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Digitally Possessed


man viewing an iPad

How we define ourselves is changing as the nature of our possessions changes.

Credit: Matt Biddulph

It is nine o'clock in the evening and a young woman, nestled in a sofa in her living room, is uploading photographs to Facebook and listening to music streaming from her iPad. After a few minutes, she flicks and pinches the screen to navigate to an ebook that she begins reading. An hour later, the woman clicks into the online game FarmVille to check on her cows, chickens, and cornstalks and see how much money she has accumulated since last logging on a couple of days ago.

Today, there is nothing incredibly remarkable about this scenario—unless you consider that every item the woman has viewed, heard, and interacted with resides entirely within a virtual world. She will never actually touch the photos, handle a CD, or feel the currency she has earned in FarmVille. These possessions do not exist in the physical world. They are simply bits and bytes that have been arranged to look and sound like actual objects.

Virtual possessions are changing our world—and our perception of reality. Today, ebooks outsell paperbound books, digital downloads have surpassed CDs in sales, and more than 2.5 billion people around the world use digital cameras to snap a seemingly endless array of photos. Meanwhile, video and audio streaming services such as Netflix, Pandora, and Spotify deliver content on demand, and social media sites like Facebook document our lives in a way that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.

"Our lives are becoming increasingly digital... more of the things we possess reside inside computers," states Janice Denegri-Knott, a senior lecturer in consumer culture and behavior at Bournemouth Media School. "As possessions become virtual, we think about them and interact with them in entirely different ways. We find new ways to assign meaning to them and incorporate them into our lives."

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Virtual Objects Take Shape

For nearly half a century, researchers have studied the way people view possessions. What is clear is that possessions help define who we are and what story we present to other people. What is easily overlooked, says Susan Kleine, associate professor of marketing at Bowling Green University, is that virtual possessions are very real—even if they reside only within computers. "There is a psychological appropriation that takes place as an individual connects to an object, item, or idea," she points out.

In the past, bookcases, record racks, and framed photos strategically positioned around a house or office told the story of how we think, what and whom we consider important, and, ultimately, what type of person we consider ourselves. However, to a certain extent, physical objects such as vinyl LPs and photographic paper have always been a way to package content and put it into our hands.

Today, how we define ourselves is changing as the nature of possessions changes. Instead of creating a carefully constructed library in our house, we assemble a digital library on Goodreads.com and share it with others. Instead of creating photo albums, we post pictures on Facebook and YouTube. It is estimated that Facebook users upload 2.7 million photos every 20 minutes. The average person has about 350 pictures at the site.

Further complicating things, entirely new artifacts exist. This includes online gaming avatars; instant message and text message streams; email; virtual currency and social media feeds, badges and awards. Increasingly, these things define our lives and our legacy. "They serve as psychological anchor points for our self-narratives, like souvenirs collected during the course of a journey," observes Vili Lehdonvirta, an economic sociologist who is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics.

Nowhere is this transformation more apparent than among young people who have grown up in a digital world and, in some cases, cannot relate to the physical objects of the past. "A digital photo or song has value for what it is, but also for what you can do with it," says John Zimmerman, associate professor of human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University. "The ability to tag a digital item, comment on it, and share it makes it more meaningful to some people."

In fact, when Zimmerman and other researchers studied a group of 21 teenagers (12 girls and nine boys) in 2011, he found there is a growing belief that digital possessions are more valuable than physical possessions—and that the social interaction surrounding online objects can dramatically increase their worth. One girl reported that snapping a large number of photos and posting them online felt like a more honest representation of an event because participants could comment and interact afterward. "There's a shared sense of what happened," she notes.

Teenagers also like the fact they can access content online—photos, music, comments, and badges—at any time and from almost any place, thanks to Facebook and services such as Apple's iCloud, says Zimmerman. Finally, by putting their possessions online, they have a space that is largely free of scrutiny from their parents. This means, among other things, that they can display a photo of a boyfriend or girlfriend online—whereas they might not be allowed to place a picture frame with the same photo in their bedroom. "In some cases, a virtual environment creates a more satisfying and holistic experience," Zimmerman says.

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A Changing Picture

It is tempting to think about digital possessions as ephemeral and easily duplicated, Lehdonvirta points out. What is more, because virtual objects do not register with our senses in the way physical objects do, they are not particularly useful in establishing social distinctions. However, the introduction of ubiquitous and always on computing networks—and the widespread adoption of social media—has altered the equation. "This introduces the economics and sociology of ownership into digital goods," he observes.

In World of Warcraft, for instance, the publisher creates artificial scarcity by periodically adding 10 new levels to the system to devalue everyone's status. This virtual form of inflation, or artificially imposed scarcity, ensures players will stay engaged and spend more money. Meanwhile, at sites such as Facebook and Twitter, value derives not only from objects and content but also from amassing "friends" and "followers." Lehdonvirta says there have been attempts to trade social media votes for actual money and one company recently sued an ex-employee over the ownership of followers on Twitter. In January 2012, the concept of virtual ownership was affirmed by the Dutch Supreme Court, which upheld a conviction of a boy who stole another boy's possessions in the online game Runescape.


"People not only view a Facebook account as a digital possession, they look at it as a digital storage locker for their lives," says Amber Cushing.


In fact, virtual money and possessions are not an entirely new concept. For years, society has used virtual funds, such as credit and debit cards, to handle transactions and pay for goods. These virtual currencies were not created by government but rather by private organizations.

A bigger question is how virtual possessions influence our thinking and change our behavior. In this new virtual order, a Netflix instant queue becomes a to-do list rather than a personal collection of DVDs. A Kindle book cannot be loaned to a pal or passed on to a child. And so-called friends are people we may have never met or will never interact with in the physical world.

Amber Cushing, a doctoral candidate at The School of Information and Library Science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has interviewed dozens of people of varying ages and backgrounds and found there is a common thread in the way people view digital possessions. They define a person's identity; inform others about what is happening in their life; create value or status in some way; and provide a sense of bounded control that may not be possible in the physical world.

The popularity of Facebook, which now claims 845 million active users worldwide, is a perfect example of this thinking. There is a growing desire to document and archive digital experiences, Cushing explains. "People not only view a Facebook account as a digital possession, they look at it as a digital storage locker for their lives. It's a place where they are able to put things they want to retain and where they can reflect on their identity."

Yet, it is also clear that digital possessions create their own set of challenges and frustrations. These range from people deleting photos and tags on a social media site to enduring a hard drive crash and the loss of an entire music collection or photo library, if the data is not backed up. In addition, there is the risk of a device manufacturer or service provider vanishing and taking the content with it, as well as file formats and codecs becoming obsolete and thus rendering old audio recordings or videos unplayable.

Separating co-owned digital items can also prove daunting. In the past, when a couple broke up, dividing a stack of books or CDs was a fairly straightforward proposition. However, divvying up digital content that may reside on multiple computers and have DRM restrictions is vexing. Trying to sort out who controls a jointly owned World of Warcraft account or other online content—accessed through shared passwords—can confound and frustrate even the most level-headed individuals.

Not surprisingly, researchers are examining ways to improve how we manage virtual possessions. For example, Zimmerman hopes to encode metadata into virtual things. This might encompass status updates, favorite songs associated with a particular event along with news and weather information. It is also important to view digital spaces differently, he argues. Instead of using a digital picture frame to display hundreds or thousands of random photos, for example, it is possible to dedicate a frame to one person or a particular theme and use multiple frames.


The boundaries and distinctions between digital and physical possessions are blurring as virtual objects become more commonplace.


Kleine says there is also a growing desire to create physical manifestations of virtual things. The popularity of scrapbooking and the yearning to assemble online photo books and print them for posterity is no accident, she says. There is also an evolving desire to capture screen shots of online badges, trophies, and other creations. And 3D printing, which is advancing rapidly, is bridging the digital and physical worlds by giving virtual objects, such as toys, trophies, and characters in games, actual physical form.

In the end, perhaps only one thing is entirely clear: The boundaries and distinctions between digital and physical possessions are blurring as virtual objects become more commonplace. As a result, our thinking and behavior is changing... yet remaining much the same. "Humans have a psychological need to attach to things and hang on to them," says Kleine. "Regardless of whether an object exists in the digital or physical realm, there's a need to feel that it is tangible and real."

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Further Reading

Johnson, M., Lehdonvirta, V., and Wilska, T.
Virtual Consumerism, Information, Communication & Society 12, 7, Oct. 2009.

Kleine, S., Kleine, R., and Allen, C.
How is possession "me" or "not me"? Characterizing types and an antecedent of material possession attachment, Journal of Consumer Research 22, 3, Dec. 1995.

Lehdonvirta, V.
Consumption, Turku School of Economics, No. A-11, 2009.

Odom, W., Forlizzi, J., and Zimmerman, J.
Virtual possessions, Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, Aarhus, Denmark, August 16–20, 2010.

Odom, W., Forlizzi, J., and Zimmerman, J.
Teenagers and their virtual possessions: Design opportunities and issues, Proceedings of the 2011 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Vancouver, BC, Canada, May 7–12, 2011.

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Author

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR.

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Figures

UF1Figure. How we define ourselves is changing as the nature of our possessions changes.

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