Summary: Coming of Age in Second Life – Boellstorff, T. (2008)

I’ve just finished reading anthropologist Boellstorff’s account of two years of fieldwork within Second Life ‘Coming of Age in Second Life.’ The author’s ‘stance’ in studying Second Life, from an ethnographic point of view, is to treat virtual worlds not as contrasting with the real world but with the actual. The author’s two main explorations into this idea are through, firstly, the notion that the avatars’ manipulators are never within the virtual world (cf. the elaborate section within the book about being ‘afk’ absent from keyboard) and secondly, the notion that the world represents a ‘techne’ culture where humans engage with the world and create the world illustrating a craft-based culture rather than a knowledge-based culture.

In the book, Boellstorff, or Tom Bukowski (his SL avatar), dedicates the first section to outlining the history of virtual worlds before turning to the methodological approach he undertook to conduct his fieldwork. This chapter’s underlying message is that virtual worlds must be studied in their own terms but that this does not mean ignoring ways in which ideas and practices from the actual world impinge on the virtual world but rather examining how they manifest themselves within the virtual world.

In section two, the author examines the culture of second life under the chapter headings of a) place and time b) personhood c) intimacy and d) community. Within the first sub-section, Boellstorff underlines the importance of the visual aspects of Second Life and how a sense of place, increased through landscape and home-ownership, is fundamental to residents. He also comes to understand how sociality is a key reason why the majority of residents remain in Second Life and that this is largely due to the possibility for synchronous interaction with other residents. The effects of lag and afk on social interaction are discussed.

In the second sub-section ‘Personhood,’ Boellstorff looks at senses of virtual personhood and how avatars create selfhood by their choice of name and by placing themselves on a ‘life course’. The author discusses how residents can identify ‘newbies’ and how actual life events can impact on virtual personhood, relationships and emotions. The section also looks at embodiment (and how this is used by physically disabled in the actual world) as well as race and gender.

Within the section on intimacy, the author investigates language within SL. He discusses the use of acronyms, different turn-taking practices and how residents code-switch between group instant messaging within a specific location and one-one- instant messaging between avatars (NB. At the time of writing audio chat was not incorporated into SL). Boellstorff then turns to describing how friendship is the primary relationship form with SL and that SL friendships, are often considered as more real than actual world friendships, due to the lack of prejudges based on gender, race, age etc and the idea that SL friendships are accelerated friendships due to their intensity. The different sexual communities which exist in SL are then examined as are romantic relationships.

The last chapter, within section two of the book, is dedicated to ‘community’. The main idea within this section is to reiterate that virtual worlds are places, which become sites of culture as residents interact and that with time they become communities.  Boellstorff describes how, in general, kindness is common in SL but that problems of ‘griefing’ (harassment and trouble-making) do exist. He then examines how ‘griefers’ are a specific SL community themselves. The author also looks at communities which extend over several virtual worlds and the importance of forums and blogs which constitute part of the SL community.

Finally, in section three of the book, ‘The Age of Techne’ Boellstorff addresses the issues of politics, economy and governance before concluding with a chapter on ‘the virtual’ describing what SL is and what SL is not. Perhaps the strongest messages within this final chapter are, firstly, that SL, despite drawing on aspects of the actual world, is not a simulation, as the world does not seek to become a replicate of the actual world, and secondly, that SL is not a social network. Rather, the author describes the virtual world of Second Life as a place of sociality where culture can be crafted.

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