The world is made up of things, physical objects we humans interact with on a daily basis. Because they are so central to almost everything we do, there is no shortage of theories for understanding the value and meaning of things—from how they are exchanged and acquire value (Simmel 1978); to how gift-giving and exchange are tied up in establishing and maintaining social relations (Mauss 1990); to how objects take on different roles through their lifetimes, and may even have agency themselves (Appadurai 1988).
As business and social interaction are increasingly conducted online, a market has emerged for virtual things—“gifts” on Facebook, houses in Second Life—that have no tangible counterpart. Some people find it odd that people are willing to pay real money for digital objects; others purchase virtual things by the dozen. User experience researchers have explored in detail how humans interact with digital objects, but there has been relatively little analysis with regard to their monetary and social worth.
A notable exception is a recent article by Adrian Chan, who argues that digital objects must be understood not only as objects, but also as symbols of interaction (2010). A “beer” given over Facebook does not function as “beer” but rather as a symbol of the process of gift exchange. Whether I am willing to pay a dollar for it depends less on what the icon depicts than it does on my interest in showing other people that I am giving my friend a gift.
Most interestingly, Chan’s definition of digital objects includes verbal exchanges. This is a major departure from how we think of objects, for, as Appadurai has pointed out, “contemporary Western common sense… has a strong tendency to oppose ‘words’ and ‘things’” (1988:4).
This is one example of the major differences between physical and virtual things. When words are encapsulated in posts, Tweets, or ‘Likes’, they become verbal objects, things that can be exchanged. The exchange of verbal digital things serves to signify prestige and social importance; the more someone comments on your messages, or repeats what you have said, the more important you must be. This concept is the underlying assumption of Klout, a startup dedicated to analyzing a particular person’s influence online based in part on their Twitter followers and retweets.
As social media and virtual things become more and more prevalent, we are going to need a framework to interpret the meaning and exchange of virtual objects. While there has been little done so far, in the coming years, we ought to expect a more thorough theoretical exploration of the meaning of public exchange online.
- Appadurai, Arjun (1988). “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value.” In Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Chan, Adrian (2010). “What’s Up With Social Objects?” http://johnnyholland.org/2010/05/03/whats-up-with-social-objects/
- Mauss, Marcel (1990). The Gift. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
- Simmel, Georg (1978). The philosophy of money. London: Routledge.
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