Book of the Week

Coming of Age in Second Life – An anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human

By: Tom Boellstroff. University of California Press.


In this original ethnographic study of the virtual world “Second Life” (SL), anthropologist Tom Boellstorff explores cybersociality, creativity, and authenticity in an online setting. The study is highly innovative because Tom Boellstorff conducted all of his research through his avatar Tom Bukowski and entirely in the virtual world. Treating the avatars that Bukowski interacted with as humans, he gave them pseudonyms and followed the ethical protocols for conducting research with human subjects in the actual world. Boellstorff asks us to understand the ways that this exploration of virtual reality highlights the ways that the actual world, is in fact, always already virtual.


The opening chapters of the book introduce readers to the methods of anthropology, drawing on pioneers of the discipline Bronislaw Malinowski and, as the title suggests, Margaret Mead. He makes a strong case for the value of participant observation, that hallmark of ethnographic research first introduced by Malinowski and Boas, to argue that  ethnography has something special to contribute to the study of on-line communities and virtual worlds. The book is written for a wide audience including anthropology students, anthropologists, and anybody interested in virtual reality, cyberpunk, and cybersocialit

Virtual worlds, for Boellstorff, are not games they are rather places wherein people can play games, craft selves (avatars), and build places and communities. Boellstorff introduces his readers to new terms and spends a fair bit of time providing definitions for words like “virtual” “real” “actual” “world” “worlding” and “age of techne.” In the second chapter Boellstorff focuses on the history of virtual worlds, lifehistories (personal virtual histories), and earlier research on cybersociality. The third chapter provides a more detailed explanation of methods and ethical considerations.



In chapter four Boellstorff argues that “placemaking is absolutely fundamental to virtual worlds”? He outlines the ways that places are central to the life course of SL residents and continues to provide evidence for his understanding of SL as a place. He has an interesting discussion on the connection between visuality and knowledge in SL and in the production of anthropological knowledge in general.

Chapter five explores notions of self and person and relates these concepts to his idea of being “virtually human.” Here he draws on the work of Marcel Mauss and engages the reader in a thought-provoking consideration of the link between ideas about personhood or self and industrial or consumer capitalism. He then shows that for many SL residents their avatars are an expression of their “true” or inner-self and are in many ways more “real” than the personae they display in the actual world. Chapter six explores intimacy and relationships in SL while Chapter seven moves into a discussion of community and the relationship between community and location in SL. He also talks about the ethic of kindness within the context of SL and the contrasting practice of “griefing.” Chapter eight introduces readers to the political economy of SL and the concept of “creationist capitalism.” It is here too that we read about governmentality, rules of order, and social inequality within SL and the limitations of the platform/software.


Chapter nine reinstates the book’s central thesis – it is through virtuality that we discover what makes us human, and that the actual world is in fact always, already virtual.
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