Qualities of Virtual PossessionsTheory development & fieldwork

People worldwide are increasingly acquiring virtual possessions. While virtual possessions have become ubiquitous, little work exists on how people value them, and how their experiences of them differ from material possessions. In this project, I reflect on and synthesize findings from five fieldwork projects I conducted over the past five years that investigated people’s perceptions of and practices with virtual possessions. Through the higher-level perspective we adopt, we propose three thematic qualities that help characterize people’s experiences with virtual possessions, as compared to their material things: placelessness, spacelessness, and formlessness.

In simple terms, placeless refers to how digital data can be experienced in multiple locations simultaneously, but this can complicate people’s certainty over where it ‘lives’ and who ‘possesses’ it. Spaceless captures how people can accumulate and experience vast amounts of personal data, but this can have serious consequences for making sense of its size, structure, and scale. Formless refers to how data can be reproduced and reformed to fit different applications, making it easy for people to share, while making it difficult to distinguish a copy from ‘the original’ version, or how different versions are distinct. While these are not the ‘only’ qualities, they provide a productive starting point for understanding factors that can shape people’s interactions with their digital data. They also offer a way framing design-oriented inquires aimed at making digital data more meaningful everyday resources in the future.


Odom, W., Zimmerman, J., Forlizzi, J. (2014). Placelessness, Spacelessness, and Formlessness: Experiential Qualities of Virtual Possessions. In Proceedings of Designing Interactive Systems. Vancouver, Canada. DIS ’14. ACM Press. (Local Copy)