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Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human

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Millions of people around the world today spend portions of their lives in online virtual worlds. Second Life is one of the largest of these virtual worlds. The residents of Second Life create communities, buy property and build homes, go to concerts, meet in bars, attend weddings and religious services, buy and sell virtual goods and services, find friendship, fall in love--the possibilities are endless, and all encountered through a computer screen. Coming of Age in Second Life is the first book of anthropology to examine this thriving alternate universe.


Tom Boellstorff conducted more than two years of fieldwork in Second Life, living among and observing its residents in exactly the same way anthropologists traditionally have done to learn about cultures and social groups in the so-called real world. He conducted his research as the avatar "Tom Bukowski," and applied the rigorous methods of anthropology to study many facets of this new frontier of human life, including issues of gender, race, sex, money, conflict and antisocial behavior, the construction of place and time, and the interplay of self and group.



Coming of Age in Second Life shows how virtual worlds can change ideas about identity and society. Bringing anthropology into territory never before studied, this book demonstrates that in some ways humans have always been virtual, and that virtual worlds in all their rich complexity build upon a human capacity for culture that is as old as humanity itself.

Winner of the 2009 Dorothy Lee Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Ecology of Culture, Media Ecology AssociationHonorable Mention for the 2008 PROSE Award in Media and Cultural Studies, Association of American PublishersOne of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2009"The gap between the virtual and the physical, and its effect on the ideas of personhood and relationships, is the most interesting aspect of Boellstorff's analysis. . . . Boellstorff's portrayal of a virtual culture at the advent of its acceptance into mainstream life gives it lasting importance, and his methods will be a touchstone for research in the emerging field of virtual anthropology."--David Robson, Nature"Boellstorff applies the methods and theories of his field to a virtual world accessible only through a computer screen....[He] spent two years participating in Second Life and reports back as the trained observer that he is. We read about a fascinating, and to many of us mystifying, world. How do people make actual money in this virtual society? (They do.) How do they make friends with other avatars? The reader unfamiliar with such sites learns a lot--not least, all sorts of cool jargon...Worth the hurdles its scholarly bent imposes."--Michelle Press, Scientific American"Boellstorff's book is full of fascinating vignettes recounting the blossomings of friendships and romances in the virtual world, and musing fruitfully on questions of creative identity and novel problems of etiquette."--Steven Poole, Guardian"If you thought a virtual world like Second Life was a smorgasbord of experimental gender swaps, nerd types engaging in kinky sex or entrepreneurs cashing in on real world money making possibilities, think again. . . .Could Boellstorff be right that we're all virtual humans anyway, viewing the world as we do through the prism of culture?"--New Scientist"Boellstorff's anthropologist's insight into advanced societies helps us to see them anew."--Art Review"Where many of his colleagues insist on making a mystery of things that are straightforward (so to neglect mysteries real and pressing), Boellstorff is a likeable, generous, accessible voice. . . . This book, once it gets down to it, does truly offer a detailed and deeply interesting investigation of Second Life."--Grant McCracken, Times Higher Education"Boellstorff makes important contributions to ethnographic theory and method while providing a fascinating excursion into a virtual world, Second Life, inhabited by graphic manifestations of real-life people who interact with one another in localized parts of a vast virtual landscape that they themselves have largely created. . . . In classic anthropological fashion, Boellstorff entered Second Life, conducted ethnographic research within it as an avatar, and has written a vivid, highly engaging account of that world for real-life readers."--A. Arno, Choice"While it is geared toward anthropologists, the book will be of interest to a wide general audience, with the caveat that it may be helpful to keep a dictionary handy to decode some jargon. . . . [Tom Boellstorff] provides us with a solid foundation for important discussions about he value of technology in our everyday lives."--Peter Crabb, Centre Daily Times"This is a remarkable book. Tom Boellstorff has successfully achieved the extremely difficult task of writing a book that will appeal equally to the general reader and scholar alike. Coming Of Age In Second Life is well written, very well researched and whilst it does not get bogged down in academic detail and theory, it does provide reference to such theories that undergird the author's research."--Rob Harle, Metapsychology "Tom Boellstorff describes Second Life warmly and intelligently, highlighting its issues in a thought-provoking manner that is always backed up with evidence. There's an almost tangible depth to his analysis that makes it really stand out. This is just the kind of portrait of a virtual world that I've been waiting to see for years: a full-blooded, book-length tour de force."--Richard A. Bartle, author of Designing Virtual Worlds"This is the first book to take a sustained look at an environment like Second Life from a purely anthropological perspective. It is sure to become the basis for a new conversation about how we study these spaces. It is impossible to read this book and not come away asking questions about how our lives are being transformed in very real ways by what is happening in the virtual."--Douglas Thomas, author of Hacker Culture"Taking the bold step of conducting ethnographic fieldwork entirely 'inside' Second Life, Tom Boellstorff invites readers to meditate on the old and new meanings of the virtual and the human. He presses the inventive and compelling claim that anthropologists would do well to imagine culture itself as already harboring the notion of the virtual. Boellstorff argues that being 'virtually human' is what we have been all along."--Stefan Helmreich, author of Silicon Second Nature

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  • PDF | 336 pages
  • Princeton University Press; First Printing edition (May 11, 2008)
  • English
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Review Text

  • By Andrew H on March 16, 2016

    I'm not sure if there are any better ethnographies of virtual worlds out there, but there must be few that are as fun to read. This is an enlightneing romp through the world of Second Life and that of virtual worlds generally. It remains relevant despite the many changes to the fieldsite, because Boellstorff does not restrict himself to description. Rather, he tackles head-on the social and philosophical implications of a virtual world. As an anthropologist, I love the discussions of fieldwork and its central place of interpretation in the Age of Techne. We've been reading it in my online intro course, and I've been almost startled by the quality and depth of the student discussions it has inspired.I don't have a lot of criticisms - it IS clearly a book about anthropology, and people uninterested in that subject will probably find some of the discussion irrelevant to them. But it is also quite readable, and those who stick with it will mostly find it rewarding despite, I think.

  • By Freddy Mac Kee on January 2, 2014

    This is definitely an academic book. Anthropologists will flip out at this kind of quality work done on a virtual world, a virtual community, a virtual culture. Though it might be a bit dense on the first chapters, Boellstorff is setting the ground for a fascinating ethnography, and yes, of course ethnographers should let us know their academic and professional background so we can understand their perspective too. If you are not familiar with ethnographies and anthropology, patience will be required.

  • By Jack Feka on February 18, 2013

    Shortly after re-discovering Second Life I was fortunate to have this book recommended to me. Although it was a bit too academic for my taste I found that it revealed many complexities and possibilities of Second Life that I might have taken a second lifetime to discover on my own.I didn't lower my rating because of the heavy academic leanings because I was aware of this before I started reading it and chose to go ahead even though it wasn't written for a more general audience.

  • By Guest on September 25, 2017

    College reading material, delivered as promised.

  • By Guest on November 14, 2016

    Had it as a supplement reading for my ethnic studies class at uni (Cultural Anthro). It's a bit dull at times, but it does help in allowing you to have a more appropriate mindset for analyzing culture and society as an anthropologist would.

  • By Zane on August 15, 2013

    I had to read this book for a sociocultural anthropology course. As with many works of cultural anthropology/ethnography, if offers an interesting perspective and a few compelling insights, but stumbles when it tries to deeply explore and unpack the subject matter through an endless piling on of social constructs. Rather than coming off as insightful or illuminating, Boellstorff's repeated appeals to the authority of postmodernist and structuralist thinkers comes off as convoluted and pretentious.At first glance, conducting ethnography within the confines of a virtual landscape might seem anodd proposal. A virtual world like Second Life is an extension of human activity, not a novel center forunique human experience deserving of specific anthropological investigation. Yet the strongest argumentput forth by Tom Boellstorff in his book Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores theVirtually Human is that this perception is profoundly mistaken. Second Life is composed not only ofexpansive programming, but of complex and dynamic human interaction. That Second Life is a computerprogram does not divorce it from human reality. Rather, this condition sets the boundaries for emergentforms of human sociality deserving of independent investigation executed with the same rigor and underthe same general rubric(s) as any other ethnographic exploration. Through participatory observationwithin a virtual world, Boellstorff makes salient elements of culture that might otherwise be dismissed asunimportant forms of recreation.Fortunately for those largely - or entirely, as the case may be - unfamiliar with virtual worlds,Boellstorff begins by introducing the reader to some of the jargon peculiar to Second Life: the word"prims" takes the place of "objects", while elements of the environment are said to "rez" into view as onemoves about the Second Life landscape. He also moves quite rapidly into the type of convoluted languagefrequently used by social "scientists". This style, I feel, tends to obfuscate rather than clarify meaning, asubject I will return to later. For the most part, the progression of the book is fairly logical, discussing thehistory foundational to an understanding of virtual worlds before proceeding to a relatively engaging andnuanced discussion of ethnographic methodology as it pertains to his research agenda. Critically, themeaning and importance of participant observation is made clear.The basics of history and methodology squared away, Boellstorff proceeds topically, addressing -in terms of his categorizations - "Place and Time", "Personhood", "Intimacy", "Community", and"Political Economy", before moving on to the broad philosophical roundup titled "The Virtual". Theissues addressed in each section can be accurately surmised from their titles. Further, a full reiteration oftheir contents and a sufficient discussion thereof far exceeds the scope of this paper. Instead, it seemsuseful to discuss two recurrent themes of the book. The first deals with both the gap and overlap betweenthe virtual and actual world, as there are at once substantial distinctions between Second Life and real life(rl, in the textual parlance of Second Life members), and significant points of affective interrelation.Second, Boellstorff frequently returns to the concepts of episteme (knowledge) and techne (process/craft),arguing that the latter is not only of primary importance to the anthropologist engaged in participatoryobservation, but also that which constitutes the totality of culture in Second Life.As a virtual world, Second Life is platform for human expression free from the persistentphysical constraints and variable social strictures of real life. Perhaps the most superficially apparentdisconnect between Second Life and real life relates to aspects of the physical world. Second Liferesidents can fly, build structures impossible in the real world, and teleport from place to place in an everexpanding virtual geography with the potential to far exceed the geometric expanse available to humansin the real world. However, the distinctions that are perhaps most salient to those who participate dealwith the new social dynamics predicated upon the condition of anonymity. For instance, residents canengage in forms of sexual expression that they may not be willing or able to experiment with in real lifedo to the exigencies of their personal lives or the cultural contexts in which their real lives are situated.This, not surprisingly, is also a point where the potential convergence between the virtual and actual isrendered most lucid. Second Life residents form emotionally meaningful relationships in their sharedvirtual reality, and may tap into aspects of themselves that were previously unavailable. While the eventsand activities from which such things are built occur in an entirely virtual environment, Boellstorff makesit abundantly clear that the actual world effects of Second Life experiences can resonate just as stronglyin the real world. It is the places where the boundaries blur, and the virtual bleeds into the actual, thatBoellstorff's work is most compelling.Another dominant theme in Coming of Age in Second Life is the expression and construction ofculture through techne. Culture, especially in Second Life, is an endless process expressed through humanaction. In Second Life, cultures are the emergent product of dynamic interactions between residentscrafting designer virtual selves. Most aspects of appearance are highly malleable, and people choose toparticipate in conversations, friendships, organized groups, and forms economic expression andconsumption that can be indicative of personality in very deliberate ways. Interestingly, Boellstorffsituates techne in the virtual world within a broader concept of "creationist capitalism", which he links toWestern notions of individuality and self-determination as expressed through both production andconsumption. For the most part, Boellstorff's arguments concerning techne and creationist capitalism arehighly compelling, though I did find his marginalization of episteme (knowledge) curious. It is highlypractical that human action should be the primary focus of participant observation, as it is the only thingthat can truly be observed by a researcher. Nonetheless, I feel a complex feedback loop betweenknowledge and action was missed, as techne must be conditioned by episteme, and vice versa. Forinstance, in discussing inequality in terms of status, Boellstorff points out that the ability to script - towrite functional programming within second life, creating new objects - can be considered a marker ofelevated status. Obviously scripting is an action (techne), but it is predicated upon the knowledge(episteme) necessary to execute it.Finally, I turn to the task of assessing Boellstorff's work as a tool for teaching ethnography. Thetotality of Coming of Age in Second Life presents an interesting and, at least to me, unfamiliar culturallandscape in way that facilitates some degree of new understanding. Additionally, Boellstorff succeeds inilluminating new ways to reflect on one's own cultural experience. That being the case, I must return thecriticism I hinted at earlier. A quote from Boellstorff will provide a useful fulcrum for analysis. Referringto his decision to deal with a broad spectrum of topics, rather than develop an in-depth discussion of anyone, Boellstorff writes "What one gains from the traditional approach is a holistic understanding of theCONSTITUTIVE INTERSECTIONALITY of cultural domains" (p. 241, emphasis added). I think this statement isessentially true, but the phrasing is conspicuously complex. Perhaps something along the lines of "cultureis best understood when taken as whole" would work just as well. Were this an isolated occurrence, Iwould attribute it to hasty writing or poor editing, but its widespread occurrence makes be suspect it issome form of pseudo-intellectual posturing, a type of social signaling where a valid analysis is couched inan additional subtext, one that reads "I am an intellectual, note my depth of thought." That, of course, ispurely a stylistic criticism. The problem worsens when Boellstorff attempts to articulate or interrogateaspects of second life through the ideas of other social philosophers like Foucault and Bourdieu. Theseare, through the intellectually affective nature of the new social constructions they produced, importantthinkers. Further, I would add the personal caveat that I find some of their ideas quite interesting.However, I find that citing these authors does little to facilitate new understanding. Indeed, the verystructuralist philosophies espoused by Foucault would suggest that his opinion is no more valid that thereader's. At some point, the introduction and - at times - piling-on of social philosophy takes the readeraway from a point of understanding that would be more directly and more fruitfully achieved through theclear and careful articulation of the phenomena in question - in this case a description of life in a virtualworld. Since citing Levi-Strauss or Mauss does nothing to prove the veracity of one's argument (Isuppose it says something of historical persistence and potential popularity in certain intellectual circles)it strikes me that such citations are a way of arguing for the importance of a work by situating it in a bodyof research with extant intellectual momentum.In the final analysis, it all comes down to a question of intent. If the author intends tofacilitate new or increased understanding, then a work like this could benefit from a bit of streamlining.Boellstorff is clear that what he is doing is not science, but a useful comparison can be drawn from thenature of certain scientific work. Science can be taken to involve the development of ever more refinedalgorithmic compressions (Barrow, 2007) of real world phenomena - discrete solutions that describeaspects of the world with (potentially) infinitely increasing fidelity and utility that will never fully capturethe full complexity of the phenomena in question. Social science sometimes involves the opposite: theboundless proliferation of explanations without measurable improvement since, relative to work likeBoellstorff's, there is no external measure of utility, and therefore no objective measure of improvement.It is simply a matter of choosing or sculpting the explanation that best suits one's personal subjectivity.There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and I would not suggest that there is any objectivenecessity for the kind of social philosophy exemplified by Boellstorff's work to match the criteria ofscience. But at some point it must be recognized that this kind of work, while no more or less importantthan scientific inquiry, does itself and the reader a disservice by using phrases like "deeply theorize"before moving to discuss a host of variably convincing (often awkwardly articulated) opinions on thenature of social phenomena about which there is nothing even vaguely "theoretical", unless theory is tobe taken in the most colloquial sense. Since Coming of Age in Second Life is an exploration of a peculiarand interesting culture, sculpted with the intent of making the foreign familiar and understandable,Boellstorff would do well to cut back on the intellectual gymnastics and deliver what is necessary toachieve the aforementioned ends as clearly and as simply as possible.

  • By N. Hewlett on August 14, 2008

    It was a joy to read a book about SecondLife where I kept nodding my head instead of gnashing my teeth. The chapters describing SL activities and social conventions rang true to me and focused on the things I love about SL - it's culture of community, sharing, and friendship. The author obviously knows SL well and loves being here.It was also a joy to find a serious academic study about SecondLife. There aren't many of them out there yet, and a lot of the existing ones seem to be written by people who have only a nodding acquaintance with SL.This book should be required reading for anyone who is considering using SecondLife as a platform for social research. The author draws heavily upon his knowledge about ethnographic traditions and his previous fieldwork in Indonesia, in order to place his fieldwork in SL into proper perspective. He does a good job of describing how his study was conducted and the ethical principles he employed while doing it.If you are looking for sensational stories about genderbending or online sex, you probably won't find them here. If you need help learning how to use SecondLife or how to make money there, buy a different book. But if you would like to take a thoughtful look at the way people behave online during the early days of virtual worlds, this is the book for you.


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