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May 3, 2009

Immaterialism is the new black

Rob Walker coined a new paradigm today in his New York Times Magazine column.

One word — the title of his piece: "Immaterialism."

Excerpts follow.


Spending real money on things that don’t exist still sounds “fringe-y and aberrant” to many United States consumers, observes Jeremy Liew, managing director of Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture-capital firm. (Lightspeed has invested in some digital-goods sellers, although none of the ones mentioned in this column.) Yet it has been going on for years in elaborate games like World of Warcraft or Everquest, as players buy tools, weapons and the like for digital characters. Moreover, Liew adds, “this is a set of behaviors that has been commonplace in Asia and, increasingly, in Europe.” Indeed, in April, a company called Changyou.com Limited, based in China, went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange. With annual revenue of around $200 million a year, it is (unlike many well-known Web 2.0 companies in the United States) profitable, and it makes most of its money by selling pixelated goods to game players and virtual-world users in China; as of late April, the market’s judgment put the company’s valuation at more than $1.3 billion.

As more of us live more of our lives in digital contexts, it seems plausible that immaterialism will become more common. Consuming things made of bits might sound weird, but actually it offers a lot of the same attractions that make people consume things made of atoms.

Consider the Fort Worth, Tex., company Alamofire.... Josh Williams, a founder of Alamofire, figured out the appeal of collecting pixelated stuff by accident.... Really, he figures, it’s not so different from what inspired earlier generations to collect postcards or other gewgaws. But, Williams adds, without “all the physical crap.”

Perhaps immaterialism comes more naturally to younger people who take the digital extension of quotidian life for granted, but the digital-stuff consumer base is clearly expanding. Facebook, which opened its virtual-gifts shop in 2007, doesn’t comment on its finances, but Liew has estimated the social network’s digital-stuff revenue at around $35 million a year.

“People are behaving in exactly the same way they’ve always behaved,” he [Liew] said. They’re simply doing so online “because that’s where most people are spending their time.”

... the gap between materialism and immaterialism may not be as wide as it seems.


For what it's worth, here's my synonym for immaterialism: BNA.

Stands for "bits not atoms."


I coined it on April 20, 2005.

You could look it up.

May 3, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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We have been buying TV shows, movies and music in digital form for years also.

Not to mention my monthly subscription to Book of Joe.

Posted by: Ray | May 5, 2009 6:35:18 AM

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