- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1st Edition edition (May 11, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691135282
- ISBN-13: 978-0691135281
- Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 29 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,488,717 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human 1st Edition Edition
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"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 Back Cover
"Tom Boellstorff describes Second Life warmly and intelligently, highlighting its issues in a thought-provoking manner that is always backed up with evidence. There's 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 I've 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
Top customer reviews
I don't have a lot of criticisms - it IS clearly a book about anthropology, and people uninterested in that subject will probably find some of the discussion irrelevant to them. But it is also quite readable, and those who stick with it will mostly find it rewarding despite, I think.
At first glance, conducting ethnography within the confines of a virtual landscape might seem an
odd proposal. A virtual world like Second Life is an extension of human activity, not a novel center for
unique human experience deserving of specific anthropological investigation. Yet the strongest argument
put forth by Tom Boellstorff in his book Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the
Virtually Human is that this perception is profoundly mistaken. Second Life is composed not only of
expansive programming, but of complex and dynamic human interaction. That Second Life is a computer
program does not divorce it from human reality. Rather, this condition sets the boundaries for emergent
forms of human sociality deserving of independent investigation executed with the same rigor and under
the same general rubric(s) as any other ethnographic exploration. Through participatory observation
within a virtual world, Boellstorff makes salient elements of culture that might otherwise be dismissed as
unimportant forms of recreation.
Fortunately for those largely - or entirely, as the case may be - unfamiliar with virtual worlds,
Boellstorff begins by introducing the reader to some of the jargon peculiar to Second Life: the word
"prims" takes the place of "objects", while elements of the environment are said to "rez" into view as one
moves about the Second Life landscape. He also moves quite rapidly into the type of convoluted language
frequently used by social "scientists". This style, I feel, tends to obfuscate rather than clarify meaning, a
subject I will return to later. For the most part, the progression of the book is fairly logical, discussing the
history foundational to an understanding of virtual worlds before proceeding to a relatively engaging and
nuanced discussion of ethnographic methodology as it pertains to his research agenda. Critically, the
meaning and importance of participant observation is made clear.
The basics of history and methodology squared away, Boellstorff proceeds topically, addressing -
in terms of his categorizations - "Place and Time", "Personhood", "Intimacy", "Community", and
"Political Economy", before moving on to the broad philosophical roundup titled "The Virtual". The
issues addressed in each section can be accurately surmised from their titles. Further, a full reiteration of
their contents and a sufficient discussion thereof far exceeds the scope of this paper. Instead, it seems
useful to discuss two recurrent themes of the book. The first deals with both the gap and overlap between
the virtual and actual world, as there are at once substantial distinctions between Second Life and real life
(rl, in the textual parlance of Second Life members), and significant points of affective interrelation.
Second, Boellstorff frequently returns to the concepts of episteme (knowledge) and techne (process/craft),
arguing that the latter is not only of primary importance to the anthropologist engaged in participatory
observation, but also that which constitutes the totality of culture in Second Life.
As a virtual world, Second Life is platform for human expression free from the persistent
physical constraints and variable social strictures of real life. Perhaps the most superficially apparent
disconnect between Second Life and real life relates to aspects of the physical world. Second Life
residents can fly, build structures impossible in the real world, and teleport from place to place in an ever
expanding virtual geography with the potential to far exceed the geometric expanse available to humans
in the real world. However, the distinctions that are perhaps most salient to those who participate deal
with the new social dynamics predicated upon the condition of anonymity. For instance, residents can
engage in forms of sexual expression that they may not be willing or able to experiment with in real life
do to the exigencies of their personal lives or the cultural contexts in which their real lives are situated.
This, not surprisingly, is also a point where the potential convergence between the virtual and actual is
rendered most lucid. Second Life residents form emotionally meaningful relationships in their shared
virtual reality, and may tap into aspects of themselves that were previously unavailable. While the events
and activities from which such things are built occur in an entirely virtual environment, Boellstorff makes
it abundantly clear that the actual world effects of Second Life experiences can resonate just as strongly
in the real world. It is the places where the boundaries blur, and the virtual bleeds into the actual, that
Boellstorff's work is most compelling.
Another dominant theme in Coming of Age in Second Life is the expression and construction of
culture through techne. Culture, especially in Second Life, is an endless process expressed through human
action. In Second Life, cultures are the emergent product of dynamic interactions between residents
crafting designer virtual selves. Most aspects of appearance are highly malleable, and people choose to
participate in conversations, friendships, organized groups, and forms economic expression and
consumption that can be indicative of personality in very deliberate ways. Interestingly, Boellstorff
situates techne in the virtual world within a broader concept of "creationist capitalism", which he links to
Western notions of individuality and self-determination as expressed through both production and
consumption. For the most part, Boellstorff's arguments concerning techne and creationist capitalism are
highly compelling, though I did find his marginalization of episteme (knowledge) curious. It is highly
practical that human action should be the primary focus of participant observation, as it is the only thing
that can truly be observed by a researcher. Nonetheless, I feel a complex feedback loop between
knowledge and action was missed, as techne must be conditioned by episteme, and vice versa. For
instance, in discussing inequality in terms of status, Boellstorff points out that the ability to script - to
write functional programming within second life, creating new objects - can be considered a marker of
elevated status. Obviously scripting is an action (techne), but it is predicated upon the knowledge
(episteme) necessary to execute it.
Finally, I turn to the task of assessing Boellstorff's work as a tool for teaching ethnography. The
totality of Coming of Age in Second Life presents an interesting and, at least to me, unfamiliar cultural
landscape in way that facilitates some degree of new understanding. Additionally, Boellstorff succeeds in
illuminating new ways to reflect on one's own cultural experience. That being the case, I must return the
criticism I hinted at earlier. A quote from Boellstorff will provide a useful fulcrum for analysis. Referring
to his decision to deal with a broad spectrum of topics, rather than develop an in-depth discussion of any
one, Boellstorff writes "What one gains from the traditional approach is a holistic understanding of the
CONSTITUTIVE INTERSECTIONALITY of cultural domains" (p. 241, emphasis added). I think this statement is
essentially true, but the phrasing is conspicuously complex. Perhaps something along the lines of "culture
is best understood when taken as whole" would work just as well. Were this an isolated occurrence, I
would attribute it to hasty writing or poor editing, but its widespread occurrence makes be suspect it is
some form of pseudo-intellectual posturing, a type of social signaling where a valid analysis is couched in
an additional subtext, one that reads "I am an intellectual, note my depth of thought." That, of course, is
purely a stylistic criticism. The problem worsens when Boellstorff attempts to articulate or interrogate
aspects of second life through the ideas of other social philosophers like Foucault and Bourdieu. These
are, through the intellectually affective nature of the new social constructions they produced, important
thinkers. Further, I would add the personal caveat that I find some of their ideas quite interesting.
However, I find that citing these authors does little to facilitate new understanding. Indeed, the very
structuralist philosophies espoused by Foucault would suggest that his opinion is no more valid that the
reader's. At some point, the introduction and - at times - piling-on of social philosophy takes the reader
away from a point of understanding that would be more directly and more fruitfully achieved through the
clear and careful articulation of the phenomena in question - in this case a description of life in a virtual
world. Since citing Levi-Strauss or Mauss does nothing to prove the veracity of one's argument (I
suppose it says something of historical persistence and potential popularity in certain intellectual circles)
it strikes me that such citations are a way of arguing for the importance of a work by situating it in a body
of research with extant intellectual momentum.
In the final analysis, it all comes down to a question of intent. If the author intends to
facilitate new or increased understanding, then a work like this could benefit from a bit of streamlining.
Boellstorff is clear that what he is doing is not science, but a useful comparison can be drawn from the
nature of certain scientific work. Science can be taken to involve the development of ever more refined
algorithmic compressions (Barrow, 2007) of real world phenomena - discrete solutions that describe
aspects of the world with (potentially) infinitely increasing fidelity and utility that will never fully capture
the full complexity of the phenomena in question. Social science sometimes involves the opposite: the
boundless proliferation of explanations without measurable improvement since, relative to work like
Boellstorff's, there is no external measure of utility, and therefore no objective measure of improvement.
It is simply a matter of choosing or sculpting the explanation that best suits one's personal subjectivity.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and I would not suggest that there is any objective
necessity for the kind of social philosophy exemplified by Boellstorff's work to match the criteria of
science. But at some point it must be recognized that this kind of work, while no more or less important
than scientific inquiry, does itself and the reader a disservice by using phrases like "deeply theorize"
before moving to discuss a host of variably convincing (often awkwardly articulated) opinions on the
nature of social phenomena about which there is nothing even vaguely "theoretical", unless theory is to
be taken in the most colloquial sense. Since Coming of Age in Second Life is an exploration of a peculiar
and interesting culture, sculpted with the intent of making the foreign familiar and understandable,
Boellstorff would do well to cut back on the intellectual gymnastics and deliver what is necessary to
achieve the aforementioned ends as clearly and as simply as possible.
I didn't lower my rating because of the heavy academic leanings because I was aware of this before I started reading it and chose to go ahead even though it wasn't written for a more general audience.