Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Media Studies


Dr. Nick Dyer-Witheford


Every day, thousands of people log into the virtual world of Second Life and collectively pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase virtual goods. With an in-world economic system that is linked to offline economies and a wealth of user-generated content, the virtual world has a wide variety of goods available for consumption. These commodities, which include everything from clothes and cars to fantastical pets and flying airships, are computer code visually rendered on a screen, and cannot exist apart from the servers on which they are housed. Although they are virtual, goods in Second Life are widely bought, sold, and traded.

Through participant observation, surveys, interviews, and content analysis, this dissertation investigates the practices, meanings, and effects associated with the consumption of virtual goods. It considers the extensive consumption practices found in the world’s market and freebie economies, the degree to which Second Life residents consume virtual goods, and their consumption preferences. It also investigates the meanings associated with these practices, and examines the ways in which consumption is implicated in individuality, belonging, resistance, social status, and social and cultural capital. Finally, it argues that although there is significant consumption inequality within the world, the effects and perceptions of this inequality are moderated by factors including the virtual nature of the world, free and inexpensive virtual goods, a lack of stigmas, user-generated content, and resident attitudes. Although consumption is a practice that bears important meanings for residents and is heavily engaged, often in unequal ways, the moderating effects of the world make Second Life what can be termed a utopia of inequality.