One of the characteristics of ritual that differentiates it from mythology is that ritual consists of action. Both myth and ritual are symbolic, but myth is constructed of symbolic communication, whereas ritual is a performance, not just a telling.
Where does this leave online rituals? Traditionally, rituals are considered to be inherently embodied. That is, their enactment involves the physical bodies of human beings interacting in time and space with physical objects of ritual significance.
In an interview with S. Brent Plate, Rachel Wagner, professor of religious studies at Ithaca College and author of Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality, comments, “If you define ritual as structure, then moving a ritual online can work quite well, because the structure can be retained. Anything that we experience in an online context has been programmed by someone, so it has some kind of fixed structure. So, if you think of ritual as sort of a set of actions that you perform in a particular way, then those actions can be portrayed in virtual reality as effectively as they can in real life. But then, the question becomes one of enactment, right, and how important is the body in that enactment, and some people think it’s crucially important, especially if it’s a ritual that’s supposed to build community. Some people think that you can’t build community if you don’t know people in their embodied form.”
One’s response to the question of whether online rituals are possible depends on one’s definition of the physicality of the human form. Manichean tradition casts the realm of ideas and the realm of objects as separate things. However, the creation of a virtual world using physical objects challenges this cultural belief.
It’s important to remember that, whenever online worlds are entered, they are done so through physical objects: Computers, tablets, or smart phones. No mind is directly hooked into the Internet – yet. Even if such a direct mental link were to take place, the thoughts of the linked-in mind would take physical form of some sort in a human brain before being transmitted into the Internet.
Besides, the idea that physical bodies must be involved in ritual for the ritual to be authentic ignores the conceptualization of ritual as a liminal experience – taking place in a threshold environment in which the ordinary structures of time and space are suspended. If the virtual worlds of online life don’t count as liminal, nothing does.
Online rituals may not only need to be grudgingly admitted into the community of ritual, but to be recognized as the new rituals par excellence.
If the online realms are acknowledged as inherently ritual in nature, then we can begin to understand that models of ritual marketing can be the most effective means of linking online commerce with symbolically significant forms of consumption in the offline world.