Code as Consumerism: Virtual Goods and Shifting Power Relations in Online Social Worlds
Online sites have long been considered to be egalitarian spaces, where those with access can freely interact and express themselves as they desire. Without the visible symbols on and around the offline body that can mark it with power, status, authority, and wealth, online communication has traditionally been seen to proceed without the awareness and effects of the power relations and hierarchies that structure offline interactions. However, the introduction of virtual commodities to online social spaces such as SecondLife, Entropia Universe, and There.com has the potential to alter the equality of these worlds by offering different levels of access to the space itself, as well as allowing for the presence and use of virtual goods within that environment. In order to take into account these increasingly prevalent elements of online life, this paper will critically interrogate the role of virtual goods and their impact on interactions in online social environments. As with their offline counterparts, these goods serve to inscribe the virtual body with visual symbols that denote power and status through their rarity, expense, and difficulty of acquisition. By introducing consumption and consumerism through virtual goods, social environments are allowing the recreation of social hierarchies that ultimately subvert and undermine the potential for equality in online interaction.
Keywords: Virtual Goods, Virtual Worlds, Power, Status, Social Hierarchy, Social Interaction
Doctoral Candidate, Department of Media Studies, The University of Western Ontario