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

Rezwana Prima

Since its inception in 2003, the much acclaimed virtual real-life simulation ‘Second Life’ ( created quite a hullabaloo in the world of worldwide online community. People living on the internet got something new to (re)create themselves, (re)design themselves as they wanted to. Naturally, with popularity came criticism and where there is criticism there is bound to be some form of research as well. Back in the year 2008, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Tom Boellstroff, boarded a train and gave anthropology a new window to look through in its continuous pursuit of understanding humans. This gave birth to Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (2010).

The work itself caused quite a ripple amongst the group of thinkers in the post-humanism genre. It was published from Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, where the author endeavoured to focus on an encounter between the virtual world and the world of anthropology. The title of the book can evidently call upon our remembrance of Margaret Mead’s classic work Coming of Age In Samoa (1928) and certainly, the cover of Boellstroff’s book, in which a girl, wearing a black jacket with short hair and vogue can remind our familiarization of Samoan Girls which was featured on Mead’s old edition. All of these parallels that the author has drawn in the book can be considered as a shrewd pun!


The title ‘Second Life’ is more or less an indication toward something that can be assumed by its name – a secondary life that emulates something of its primary counterpart. During the period of 2004-2007 when the research was being conducted, the idea of ‘Second Life’ was a relatively new one and certainly, not as much commonplace as it is today. The book ventured into the idea of virtual landscape, which was still relatively untouched by anthropology prior to that point. In a nutshell, ‘Second Life’ is an online virtual world, where the users retain copyright for any content they create. He delineates the complex identities, relationships, political and economic trends in this emerging social form. The author used the phrase ‘coming of age’ to describe this transition and the growing body of virtual reality.

It is a curious thing to see how Boellstroff’s Coming of Age in Second Life lets him fashion himself in the tradition of Franz Boas. As an anthropologist, he had done many kinds of research, spending time by studying gay cultures in Indonesia and other traditional anthropological topics and decided to apply the same ethnographic method to explore what it means to be human and how humans fabricate subcultures and identities in the virtual world. He signed in for Second Life as that was his research field, where he initially depended on some informants who would help him to gather ideas about functioning in their social world. He emphasizes on the convenience and capacity of anthropological tools (e.g. participant observation in one field site over an extended period of time, focusing on ‘native’s point of view’ to gain an insider perspective from which he gradually abstracts relevant themes etc.). In order to do so, Boellstroff creates an avatar, a personalized graphical illustration that represents the character inside the virtual second life environment, named Tom Bukowski and Bukowski was the interface through which this overall study, the actions and interactions were being performed over two and a half year. By owning property, building a homestead for himself and being an engaged member of various second life communities, Boellstroff carried out his research online because avatars and this entire second life space are the products of human creativity and computer technology which do not exist offline.

Coming of Age in Second Life comes in two parts consisting of three chapters in the first part while the rest of the chapters are covered in the latter part. The first part of this book, “Setting the Virtual Stage” includes three background chapters. Through these chapters, Boellstroff, or Tom Bukowski (his SL avatar) basically places the context of his research. In chapter one, titled “The Subject and Scope of this Inquiry” he introduces the idea of Second Life and its everyday practices with the reader. Chapter two, titled “History” conveys the history of the virtual world. Here, the author presents the virtual world as much as older phenomena. The author incorporates his own experiences of computer games and virtual worlds from as early as the 1980s. Chapter 3, titled “Method” explicates the sense of “being there”. It provides a description of the ways the materials were collected (e.g. interviews, observations, focus group discussions).

The second part of this book titled “Culture in a Virtual World” examines different aspects of everydayness in second life. He stresses the significance of the visual aspect of second life. Place and time, personhood, intimacy, community-all of these pose some kind of significance for the second life. According to Boellstroff, residents can become whoever they want to be in second life, changing gender, ethnicity, or age as these can be changed readily; people can replace parts of them that do not suit their purpose! The author also illustrates the significance and the ways through which, a sense of place, home-ownership etc. becomes fundamental to the residents. This book brings different textures of cultural landscape (Language within second life; ‘friendship’ as a primary relationship) of second life. The author reiterates that all of these interactions are being interacted within the second life of the residence and thus, with time they become communities which become sites of cultures. Chapter right, titled “Political economy” concentrates on how the economic and political aspects of second life are confined on “creationist capitalism” (p. 205-11). By exploring this concept, the author foreshadows that, creativity is central in second life and “labor is understood in terms of creativity, so that production is understood as creation” (p. 206).

In this book, Boellstroff has tried to demonstrate quite a bit about a particular type of society and culture, giving a somewhat imperative understanding of the people and their activities in Second Life to the readers of his book. In the surroundings of virtual space, people converse and share different life events with each other. Interestingly, the writer does not deny a difference between the face-to-face world and online world but at the same time, he treats the virtual world not as contrasting to the real world but with the actual. ‘Reality’ is about our experiences that determine how things appear to us, we create meaning out of these experiences. Individuals with real-world disabilities find Second Life experience as an opportunity to live life without barriers. He asks, “What is reality?” and “What constitutes the authentic human being?” (p. 249). His confutation towards the dominant view of culture as episteme- knowledge about reality is sharp. He uses the Aristotelian notion of ‘techne’ and envisions a culture in ways people perform their absolute necessities that create their reality. Whatever we experience is always being mediated by our culture and therefore our experience is always ‘virtual’. For him, virtual worlds recraft, reconfigure a whole new world, selfhood and sociality. The author has deliberately made statements such as ‘It is in being virtual that we are human’ (p. 29.) while commenting on the human condition and what Second Life can tell us about it. The virtual world is often paralleled with the emergence of the ‘posthuman’ through terms like ‘homo cyber’ and ‘virtually human’. Humans are not humans in the virtual reality, at least not in the sense we perceive them to be. Boellstroff believes that the relationship between the virtual and the human is not a “post” relationship. Rather, these two constitute each other. He developed these arguments at length in the final chapter of the book.

To sum it up all, there are few things that require a special note from this book. Firstly, the book brings a whole new standard in ethnography which represents ‘cutting edge’ anthropology for its greatest advancement and sophistication. Secondly, this book facilitates an elaborate understanding (visual illustration by providing pictures of the second lifer) about cyber sociality that was previously an unstudied area in anthropology. ‘Culture’ as a concept is notoriously slippery and it is not delimited. Anthropologists have always argued that if we want to understand a particular thing, (even a virtual community) we have to understand it within its broader context. Tom Boellstroff’s research was conducted entirely in Second Life without pursuing them in real life. So, when the participants shared their experiences, they did so within a membrane between Second life and real life. Hence, the book provides a new texture in terms of anthropological research.

Rezwana Prima:  Currently a graduate student of anthropology at Jahangirnagar University. She likes to sing and enjoys a heavy visual presence on social media. Can be reached at [email protected]

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