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

Tom Boellstorff
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 11, 2010 0691146276 978-0691146270

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.

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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 2009 Dorothy Lee Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Ecology of Culture, Media Ecology Association

Honorable Mention for the 2008 PROSE Award in Media and Cultural Studies, Association of American Publishers

One 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

"One can almost guarantee this book will become one of those contemporary classics in anthropology that travel beyond the discipline as well."--Marilyn Strathern, European Legacy

"The book is absolutely invaluable for anyone who wants to understand what's happening with virtual worlds. Like the very best of ethnography, it transports; it is classically thick with descriptions of everything from the linguistic and the proxemic to the metaphysical and the erotic."--Christopher M. Kelty, Current Anthropology

"The monograph is an elegant tribute to the relevance and strengths of anthropology in the study of virtual worlds, a field of growing social significance that younger generations in particular are keen to investigate more fully. This was evident when I introduced the book to students in a recent course on digital anthropology, who could relate it to their own online every day experiences. As one of the early Internet ethnographers, I can but appreciate Boellstorff's efforts in strengthening this important domain of research, while crafting analytical tools with which to better understand the virtual essence of the human condition, as exposed to us through Internet-mediated virtual worlds."--Paula Uimonen, Social Anthropology

From the Inside Flap

"Tom Boellstorff describes Second Life warmly and intelligently, highlighting its issues in a thought-provoking manner that is always backed up with evidence. Theres 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 Ive 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

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691146276
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691146270
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 6.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #605,415 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
57 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes, academic, but very good July 10, 2008
By Reader
I felt obliged to respond after reading prior reviewers who gave this average ratings. Fair enough to be disappointed in this if, for some reason, you expected it to be an light-weight page-turner intended for Second Life residents.

This *is* an academic book by a professor of anthropology who uses plenty of footnotes. The target audience does *not* consist of those already well familiar with the intricacies of social customs in Second Life. And yes, there are references to anthropological thinkers throughout. Some of us actually like that kind of thing.

For its target audience, this is a great book. There are a limited number of academic books that treat the subject of contemporary virtual worlds carefully, thoughtfully, and well. This one really stands out as a study based on extensive ethnographic research and a firm grasp of the available literature. In my opinion, the audience is not just anthropologists, but anyone with a college degree and a serious interest in Second Life as a novel medium for social interaction. The style is educated, but accessible, and it is full of entertaining anecdotes and observations.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Future Classic September 12, 2008
Writing as an anthropologist, I am deeply impressed by Tom Boellstorff's description of SecondLife "from an avatar's point of view," and by its clear and coherent engagement with theories of self, personhood, and "cyberworlding" generally speaking. I taught this book in a senior seminar on Cultural Identities/Differences, and while it was a reach for some students, it sparked a rich conversation about the ethics of identity-play and its flesh-world consequences, virtual self-enhancement and its relation to self-abnegation, the politics of corporate and individual authorship of persons, the valuation of social memory and purposeful forgetting in online/offline community "bleed through," and how creativity is problematized as a practice of consumptive production.

I can think of no field ethnographer who better writes the contemporary moment. In my view, this book is a future classic.

Debbora Battaglia
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29 of 35 people found the following review helpful
I have really mixed feelings about this book.

On the positive side, I think it will, in time, become an important book. While the title is a take-off on Margaret Mead's book about Samoa, this is quite different in the sense that while Samoans had been around for a long time before Margaret Mead arrived on the scene, the author of this book was a very early resident of Second Life and therefore was an eye witness as it developed. I think that's going to make his first person account valuable as virtual worlds evolve into something very different from what they are today.

There are also some important insights in the book that are well-known to Second Life participants, but probably have not received the external attention that they deserve. Two examples that come to mind are his points about the kindness SL residents routinely extend to one another and the extent of multi-channel communication.

Regarding the former point, the media gives a lot of attention to the more salacious aspects of virtual worlds, but what participants know is that those things are the exceptions. What doesn't get enough attention is the fact that virtual worlds are full of people helping one another -- whether that's to learn new skills or cope with some real life problem.

With respect to the latter point, as the book explains and SL participants know, it's really common for multiple conversational threads to be happening in SL simultaneously -- sometimes via the same method (e.g., all in local chat) and other times not (e.g., a speaker giving a presentation using voice with attendees having multiple conversations about the presentation as it is happening using local chat, group IMs, or individual IMs).
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Luddites Review February 21, 2009
I have to admit that at first I thought an anthropological study of Second Life seemed a bit pre-mature, if not pretentious. I dunno. It just didn't seem to warrant that much attention since, until recently, my perspective on Second Life was that it was a piece of internet novelty and nothing more.
But my opinion about that and this book has changed.

First of all, I believe this book is important for people like myself who have never made so much as a binary print in the virtual landscape and yet still find themselves curious. People who have a daily diet of Second Life may be put off by the arms length academic tone of the book, but I'm not sure that the book is written for them. I feel as if I'm the audience, since every page is news to me and all of the descriptions did a more than ample job at satisfying my curiosities. My aging friend who is a college professor, and Second Life skeptic, would devour this book. He has no interest in joining Second Life, but he does asks questions about it. Mostly because he hears so much talk about it from his students. I also think people who have been following the ideas of Ray Kurzweil will also find this book helpful, since a lot of the psychology discussed in these pages speaks to the larger topics of Mind Transfer. At first, the digitization of "Mind" (whatever that is) was just fun pseudo-scientific speculation. But when the author begins to talk about "immersion" and the selfhood and all of its quiddities being projected into this environment, I began to wonder if this is the precursor to all of that futurist babble.

There was another book that made me rethink this one: "Being Virtual" by Davey Winder.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A must read before any research in Second Life
A helpful read to provide context for research in Second Life - regardless of methodology. Easy to read, will inform on everything from life in SL to research in SL to ideas for... Read more
Published 19 days ago by C. Stiles
5.0 out of 5 stars Boellstorff set out to make this a classic from the first line
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. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Freddy Mac Kee
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but swamped in reified constructs.
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... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Zane
1.0 out of 5 stars NOT recommended
Author is too interested in informing readers that; he is GAY, studied gays in Indonesia, blah blah, Gay and again Indonesia. Read more
Published 11 months ago by K
4.0 out of 5 stars Etopia News video interview with the author
For a remotely-recorded Etopia News video interview featuring a discussion with "Coming of Age in Second Life" author Tom Boellstorff about this book, go to:... Read more
Published 13 months ago by a_concerned_citizen
5.0 out of 5 stars Good condition
The condition was good, and the book is SUPER interesting. If you have not read the book, definitely get it.
Published 14 months ago by Iris Petersen
3.0 out of 5 stars Coming of Agein Second Life
Time has gone by. It is interesting book, but only from historical point of view. Second Life in not anymore so unique thing. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Anna-Kaisa Sjölund
3.0 out of 5 stars REVEIW
Published 16 months ago by leroy willis
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating introduction to Second Life
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... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Jack Feka
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow!
One of the most fascinating ethnographies I have ever read! I would recommend this book to just about anybody. This book inspired me to rethink what an ethnography is.
Published 20 months ago by AmyG
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