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In this paper, we present a poststructuralist analysis of customer database technology. This approach allows us to regard customer databases as configurations of language that produce new and significant discursive effects. In particular, we focus on the role of databases and related technologies such as customer relationship management (CRM) in the discursive construction of both customers and customer relationships. First, we argue that organizations become the authors of customer identities, using the language of the database to configure customer representation. From this perspective, we can see the radical innovation that the customer database brings to the organizational construction of its market: the emergence of the individualized customer. The cultural novelty of the database—ignored by instrumental analyses of information technology—also requires a theoretical reconceptualization of the notion of virtual identity. Against existing positions, we posit a non-essentialist theory of virtual identity where the subject is constituted outside the immediacy of consciousness and thus emerges as the result of the technological and linguistic context in which it was produced. Second, we take our analysis of the discursive construction of the customer further by proposing that the emergence of the individualized customer was the prerequisite of the social construction of CRM as one-on-one affair between the customer and the organization. We suggest that this is a limited and limiting understanding of the concept of customer relationships especially if the one-on-one relationship is placed in a computer-mediated environment (CME). By mobilizing theories of play developed in the fields of human–computer interaction and consumer research, we propose that organizations would benefit from opening up the current discourse on CRM to include relationships between customers, customers and non-customers, and customers and the virtual organization.

Publisher Statement

NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Information and Organization. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Information and Organization, vol. 14, no. 3 (July 2004), 10.1016/j.infoandorg.2004.01.002.