The digital age has given rise to new kinds of possessions – digital possessions. How similar or different are they from other possessions that people have is tracked in our research study.  This article explores the meanings and motives behind digital possessions.

For long people have treasured what they see as their possessions. They hold onto it over time reminiscing the occasions and experiences associated with the things they keep as possessions. Research studies have proved that people knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, regard possessions as parts of themselves. These possessions become their ‘extended selves’ serving a cues for others to form perceptions about the owners. What’s more, they also serve the purpose of tuning markers for individual and collective memory. The attachment to possessions is an outcome of a process of self-extension where people tend to attribute important elements of their own selves on to other people, places, objects, and events. Possessions make up the symbolic representation of such extensions. 

The last decade has seen people switch over from material possessions to virtual ones. There are two elements to this shift that are noteworthy, one of physical possessions that are losing their material integrity, and the other of virtual forms of possessions that haven’t existed before. The former includes books, pictures, music, and even movies while the latter comprise of social profiles, email archives, text messages, diet logs, fitness regimes, and personal behavioural logs in the digitised form.

The year 2000 is the dividing line between Millennials (Generation Y) and the Zeners (Generation Z) but together they account for close to 64 percent of the world population. Millennials born between 1980 and 2000 comprise of around 31.5%, while Generation Z or the Zeners, born 2000 onwards have overtaken millennials and now make 32% of the world population. Both these generation are digital natives and Cyberjunkies. They not only have the biggest share of digital possessions in the virtual world, they have also redefined the nature of digital possessions.

What we tried to do in our study and which we describe in this article, is an attempt to understand the primary drivers that prompt people to pick and keep virtual possessions, the meanings they draw from them, and the reasons why they take to it over material ones.

Privacy & publicity

The virtualization of possessions allows owners to either hold them privately with no access to others, or display them publicly for social image purposes. In our study we found that a substantial number of millennials held two Instagram accounts. They used one that displayed pictures publicly, but the other restricted access. The latter is where they stored pictures they wanted to keep away from the public. Also, on such accounts they stored private chats that were shielded from prying eyes. This they did by ensuring such accounts were logged out. They logged in only when they were in active usage mode. The public accounts they had were mostly in the logged in mode on their mobile devices. Researcher Joanne Orlando at Western Sydney University found among Australian teens the use of ‘Rinsta’ and ‘Finsta’ Instagram accounts. Rinsta represented their ‘real’ accounts, while Finsta was used as a fake one to relieve the social pressure of having a picture-perfect online profile. 

Longevity & brevity

When an Indian actress Ileana D’Cruz’s relationship with her husband was on the rocks, what she did was take off all pictures featuring the two of them from her Instagram account. The act was probably completed in an instant. Digital possessions can stay as long or as short as the owner wants. In fact the act of shedding digital possessions altogether is possible as evidenced by the growing number of millennials who are deleting their social accounts with the content in them. When digital possessions no longer contribute to users’ well-being and happiness, there are many who take the decision of getting rid of such possessions. Hussein Kesavani in his article on ‘people purging their instagram photos’ quotes sixteen year old Amanda Knoll based in Washington who says such a purge is akin to ‘therapy’. She further adds that this gives her a chance to ‘start again and reinvent herself’.  

Borderless & timeless

The access to digital possessions isn’t marred either by time or space. These possessions can be carried anywhere and accessed anytime. The desire for possession based gratification plays out instantly in the world of digital possessions. The lack of any limitations to digital possessions makes it a constant presence in people’s lives. This in turn means the desire for its social consumption is more acute and responses to public displays are sought within no time. The active engagement people thus have ensures there is no let-up in the back and forth responses to such possessions. This in turn has its own implication when it comes to the owners mental well-being. Research has shown that digital existences and social displays have taken a toll on people, especially in the territory of self-esteem. What makes the situation far more alarming is that exposures people undergo in the digital realm has no limitations unless users step in to shield themselves and their possessions. 

Self-expression & self-concealment

Possessions enable its owners the luxury of self-extension. The attempt here is to present cues to the outside world for image construction. While possessions in public allow for images to be built and propagated in the virtual world, there are those possessions that teens for example conceal to ensure their parallel identities remain cloaked. Possessions for social consumption are kept separate from those that are concealed and stored away in digital safe places. For example, secret Facebook groups created by millennials can’t be traced in the virtual world. Members can only get in through invites. Apps like Calculator% and Calculator+ ensure what looks like a regular calculator ensures risque possessions stay tucked away behind passcodes. If public possessions present a desired social image, private digital possessions safeguard real images from a snooping digital public. 

Digital possessions go beyond and cover further ground in the lives of its owners in comparison to material ones. The enablement of digital possessions has opened the floodgates to its usage for social images and lifestyles while allowing for the pursuit of a private existence that’s concealed and revealed to a limited social group or even individuals. Digital possessions have given its owners the liberty to live out their fantasies in public manners and where required in cloaked private ways. What remains to be seen is whether all material will finally turn virtual in the arena of possessions and their use in extension of people’s selves. 

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About the authors

Dr. Ray Titus

Dr. Ray Titus is Dean & Professor of Marketing at Alliance School of Business, Alliance University, Bangalore. Labelled as a ‘consumer lifestyle expert’ by Economic Times, India’s leading business newspaper, Ray’s research and consulting activities converge on the disciplines of consumer behavior, marketing strategy, and digital & social media marketing.

Sejal Valera

Sejal Valera is Curriculum Research Lead at the Institute of Product Leadership. She is also a certified inbound marketer and an established researcher who studies user related digital trends and behavior. With a background as an International Baccalaureate Educator, she consults on business issues related to the field of education and related verticals.

Debashish Sengupta.

Dr. Debashish Sengupta is an award-winning author, professor, consultant and trainer. Presently, he works as Professor with the University for Women, Bahrain. He serves as a consultant and on the board of advisors of several companies in India and Middle-East. His strategic and practical insights guide leaders of large and small organizations worldwide.  A prolific speaker at various business forums, he has authored several other bestselling books.