Buying a pair of virtual sunglasses

Elvis shadesA very good article came across Techcrunch last week about the online economy for virtual goods. In it, virtual goods are touted as the next big business model for online businesses. People already spend $1.5 billion per year worldwide on stuff that doesn’t really exist.

Yes, I said $1.5 billion . . . and growing. Most of these online items involve some sort of personal accessory (bling for your online self, a virtual pet, a new sword for your World of Warcraft character) or a gift for someone else (virtual flowers, pixelated puppies). The prevalence of this online trend shows that materialism isn’t really about the material, it’s about the virtual effect that material produces for you.

Ok, that statement’s a little bit nebulous – let me get more specific. My favorite consumer good in understanding why people buy things, and how they think about it when they buy things, is sunglasses. In college I had a friend who never went anywhere without her shades on. It actually was a little annoying, because I could never see her eyes when I was talking to her. When I eventually asked her why she wore her shades all of the time, she told me she had sensitive eyes and needed them.

Over the years I have repeated the same experiment over and over with habitual shade-wearers, and there seems to be a whole segment of our species that has a vampire-like inability to deal with natural sunlight. I can’t imagine their suffering 100 years ago before the invention of sunglasses!

Ok, of course that isn’t the real reason why people wear shades. The real reason is they make you look cool. Heck, they make you FEEL cool. I bought a pair for Vegas last week that looked a little like Elvis’ famous shades, and damn if I didn’t feel a little Jailhouse Rock when it was time to double-down at the blackjack table. Oh . . . and that girl in college was one of the cooler ones I’ve known.

But back to virtual goods. There’s no fooling yourself when you buy a pair of virtual shades, or anything else virtual. You don’t need this stuff because it doesn’t really exist. But it still gives you the same satisfaction when you have it. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, and doesn’t understand why the market for virtual goods WILL work, is still wearing their shades and thinking they are doing it because that sun is so bright.

In concert with the Techcrunch post was a recent Virtual Goods Summit event out west. Tech blogger Robert Scoble has a good link to notes from it and to all of the online conversation it spurred.

UPDATE: Shades do have health benefits, they prevent cataracts. Of course, this is mainly the case if you are a fisherman in Chesapeake Bay, as the study mentions . . .


6 thoughts on “Buying a pair of virtual sunglasses

  1. You and I have had the discussion about sunglasses before, since I’m a habitual shade-wearer.

    Yeah, I look cool (at least, I think I do, and that’s all that really matters anyway), but I also find the sun to be really bright. Plus, I like to stare at people but not be rude about it, and I like the fact that people don’t know if you’re looking at them or not. I do consider it rude to have anything more than idle chit-chat with sunglasses on, though.

    As to virtual consumerism and virtual materialism, I find it hard to believe that it will be anything but a trend. Yes, it’s new and hot. But really, I think that most goods that do not provide anything other than “perceived satisfaction” are destined to be merely trends.

    That’s not to say that fortunes can’t be made or businesses can’t be successful, but getting in on trends seems to me to be a dicey prospect. If you hop on the wave at the wrong time, you’re going to wipe-out.

    The difference between virtual goods and sunglasses is that I perceive more than just a “looking cool” value in my sunglasses. They may not have that extra value, but I perceive it. Virtual goods would be very tough for anyone to justify tangibly as anything other than status, symbol, or fluff – except for certain demographic groups like kids, that is.

  2. Nice perspective, thanks for the comment! I think the sunglasses example works more because people seem to be reluctant to admit that looking cool is much of a factor in buying them at all – not that there aren’t other valid factors. I think based on what you’re saying that for you the usefulness of them probably actually overrides the coolness factor, but I don’t think that’s the case for many people, or even most people.

    I obviously don’t view the virtual goods business overall as a fad, though I agree that individual items or websites selling them certainly will be. And you make a good point about the business model being risky. In almost every practical example, virtual goods are sold as an accompaniment to a stronger business model – not as a standalone. For social websites I think it becomes another prevalent source of income, up alongside ads and sometimes service fees.

  3. Very nice blog, I really love your article, keep up the great writing. Many people do not write very good articles on their blogs. You have done a fantastic job though. Interesting article as well.

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