Book review

Coming of age in "Second Life": An anthropologist explores the virtually human, by Tom Boellstorff

Adi Kuntsman

University of Manchester, Manchester, England, United Kingdom

[0.1] Keywords—Anthropology; Second Life; Virtual worlds

Kuntsman, Adi. 2010. Coming of age in "Second Life": An anthropologist explores the virtually human [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5.

Tom Boellstorff. Coming of age in "Second Life": An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2008. $39.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-691-13528-1.

[1] Clearly and engagingly written, Coming of Age in Second Life will be of interest to researchers and students in the anthropology of virtual worlds, as well as to those particularly curious about Second Life in its early years. Although not directly focused on fandom, the book addresses many of the issues that interest researchers of and participants in fan cultures: community and everyday life in online worlds, mediated identities, gaming environments, negotiations of culture, and, more broadly, the transformations of life, technology, and culture.

[2] Coming of Age in Second Life is first and foremost an encounter between two worlds: the virtual world and the world of anthropology. Tom Boellstorff is an anthropologist who spent years doing traditional anthropological research in Indonesia. In this book, he argues for the usefulness and power of anthropological tools—participant observations in one field site over an extended period of time, a holistic approach rather than a focus on one particular topic, focus on the "natives' point of view"—when applied to virtual worlds. This claim is closely linked to the book's main claim regarding the virtual: Boellstorff argues that while virtual worlds are cultures in their own right, cultures and humans have, to some extent, always been virtual.

[3] The first part of the book, "Setting the Virtual Stage," contains three background chapters that set the context of the research. Chapter 1, "The Subject and Scope of this Enquiry," provides an introduction into Second Life and its everyday practices and then positions them within the framework of anthropological research, similar to that conducted by the author in his previous work in Indonesia. Chapter 2, "History," positions Second Life within longer histories of virtual worlds. The chapter charts the author's own experiences of computer games and virtual worlds from as early as the 1980s. More importantly, the chapter presents virtual worlds as a much older phenomenon than one would imagine. Against the futuristic hype that sees virtual worlds (and Second Life in particular) as new, Boellstorff approaches virtuality as an inherent part of human cultures.

[4] Chapter 3, "Method," follows the usual repertoire of most monographs in the social sciences: a description of the ways the materials were collected (in this case, observations, interviews, and focus group discussions) and information on ethics and the researcher's own position toward his subjects. This chapter will be of particular interest to researchers and students interested in conducting ethnographic research in virtual environments. Extracts from the author's field notes also convey the sense of "being there." They show that once inside a virtual world, the practice of conducting research, while of course having its specific challenges, is not that different from researching any other cultural site, such as decoding a new language, traditions, practices, and formal and informal codes of behavior.

[5] But most importantly, this chapter presents Boellstorff's approach to the virtual worlds "in their own terms" (60–64)—that is, conducting his research exclusively online. His claim may look obvious to those readers who spend a significant amount of time in a virtual world, be it a multiuser computer game, an online forum, or even an e-mail-based community. And yet the question of the relationship between online and off-line worlds is recurrent in the field of Internet research, suggesting that studying only the virtual world may somehow be insufficient. Against those claims, Boellstorff insists that "actual world sociality cannot explain virtual world sociality" (63) and that an appropriate methodology for studying a collective that exists solely online is research conducted solely online. "Meeting residents in the actual world is perfectly legitimate, but addresses a different set of questions" (61).

[6] The second part of the book, "Culture in a Virtual World," introduces the reader to different aspects of everyday life in Second Life. Chapter 4, "Place and Time," focuses on the importance of place in understanding Second Life. Place making, suggests Boellstorff, is "foundational to virtual worlds" (91). The chapter demonstrates that Second Life residents are indeed preoccupied with place, even though that place is only virtual. First of all, the world of Second Life is based on geography: land and water, mainland and islands. Every resident can own land (although some choose not to), build on it, buy and sell it. The sense of place can operate through the capitalist logic of ownership and profit, but it is often shaped by other forms of special sociality—collective belonging, "our" neighborhood or area—or even notions of psychological comfort ("my place," "refuge heaven"; 101). These different visions of place are of course not entirely separate and can be related to each other.

[7] No less interesting is the way time and place work together in Second Life. While "the virtuality of online worlds inheres in their status as places" (102), there is a disjuncture between online and off-line time. This is demonstrated by the phenomenon of lag—a delay that occurs due to a slow Internet connection or a heavy stream of information, causing images to appear slowly or out of synch. Another phenomenon is temporal inequality, which occurs when events in Second Life are more suitable for those in European, North American, or Asian time zones. These two distinct phenomena reveal that "even when space is virtual, time is actual" and suggest that "time resisted virtualisation in a way that place did not" (105).

[8] The remaining chapters in the second part of the book continue the description of various aspects of life in virtual worlds, by looking at personhood (chapter 5), intimacy (chapter 6), and community (chapter 7). These chapters reveal the complexity of virtual worlds and interactions, showing the diversity of their residents and challenging some of the assumptions we may have about Second Life. For example, contrary to a popular belief that people enter Second Life only to engage in virtual sex, sex is only a small part of what residents do. Similarly, not everyone enters Second Life to socialize and interact: some people "enter virtual worlds to be left alone" (125).

[9] As Boellstorff repeatedly notes throughout, each of the topics discussed—language, sexuality, gender, race, kindness, violence—could have become a topic of a separate study. Instead, he chose to present each of them only briefly, in order to holistically describe a culture (in line with the anthropological tradition of addressing all aspects of a culture in relation to each other), rather than focusing in depth on a single phenomenon—a practice more common to sociology or cultural studies. This is one of the book's most important advantages, for it allows the reader to learn about many aspects of Second Life together, in one monograph. It makes it an invaluable resource to those unfamiliar with virtual worlds and with Second Life in particular. It also makes the book accessible to a wider audience: although informed by extensive scholarship in anthropology, philosophy, and cybercultures, Coming of Age in Second Life is written in accessible, jargon-free language. At the same time, this holistic approach can be a source of frustration for a more analytically oriented reader, who might want a more detailed and critical analysis of intimacy, violence, language, sexuality, or race. Faithfully following the "natives' points of view" and abandoning any critique or judgment for the sake of thick description can unintentionally normalize conflicts and injustices built into virtual worlds.

[10] Readers looking for more generalized theoretical analysis will find some answers in the last part of the book, "The Age of Techne." Chapter 8, "Political Economy," moves away from specific ethnographic narratives to describe how the economics and politics of Second Life are based on "creationist capitalism" (205–11), where labor is understood in terms of creativity. The concept explains how creativity is central to life in Second Life, how it puts forward a particular notion of individualism, labor, and satisfaction. In Second Life, creativity is linked to self-expression and freedom, but it is also a way of making money. Boellstorff analyzes creationist capitalism as part of the "Californian Ideology"—a fusion of high-tech industry and "cultural bohemianism" (207–8), but also as embedded in broader Western notions of self, labor, and creation. The chapter also briefly discusses forms of inequality that exist in Second Life—both those based on "real life" inequalities and those inherent to the virtual world itself, such as length of time spent there.

[11] The concluding chapter, "The Virtual," returns to the claims presented at the beginning of the book, that "online worlds draw upon a capacity for the virtual that is as old as humanity itself" (238), while at the same time developing new aspects of human sociality. Virtual worlds might transform what being human means and redefine the relations between humans and technologies. The power of anthropology here is of particular interest to the author when he suggests that "through culture, humans are always already virtual; ethnography has always been a kind of virtual investigation of the human, and can therefore play an important role in understanding cybersociality" (249).

[12] Coming of Age in Second Life is very much a sign of its times, and not only because, as any good ethnography should, it manages to capture social life in a particular period of time. The book captures the moment when virtual worlds increasingly become part of many people's everyday lives, but are not yet familiar to everyone and are not yet taken for granted in the way that, for instance, daily use of the Internet is. The book also tells us something important about anthropology. The discipline has been open to cybercultures and virtual worlds for almost two decades and is now sending students to do fieldwork assignments in Second Life; however, the legitimacy of virtual worlds as fieldwork sites and "cultures" in their own right still seems to be in need of defense—defense that Coming of Age in Second Life performs constantly and repeatedly, more often than it probably should. A culture alive does not need constant defense, and Boellstorff's account of this virtual world is highly convincing on its own.

License URL:

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works. TWC is a member of DOAJ. Contact the Editor with questions.