Review notes on Boellstorff’s (2008) Second Life ethnography
Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
I have been blogging my notes on Boellstorff’s ethnography of Second Life for a little while, as kindly noted by Princeton University Press. It’s time now to share my thoughts on this study in draft form as I prepare a review essay on recent anthropological studies of the Internet, including Boellstorff’s, for the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI). Rather than bury my thoughts in my head and laptop, I thought I would try putting them out into the public domain. All comments are greatly appreciated.
Update 21 July 2009: See also discussions one and two of this book initiated by Kerim on the anthropological blog Savage Minds. The first one is lengthy and includes posts by Boellstorff while the second one is very brief.
1. To study the virtual world Second Life ethnographically, on its own terms.
2. To outline a theory of the emergence of homo cyber in the Age of Techne (= craft, as opposed to episteme or knowledge). The main thesis is that the virtual makes us more, not less, human.
The book is divided into three parts and nine chapters. The first part ‘sets the virtual stage’ with a chapter on the study’s subject and scope, followed by a literature review and a methodology chapter. The second part consists of four chapters on place and time, personhood, intimacy and community. The book ends with a third part in which the author seeks to draw from the foregoing ethnographic presentation to outline a theory of contemporary culture in the Age of Techne (or craft).
The book has numerous strengths, particularly as regards aim no. 1. above (To study the virtual world Second Life ethnographically). This is a detailed, wide-ranging account of social life in the ‘third place’ constituted by Second Life (SL). For someone like me who’s never visited a 3D virtual world it really opened up a whole new world of experience but without the hype or superficialities of journalistic reporting or a less grounded study. I was absolutely fascinated – and sometimes repelled – by this place.
Boellstorff demonstrates that you can indeed study an online world in its own right, without having to research the offline lives of those who are popularly regarded as being ‘behind the avatars’. He time and again substantiates ethnographically the crucial point that SL has its own ‘cultural logic’, its own inworld dynamics that cannot be dismissed as a pale reflection of ‘real life’. I was particularly impressed by how he handled potential criticisms that he is positing an artificially bounded world almost in a functionalist way: for the benefit of these future critics, he convincingly shows that SL is both bounded and porous. Yes, there are refugee avatars from defunct virtual worlds to be found in SL. Yes, some residents operate in more than one virtual world. Yes, the actual world impinges upon SL in countless ways. Yes, some SL denizens go on to meet offline and even get married. All this is true, says Boellstorff, BUT SL is still a unique, bounded realm with its own distinctive ways.
This is a generous, ambitious book that opens up a host of new research avenues into virtual worlds, including on questions such as everyday residential sociality, place-making, how time resists virtualisation, building and other inworld crafts, and political economy. These questions are addressed at length yet far from exhausted in the book, providing a strong basis for future comparative studies on SL and other virtual worlds as they continue to develop.
One area that should give plenty of food for thought to media anthropologists and other media and communication scholars is Boellstorff’s contention that SL is a ‘third place’ (Krueger) not a conventional means of communication between a Place A and a Place B like the telephone, or television. Until now I was familiar with the notion of third place as proposed by Oldenburg, i.e. as a place of conviviality where suburbanites can socialise outside the home and the workplace, e.g. pubs, bowling clubs, residents’ associations. I am intrigued by the analytical possibilities (not explored in the present book) that open up if we regard SL and other virtual worlds as being third places in both Krueger’s and Oldenburg’s senses.
The main limitation pertains to the second aim of the book, i.e. to outline a theory of the emergence of homo cyber in the Age of Techne (= craft, as opposed to episteme or knowledge). Granted that Boellstorff himself admits that here he is standing on less firm ground (see candid interview on this matter with Doug Thompson aka Dusan Writer), I wonder whether the book needed this Big Idea.
Boellstorff’s thesis is that SL may be heralding a new age driven not so much by information or knowledge (as technology writers have told us for half a century) but rather by craft, as exemplified by SL residents’ keen interest in crafting/making their own world and its virtual artefacts. So instead of the promised Information Age or Knowledge Society we may be heading towards the Age of Techne. The problem is that in doing so he is replacing one dubious epochal claim with another. The evidence provided by Boellstorff himself suggests, by contrast, that SL is a highly specific internet place, one markedly distinct from those devoted to online games, social networking, blogging, bookmarking, twittering, forum discussions, and so on.
Taken together with other recent internet studies, Boellstorff’s provides further evidence that the internet – and indeed the world – is becoming ever more plural and that no single ‘cultural logic’ (whether it’d be the logic of networks, information, knowledge, fields, techne, or whatever) is gaining ascendancy. It seems to me that SL has found its specialist niche within a currently expanding internet ecology – a niche that attracts, like all niches, certain types of regular users and not others. For example, as someone who suffers from acute time poverty, the only way I could envisage becoming an active SL resident is if I made it into a research project (having previously found the time, that is, to apply for research funds to do so).
I don’t want to end on a downbeat note. After all, I have enjoyed reading Coming of Age in Second Life immensely and will be using it very soon in my writing and teaching. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to students and teachers of courses in general anthropology, ethnographic writing, media anthropology, cyberanthropology, media ethnography, and internet studies. A word of warning based on prior experience using this book for teaching, though: this is a voluminous tome, and the chapters are long, so in some cases it may be advisable to discuss a section or two rather than a whole chapter – let alone the entire book (which took me weeks to read).
I am also intrigued about Boellstorff’s key point that SL is a place, or more precisely, a ‘set of locations’, as well as ‘a robust location for culture’. In my own fieldwork into how Malaysian suburbanites use the Internet to ‘produce locality’ (Appadurai), which I regard as a localised form of cultural production, I am equally dealing with how people craft their social relations and ‘make place’ by means of internet technologies. I was often struck as I read Coming of Age by the parallels between the mostly virtual world of SL and the mostly actual world of Subang Jaya, the Kuala Lumpur suburb where I did the research. A lot of the SL issues are strikingly familiar from KL: anxieties over property, crime, vandalism, etc. and a resulting ‘frontier ethic’, the elusive search for ‘community’ and convivial forms of sociality, an inward looking worldview and local ‘cultural logic’, etc. This is very exciting and I expect to be writing about it very shortly.