Sarah Spiekermann, Ph.D.   –   Business Informatics Professor and Thinker

Why we don't like to pay for virtual goods

  • 12. April 2012, 17:11
  • MyBlog

Psychology of ownership is one fundamental drive of our current society. The perception of „this is mine", „my car", „my house", „my furniture", „my garden" seems to be deeply rooted in us. Scientists describe the psychology of ownership on multiple dimensions: We develop it for all those objects into which we invest ourselves emotionally and timewise; often even regardless of whether we actually own the thing. People feel responsible for their possessions. They care for them. They even define themselves through them. For example, „my apartment" is important to me. For my German colleagues it is often more their car that they feel is best suited to demonstrate who they are. And many nerds like to show off with „their hardware". Finally, it is the experience of control that is most important for the perception of ownership. We are satisfied and have fun with objects that finally do what we want. And we are frustrated if they don't. We feel at home with objects we control and we differentiate from others through them. Isaacs states that the desire to own "can only be thought of in terms of power --or rather, of powerlessness" (1933).

Psychology of ownership

But could it be that this psychology of ownership is a construct of modern society more than a trait we are born with? Don't we have great difficulty to develop a psychology of ownership for these virtual, digital, intangible goods? For instance, for our music files, clickstreams, Facebook profiles, communications- and location data? Maybe we are built for the haptic experience? Our thoughts and communications, what we hear and see, have always been free and ephemeral. It is for this reason that we have a hard time to perceive guilt when we listen to music that we may have gotten from someone who was not supposed to distribute it. We communicate on Facebook or Skype just as we have always chatted in the real world: without thinking about the EUR or Dollar value that our data effectively has. We do not perceive that Madonna owns the music that we are just listening to. And we do not even see any worth in our Facebook profile even though Mark Zuckerberg and the stock exchange value each of our profiles with $ 90 - $ 120. Paul Graham argues in his blog ‚Defining Property' that virtual goods are like smells and we, the users, just simply do not come up with the idea to pay for smells or to charge for our smells.


However, the markets teach us otherwise. The current political developments around SOPA and ACTA show that many companies in the digital realm seem to have decided that digital information should not be free. They want to introduce the traditional thinking of ownership for the digital. That is a pity. But it may be that they have left one important aspect out of the equation: We users also have one important asset to share that we currently provide for free: our personal data, comments, blogs, thoughts, actions, preferences, etc.. So far we have not built up a psychology of ownership for this valuable asset. We have never perceived of our logfiles or Facebook profiles as ‘property'. We have never been at the negotiations table with companies to bargain the conditions under which we are ready to share all these digital assets. We have never exercised much control over those free services that we have been offered. Generously we have signed the small print. We have waived to be masters in our own digital homes and have accepted to be bombarded with cheap advertisements that annoy us wherever we go online. But this could change: My research at Vienna University of Economics and Business with over 1500 Facebook users shows: When people learn that there is a market for their personal data and that parties who earn money from their information, who even create a ‘personal data ecosystem' as a report from the World Economic Forum reveals, then they want to participate. Even more so: They get angry if the cannot participate in determining the conditions of exchange. Psychology of ownership builds up quickly when people learn that others are interested in one's assets or even make money of it. (Sarah Spiekermann,, 12.4.2012)


Sarah Spiekermann, Ph.D.

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