Book Review: Tom Boellstorff Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human Boellstorff questioned whether it was possible for a virtual world to be subject to the same ethnographic techniques and analyses as locations and communities are in the real world. As a leading ethnographer studying gay and transgendered cultures in Indonesia, Boellstorff brings a significant amount of experience and expertise to this field of work.He proposed the question – was it possible to use the same methods used in Indonesia to try and understand the new cultures emerging in virtual worlds (Boellstorff 2010) and rehabiliate the notion of ‘virtual’ by studying virtual worlds “in its own terms” (p62). Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human is an ethnographic study of the popular virtual world Second Life. The reader is presented with a description of what it is to ‘live’ in Second Life, by the application of established methodology for examining ‘real world’ communities.

Boellstorff attempted to replicate the ‘traditional’ methods and theories of anthropology while applying them to a virtual world. The title of the book is a play on Margret Mead’s classic work Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). Second Life is a platform created by Linden Lab. Their aim was to create a “revolutionary new form of shared 3D experience” (Linden Labs). Coming of Age in Second Life is divided into three parts and nine chapters. The first part, titled “Setting the Virtual Stage” contains three background chapters that set the context of the research.

Boellstorff provides an introduction into Second Life and its everyday normalities.He discusses his own experiences with computer games and virtual worlds, tracing them back to their origins. The second part “Culture in a Virtual World”, introduces the reader to different aspects of everyday life in Second Life, dividing the four chapters into the headings “Place and Time”, “Personhood”, “Intimacy” and “Community”. “Place and Time” focuses on the importance of understanding place in Second Life, suggesting that place is the “foundation to virtual worlds” (p91). The remaining chapters reveal the “complexity of virtual worlds and interactions, showing the diversity of residents and challenge assumptions” (Kuntsman 2010).

The book ends with a third part “The Age of Techne” where Boellstorff examines questions of economics, politics and governance within Second Life. He argues that economics and politics of Second Life are based on "creationist capitalism" (p205), where labour is understood in terms of creativity. Boellstorff concludes his book explaining and addressing what Second Life is, and what it is not. “These chapters are not designed to be read in any order: they constitute a cumulative argument” (p30).

Acknowledging that he is unsure of the audience his text will reach, and believing that virtual worlds are growing in popularity and their importance, Boellstorff presents a style of writing comprehensible and accessible to a dual audience. Boellstorff presents a “virtual landscape previously untouched by anthropology” (Friend 2010). Although the society he puts forth may potentially be unfamiliar, he hopes that book will be useful to not only anthropologists but participants in virtual worlds and online games, as well as a more general audience (p6).The vast divide within the anticipated audience has meant Boellstorff has created a “balancing act” (Friend, 2010), trying to accommodate all parties. He however recognises this divide, addressing early on that “Some may find my writing too laden with jargon; others, too informal” (p6), hoping that all parties will meet the text “halfway and find in it something useful or provocative” (p6). An advantage of the book is that it “allows the reader to learn about many aspects of Second Life together, in one monograph” (Kuntsman 2010) Boellstorff outlines three goals for the book: substantive, methodological, and theoretical.

His substantive goal is to “provide an ethnographic portrait of Second Life” (p24). Methodologically, he seeks to “demonstrate the potential of ethnography for studying virtual worlds” (p24), with a primary aim of arguing that ethnographers can study “virtual worlds in their own terms” (p62) (Kendall 2010). Finally, his theoretical goal is to “contribute towards a better understanding of virtual worlds in all their constantly transforming complexity” (p24). Here, Boellstorff outlines theories including Creationist Capitalism and the Age of Techne.The book provides a set of theoretical and methodological frameworks for understanding culture in virtual worlds which are well suited for the challenge of examining the new culture of Second Life. Boellstorff conducted all his fieldwork entirely in the realms of Second Life, and due to this, he establishes himself as a “foremost authority in that virtual culture” (Friend 2010).

He conducted his through his avatar named Tom Bukowski. “While Boellstorff wrote the book, it was Bukowski who performed the research” (Friend 2010).During his time in Second life, Beollstroff conducted “participant observations, interviews, and focus groups”. He also analysed a range of texts, including newsletters and blogs to try and engage with the everyday lives of residents in Second Life.

All the while, he would browse the local shops, develop personal relationships and visit residents in their homes (Blume 2009). “Bukowski was the interface that Boellstorff experience Second Life, and it was with Bukowski that other avatars interacted, conversed, shared stories, and learned” (Friend 2010).Boellstorff’s research did not yield, hard, quantitative data or conclusions, but instead the findings are in the words of those interviewed by Boellstorff’s avatar. When Boellstorff conducted the research of his book The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia, he aimed to immerse himself in the culture. He wanted to replicate that immersion and sought to “learn about Second Life as an insider” (Boellstorff 2010).

He worked to gain an insider’s perspective, not wanting or expecting other residents to dictate the ‘rules’. “When I’m in Indonesia I do what they do.Part of being a good anthropologist is you always try and fit the context you are studying” (Boellstorff 2010). Boellstorff considered this essential when conduct an effective ethnography. However, due to the nature of ethnographies, the world he captured is just a snapshot.

He captured the time when Second Life itself was “coming of age” (p8). “The book captures the moment when virtual worlds increasingly become part of many people's everyday lives, but are not yet familiar to everyone and are not yet taken for granted” (Kuntsman 2010). The findings made are “specific to the context in which they are written” (p30).However, Boellstorff doesn’t try and deny that his findings will become outdated.

He recognises that changes will take place, even in the time he finished conducting research in 2007 to the time it was published in 2008. His theoretical goal to “contribute towards a better understanding of virtual worlds” (p24) has been accomplished. Boellstorff’s writing has opened up “a host of new research avenues into virtual worlds, including questions on such as everyday residential sociality, place-making, how time resists virtualisation, building and other inworld crafts, and political economy” (Postill 2009).Boellstorff’s work provides a strong basis for future comparative studies on Second Life and other virtual worlds as they continue to develop. Change has taken place. The twenty-first century has seen technological growth and transformations as the internet became accessible.

Between 2000 and 2010 the internet has grown beyond recognition. In 2000, the estimated number of users reached 361 million users, compared with 1,967 million users in 2010 (Pingdom 2010). Four years since the fieldwork ended, as predicted by Boellstorff, Second Life has changed, and so have real world attitudes towards virtual worlds.In 2010, seven out of the ten biggest contemporary virtual worlds marketed for children. Club Penguin, a virtual world, was sold to Disney in 2007 for over 700 million US dollars. Virtual worlds are now being integrated into other sources of media, for example social networking, where the number one application on FaceBook is a simplified virtual world called FarmVille.

As of September 2010, FarmVille had over 62 million active users compared with Second Life which has an estimated 1. 5 million active users. (Boellstorff 2010) Boellstorff’s work therefore represents almost a history of what Second Life was rather than what it remains to be, although it continues to address “many current and continuing issues surrounding our relationship with the online world” (Everett 2010). When one invests one’s productive labour-time in building something in Second Life, one creates incentives for others to participate in Second Life, and those incentives lead to increased profits for Linden Labs.

In spite of the sunny description of the life in the world of Second Life that he offers in the early chapters of the book a creative site for sociality and his stated wish to push again the “negative assumption” that “virtual worlds are hopelessly contaminated by capitalism” (p26), Boellsorff’s light analysis of this phenomenon under the concept of ‘Creationist Capitalism’ leads one to precisely this conclusion (p206); very few capitalise on their own creativity in Second Life, but nearly everyone’s creativity and productive labour is capitalised by Linden Labs and other participants.This is more than a counterargument again Boellstorff’s repudiation against the “contamination” of Second Life by capitalist relations; it shows that Second Life is constituted as an expression of capitalist relations, that it functions as such, and would not be in any recognisable form otherwise. This virtuality is already virtual capitalism However, Coming of Age in Second Life has numerous strengths, particularly in regards to Boellstorff’s ability to study the virtual world ethnographically.Boellstorff presents a thought-provoking way to interpret the term “virtual” observing that newspapers in earlier generations created communities by connecting psychically separated populations in shared networks of mean. Viewed in this way, it could be argued that Second Life is not inherently different.

He successfully addresses throughout the book his three goals he outlined in the first chapter, demonstrating that you can certainly study an online world in its own right, or “in its own terms”(p62), without having to research the offline lives of those regarded as being ‘behind the avatar’ (Postill 2009).What emerges from the project is an amusing and heartfelt telling of ‘life’ in a virtual world. Boellstorff is able to fascinate, yet at points repel the reader. He remains an honest narrator, even telling of the eventual boredom of virtual life: “Throughout my research I was stuck by the banality of Second Life. Exotica could certainly be found, from castle in the sky to alts, furries, and gender transformations. Yet everyday Second Life was also mundane creativity, conversation, intimacy, shopping, entertainment, even tedium.

As one redident put it, “that’s the dirty secret of virtual worlds; all people end up doing is replicating their real lives” (p239). “What Boellstorff has accomplished is to justify virtual worlds as an anthropological subject and to justify anthropology as a discipline capable of contributing to the analysis of the virtual” (Eller 2010). What emerges from Boellstorff’s study of the virtual worlds is that they should not so much challenge as extend our notion of what a ‘world’ is, andWhat should emerge from studying the virtual worlds is that they not so much challenge as extend our notion of what a ‘world’ is, and the anthropology of virtual worlds will not so much challenge as extend our notion of what anthropology is. Throughout his research, Boellstorff kept in mind Malinowski’s dictum that the ethnographer should never lose sight of the goal, ‘to grasp the native’s point of view’. I think Boellstorff did exactly this.