Book Review: Tom Boellstorff Coming of Age in Second Life: an Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human

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  • Topic: Second Life, Linden Lab, Virtual world
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  • Published : May 12, 2013
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Book Review: Tom Boellstorff Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human Boellstorff questioned whether it was possible for a virtual world to be subject to the same ethnographic techniques and analyses as locations and communities are in the real world. As a leading ethnographer studying gay and transgendered cultures in Indonesia, Boellstorff brings a significant amount of experience and expertise to this field of work. He proposed the question – was it possible to use the same methods used in Indonesia to try and understand the new cultures emerging in virtual worlds (Boellstorff 2010) and rehabiliate the notion of ‘virtual’ by studying virtual worlds “in its own terms” (p62). Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human is an ethnographic study of the popular virtual world Second Life. The reader is presented with a description of what it is to ‘live’ in Second Life, by the application of established methodology for examining ‘real world’ communities. Boellstorff attempted to replicate the ‘traditional’ methods and theories of anthropology while applying them to a virtual world. The title of the book is a play on Margret Mead’s classic work Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). Second Life is a platform created by Linden Lab. Their aim was to create a “revolutionary new form of shared 3D experience” (Linden Labs). Coming of Age in Second Life is divided into three parts and nine chapters. The first part, titled “Setting the Virtual Stage” contains three background chapters that set the context of the research. Boellstorff provides an introduction into Second Life and its everyday normalities. He discusses his own experiences with computer games and virtual worlds, tracing them back to their origins. The second part “Culture in a Virtual World”, introduces the reader to different aspects of everyday life in Second Life, dividing the four chapters into the headings “Place and Time”, “Personhood”, “Intimacy” and “Community”. “Place and Time” focuses on the importance of understanding place in Second Life, suggesting that place is the “foundation to virtual worlds” (p91). The remaining chapters reveal the “complexity of virtual worlds and interactions, showing the diversity of residents and challenge assumptions” (Kuntsman 2010). The book ends with a third part “The Age of Techne” where Boellstorff examines questions of economics, politics and governance within Second Life. He argues that economics and politics of Second Life are based on "creationist capitalism" (p205), where labour is understood in terms of creativity. Boellstorff concludes his book explaining and addressing what Second Life is, and what it is not. “These chapters are not designed to be read in any order: they constitute a cumulative argument” (p30). Acknowledging that he is unsure of the audience his text will reach, and believing that virtual worlds are growing in popularity and their importance, Boellstorff presents a style of writing comprehensible and accessible to a dual audience. Boellstorff presents a “virtual landscape previously untouched by anthropology” (Friend 2010). Although the society he puts forth may potentially be unfamiliar, he hopes that book will be useful to not only anthropologists but participants in virtual worlds and online games, as well as a more general audience (p6). The vast divide within the anticipated audience has meant Boellstorff has created a “balancing act” (Friend, 2010), trying to accommodate all parties. He however recognises this divide, addressing early on that “Some may find my writing too laden with jargon; others, too informal” (p6), hoping that all parties will meet the text “halfway and find in it something useful or provocative” (p6). An advantage of the book is that it “allows the reader to learn about many aspects of Second Life together, in one monograph” (Kuntsman 2010) Boellstorff outlines three goals for the book: substantive,...
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