I agree with you completely.
In fact, once I was proposing a Secret Santa among my siblings (we live far apart and seldom buy gifts anymore) AND our kids, so that you'd have from, oh, Easter until Christmas to gather intel on the person.
The idea was going to be that you have to listen closely, and get involved in email exchanges, watch their Facebook page, etc.
I don't know why you can't be completely honest with everyone.
Say, "The thing I like about the gift exchange is the amount of thought that the givers put into it. That's what makes it fun, and that's what makes me feel closer to all of you. It's not really fun to receive a present that I picked out myself--I can go do that, all on my own. Maybe it'se selfish of me, but I was hoping I'd get a present that says one of you spent at least 45 minutes trying to think about me, and what I like. Even if a present turns out to not be useful after all, I always feel closer to the person who gave it to me, because I could tell how much thought they put into it.
"And it's no fun to *give* a present that doesn't involve some level of thinking about you. I like the process of listening close to conversations and watching Facebook walls in order to come up with something that I hope you'll like.
"In fact, when I hear comments about how 'little work' someone will have to do, it makes me think that giving me a present is a chore. And that's not how I want present exchanges to be. So if this is going to be about 'making it easy,' and we're simply going to swap shopping lists, then I'm going to bail on the Secret Santa."
I love 'wish lists' when they're done right--as I define "right," of course
. In my family, the gift lists are usually quite long--they have at least 4 times as many gifts as you might actually receive (4 parent/sib units, so 16 ideas), and many times there are even more. They are sometimes specific but usually very general. Sometimes they are lists of what you already have ("I have these 6 Agatha Christie books already, but you can buy me any of the others").
In our family, they always left you a LOT of room to improvise. And nobody ever expected to receive ANY of those things--they were just there *in case* you ran out of YOUR OWN ideas.
I'll also say that gifts not on "the registry" are often the ones that make a slightly bigger splash. Definitely, you are completely polite to get some stuff not on the wish list. And you watch this year--those will be things people will be more interested in. (Feel free to comment on how fun they seemed to find it.)
I'll certainly run the risk of receiving a gift I don't like in exchange for the serendipity of getting a *purple* shirt from my SIL (sister-in-love--they're not married). I'd never have picked that color, but she did--and now I love purple! I never realized how good i look in that color! And gifts are the only place this might actually happen nowadays.
I think you should do a Pinterest wish list. And put lots of "example" type stuff on there.