggest that you give the electronics store a pass while doing your holiday shopping. But if you are giving the gift of technology, why not make it a technology that encourages your friends and family to make their digital lives healthier and more meaningful? Here are my suggestions for a range of gifts that will help your geeky friends tone down their online compulsions, and your less geeky friends level up:

  1. For the social media addict: HootSuite. Has someone you love become a slave to their social media presence? It’s great to see a family member or friend find success online, and we know you want to cheer them on when they reach their thousandth Twitter follower or Facebook friend. But when the need to post a status update takes precedence over the opportunity for face-to-face conversation, it’s time for an intervention. Give your addict a premium subscription to HootSuite, a service that lets them schedule the updates they want to post to Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks. That way they can queue up a day or week’s worth of updates at a time, and recover some attention for their offline lives.
  2. For the distant relative or friend: Online gaming. By now most of us have had the experience of rediscovering an old friend or lover via Facebook. But you don’t need to limit your long-distance or rediscovered relationships to the occasional status update or photo exchange. Online video games let you virtually visit with your friends or family by, say, bowling together, while you catch up. It’s a terrific way to help your kids connect with their long-distance cousins. You can find lists of recommended online games for the XBox, Wii, Playstation or iPhone/iPad; just be sure you know which platform(s) your friends/family already use, and choose a title that you can afford to buy for both them and yourself so that you can play together. Use your console’s chat system if it’s available, or dial up your pal on a land line (remember those?) while you play.
  3. For the Blackberry addict: A feature phone We all know a smartphone user who e-mails their way through date night, tweets during movies, and multitasks during meetings. “But I can’t leave home without my phone!” they object, if you try to encourage even one night off the ‘berry. The only way to help these folks is with a phone that limits them to basic connectivity. Disconnect the temptations of e-mail, Facebook or Twitter by giving your addict a feature phone, i.e. a basic, non-smart cellphone, from the same carrier that supplied their Blackberry, iPhone or Android. (You can find some basic model recommendations here.)That way they can pop the SIM card out of their smartphone and use a simple phone one day a week. Imagine the world they’ll see when they finally look up for a second. (Note: If your giftee uses an iPhone 4 or other micro-SIM based phone, you may need to buy them an extra SIM card, too.)
  4. For the civilian: Backup. Nothing does more to sour an incipient love of tech than a digital disaster. Non-geeks are doubly threatened because they can be especially vulnerable to those disasters and particularly unprepared for dealing with the consequences. Protect the less geeky members of your family or social circle by setting them up with a bullet-proof backup scheme: something that doesn’t require their active involvement to keep their data protected. A premium DropBox subscription is a great way to go. For $100, you can buy someone 50 GB worth of online storage, useful not only as a backup solution but also to keep files synced across multiple computers. Go the extra mile and set up DropBox on your pal’s computer, ensuring that their key folders are automatically synced and backed up online.
  5. For the early adopter: Keyboard case. Early adopters are the hardest folks to shop for. As an early adopter married to yet another early adopter, we struggle to find good gifts, since we own every gadget we need, and many we don’t. That’s why you’ve got to surprise us with something so new that it hasn’t yet arrived at Best Buy. But you don’t want to feed our tech fetishism with yet another device. Instead, help us make saner use of the tech to which we’re already welded. A great bet is a keyboard case that will speed up the pace of our relentless tap-tap-tapping on iPhone and iPad screens: this case turns the iPhone into a slider phone with a keyboard, and this case does the equivalent for an iPad. Just make sure your geek promises to use the keyboard to type faster, and not more. (UPDATE: I bought that iPhone keyboard for myself, and it was awful; the weighting was all wrong, and I retired it after two days. It sounds like the NUU MiniKey might be a somewhat better option.)
  6. For the kid: uDraw. Every aunt, grandfather and parent has a chance to shape how the next generation relates to technology. Is life online a series of quick hits and pointless games? Or a chance to discover meaningful human connection and self-expression? Help point kids towards the wonders of online creativity with a gift like the new uDraw studio for Wii, a drawing tablet that turns your little gamer into a little artist.
  7. For the agnostic: Songs about the Internet. Lost among the early adopters and the tech skeptics are those who are still struggling to make sense of this online world; to decide whether they want to plunge in with both virtual feet or maintain a life that’s primarily analog. Help them mull over the meaning of life online with this iTunes playlist of songs about the Internet [opens in iTunes].

    plus 3 new recommendations for 2011:

  8. For artists-with-iPads: the Wacom Bamboo stylus 
  9. For health nuts: the FitBit pedometer
  10. For mini Apple enthusiasts: the Lego Life of George set 

The most important guideline for your holiday shopping: choose a gift that celebrates what your favorite geek is doing gracefully online, instead of one that nags them to spend less (or more!) time there.