Online a Lot of the Time

Ritual, Fetish, Sign

Online a Lot of the Time

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 11 illustrations Published: May 2009

Author: Ken Hillis

Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Digital Media

A wedding ceremony in a Web-based virtual world. Online memorials commemorating the dead. A coffee klatch attended by persons thousands of miles apart via webcams. These are just a few of the ritual practices that have developed and are emerging in online settings. Such Web-based rituals depend on the merging of two modes of communication often held distinct by scholars: the use of a device or mechanism to transmit messages between people across space, and a ritual gathering of people in the same place for the performance of activities intended to generate, maintain, repair, and renew social relations. In Online a Lot of the Time, Ken Hillis explores the stakes when rituals that would formerly have required participants to gather in one physical space are reformulated for the Web. In so doing, he develops a theory of how ritual, fetish, and signification translate to online environments and offer new forms of visual and spatial interaction. The online environments Hillis examines reflect the dynamic contradictions at the core of identity and the ways these contradictions get signified.

Hillis analyzes forms of ritual and fetishism made possible through second-generation virtual environments such as Second Life and the popular practice of using webcams to “lifecast” one’s life online twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Discussing how people create and identify with their electronic avatars, he shows how the customs of virtual-world chat reinforce modern consumer-based subjectivities, allowing individuals to both identify with and distance themselves from their characters. His consideration of web-cam cultures links the ritual of exposing one’s life online to a politics of visibility. Hillis argues that these new “rituals of transmission” are compelling because they provide a seemingly material trace of the actual person on the other side of the interface.


“Hillis examines the Internet sensation as a humanist. He frames his topics within a remarkable breadth of cultural, anthropological, and philosophical thought, drawing analogies between the primitive ritualistic forms of communication and the Web-enabled human connectivity and interaction through second-generation virtual environments such as Second Life and online chat assisted by Webcam. . . . Highly recommended.” — T. J. Zou, Choice

“Hillis’s skillful connection of embodied users to virtual traces and experiences make Online a Lot of the Time a compelling read for anyone interested in the relation between virtuality, visuality and (new) media effects. Scholars and designers interested in the primacy of the ritual/fetish relationship to our interactions with and experience of technology will find Hillis’s volume particularly illuminating, but the breadth of Hillis’s work and the varied intellectual resources he relies upon provide ample opportunity and motivation for any determined reader to engage with this timely and insightful volume.” — Tyler Pace, New Media & Society

“[A] rich volume in theory and striking examples about the virtual phenomena of avatars, webcam personas, rituals, fetish and signs. It’s a must read for everyone interested in the field of virtuality. A book that has grabbed the fullest of my interest due to my own personal interest in the virtual phenomena of avatars, the rituals in play and the digital ‘body’. . . . So this book is a keeper, you should try it!” — Denise Pires, Masters of Media

“[A] strong contribution to the sociological study of communications technologies: the location of online interactions within broader socio-historical context and cultural theory. . . . — Sarah Michele Ford, Contemporary Sociology

“[A]n expert account of online relations in general and the relation of user (or participant, in Hillis’ terms) to avatar in particular. . . . As a trans-disciplinary work it will be a valuable resource for those working in a wide range of fields, such as media theory, cultural studies, sociology and philosophy. . . . [A]lways an interesting, provocative and insightful read. This is a fascinating account of life online.” — David W. Hill, Continuum

“Hillis provides a rich and extensive span of academic and cultural references to contextualise his claims. I found this invaluable in providing a framework in which to situate Hillis’s contribution to the field of theory, including work on ritual, fetish, sign and discourses of virtual presence and online identity. . . . This book can be recommended to researchers and enthusiasts interested in online interaction, virtuality and social study, as well as standing out for its succinct and thoughtful exploration of ritual, fetish and sign theory.” — Hilary Wheaton, Media International Australia

“Ken Hillis has written an engaging philosophical exploration of the dilemmas confronting Euro-Americans when they begin to use online communication. He is intellectually generous to anthropologists and their conceptual impulses, exploring a series of questions that can aid ethnographers interrogating Euro-American media ideologies surrounding new media.” — Ilana Gershon, American Ethnologist

“The real strength of the work lies in the sustained historicization of ‘virtual’ life and Hillis’s perspective on the temporalities that are at stake in online life. On these counts, there are some real delights to be found.” — Dawn Nafus, American Anthropologist

Online a Lot of the Time tackles the complex subject of telepresence more convincingly than anything else around. It suggests that the sign/body of an online digital avatar occupies a ‘middle ground,’ analogous to the ‘middle voice’ produced through the novel’s technique of free indirect discourse, in which the avatar functions as more than an image but less than an autonomous agent. Moreover, because of the psychic investments that operators project into the avatar, it also functions analogously to a fetish—or rather, a telefetish. Building on previous theorizations of the fetish, the book makes a decisive intervention by showing that these concepts can fruitfully be extended into the virtual realm. With an impressive range of references, including commodity theory, media theory, the history of the telegraph, and a host of other areas, Online a Lot of the Time is essential reading for anyone interested in virtuality and its effects.” — Katherine Hayles, author of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary


Availability: In stock
Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ken Hillis is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of Digital Sensations: Space, Identity, and Embodiment in Virtual Reality and a co-editor of Everyday eBay: Culture, Collecting, and Desire.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Rituals of Transmission, Fetishizing the Trace 1

1. Rituals 47

2. Fetishes 79

3. Signs 103

4. "Avatars Become /me": Depiction Dethrones Description 133

5. So Near, So Far, and Both at Once: Telefetishism and Rituals of Visibility 203

Afterword: Digital Affectivity 261

Notes 267

Works Cited 287

Index 303
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4448-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4434-6
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