Symbolic Value

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'symbolic value' = a form of value that is produced by immaterial labour and not measured in forms of money, but can be appropriated and capitalized as well.

Concept discussed by Christopher Spehr at


"The symbolic value of virtual and global networking consists in recognition, centrality and representation.

Recognition means that others positively acknowledge what you do, that you 'get a name' by it, that you are seen as a person, group, movement, organisation that does important work and shows relevant skills. (The notion of the internet as a place of 'recognition economy' has been used before. I owe a lot of these ideas to the essay of Francis Hunger, 'Computer als Männermaschine', and his creative use of the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Roswitha Scholtz.) In the internet, recognition value e.g. may be measured in links that go to this site.

Centrality means that others may find you, that you control a space or structure that is visited by a lot of people, that you are a person, group, movement, organisation that is popular. In the internet, centrality value e.g. may be measured in hits that are counted on this site.

Representation means that others treat you as 'the address' if they are interested in a certain movement or group, field of practice or theory, that they imagine you as a person, group, movement, organisation that represents something bigger. In the internet, representation value e.g. may be measured in findings by seek machines when asked for a certain movement or group, field of practice or theory.

Symbolic value follows the same pattern as material value. It can be subject to collective control or to privatisation, it can be exchanged, appropriated, it can be subject to exploitation and capitalisation. It can even be traded into material value. This is the most visible aspect of symbolic value. For example, someone who ran an important website, represented an interesting group or field of activity, got identified with the skills demonstrated by this network, may trade this into a well-payed, regular job or contract within the commercial sector. A person or group may also use the symbolic capital that is owned by it to apply for fundings, to get payed lectures or invitations, etc.

The question of collective control vs. privatisation, in terms of symbolic value, is also the question of power inside the network. Power structures inside networks are based on ownership and on dependency.

Ownership in virtual networking is gained through the registration of the domain name. Whoever owns the domain name, is holding the ultimate legal power over the site. This cannot be taken away. But for a full sense of ownership, administration rights are necessary. In case of conflict, the administer of the site could not claim the domain, but he or she could, by quick action, move or mirror the content of the site. The site’s content represents the accumulated collective material value of the network – not its present, but its past; not all of its symbolic value, but its archives and thereby some vital part of it. The third factor, ownership and control of the physical server, is usually less important, but may (in case of conflict) be a source of interference and obstruction as well.

Power structures and exploitation of symbolic value inside networks is also done through the policy of intellectual property rights. Many domain-owner or funding institutions claim the unlimited property rights on content that is produced (have a look at your contracts!). Often organisations and institutions are even forced or at least urged by the rules of public funding to act that way: invested money has to result in symbolic capital. The GPL (general public licence) is an important tool to be used against this and should be established as some kind of a standard in virtual networking. On the other hand, freedom of intellectual property rights may also be a trap: whatever content a network has accumulated, it can no more be withdrawn from it, even if this network loses its credibility among certain groups – you may leave, but you can’t take it with you."