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Summary of Boellstorff (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life

July 13, 2009



Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

NB – See previous blog entries for more detailed notes on each chapter





Chapter 1. The Subject and Scope of this Inquiry, 3-31

The book is an ethnography of the virtual world Second Life (SL) from June 2004 to January 2007. The aim is to rehabilitate the notion of ‘virtual’ by studying virtual worlds in their own terms. Inquiry into both the historical continuities and changes of this virtual world. The author argues that the notion of posthuman is misleading, for it is in being virtual that we are human. Instead he sets out to investigate virtual worlds as ‘techne’ (human practice that engages with the world and creates a new world as well as a new person: homo cyber). Second Life is most certainly not a game for its residents, and we must take residential sociality seriously. Anthropology can make a contribution to the study of emerging forms of cybersociality.

Chapter 2. History [of Virtual Worlds], pp. 32-59

The crucial historical breakthrough with virtual worlds came in the 1970s with Krueger’s invention of the first, rudimentary virtual world which allowed two people to interact virtually in a ‘third place’. This was a fundamental break from existing forms of telecommunication in which two places (A and B) are remotely connected but without a third place. Another precursor to Second Life was first-person perspective of videogames from 1970s onwards. What is new about virtual worlds like Second Life is that techne now resides inside this virtual third place, that is, SL residents craft the very objects of their inworld practices.

Chapter 3. Method, pp. 60-86

The starting point of project was methodological: What can ethnography tell us about virtual worlds? Undertook almost whole study inside SL, as avatar Tom Bukowski. Takes issue with previous Internet ethnographies (eg. Miller and Slater 2000) for insisting on embedding online worlds in actual worlds. Argues that you cannot explain inworld sociality via actual-world sociality – must understand it in own terms as it is no recreation or simulation. Human selfhoods and communities are being remade in SL. Opts for holistic approach to SL as he did in previous study of Indonesia – overarching cultural logic is the focus, not subcultures. Adapting Geertz, he sees the cultures of virtual worlds as being ‘highly particular’. Participant observation is form of techne: the ethnographer crafts events as they unfold. This mode of inquiry also shows that we must pay more heed to the mundane in virtual worlds and less to the sensational.


Chapter 4. Place and Time, pp. 89-117

There is a long tradition in mass media studies in which virtual worlds seen as antithesis of place-making. Yet virtual worlds are ‘new kinds of places’; they are ‘sets of locations’. SL residents have strong sense of place, e.g. when talking about their SL homes: “It’s my place: it’s mine”. One key feature is 3D visuality, unlike blogs or websites. Although commodity economy predominates (both persons and things are commodities), it’s not all neolib consumerism: there is also barter, communal ownership, donations, etc. That said, ownership is important dimension of SL sociality, non-owners are socially impaired. Another key aspect of sociality is synchronic interaction which makes virtual worlds feel like worlds, but this always threatened by ‘lag’ (delayed action) and ‘afk’ (absent from keyboard). Although person and avatar reunited after afk, users are never completely ‘back’ as physical body always remains away from virtual world.  In contrast to virtual reality, here what matters is social not sensory immersion.

Chapter 5. Personhood, pp. 118-150

Aim of chapter is to investigate ‘everyday senses of virtual personhood’ in SL. Re: life course (Giddens), what is SL course? Many residents had more than one account so actual and SL selves not necessarily coterminous. However, time constraints in having several avatars – time resists virtualisation far better than space. Unlike game worlds, no skill levels here, although newbies easily recognisable for lack of practical skills. Changes in actual life could impact on SL, e.g. family member falling ill.  Leaving SL could be painful, ‘charted on blogs and commemorated with farewell parties’. SL embodiment not a simulation of real life: residents experienced ‘corporeal immediacy’. Contrast between Haraway’s cyborg corporeality (prosthetic continuity human-machine) and that of SL’s homo cyber (actual-virtual gap). Race also played a part, but often tacitly: default avatar race was white.

Chapter 6. Intimacy, pp. 151-178

SL brought about new forms of online intimacy, not just reflection of actual world. Text was ubiquitous, favouring deaf people but excluding the blind. Code-switching across textual modalities was common, e.g. IM and chat in relation to topic and its intimacy aspects. Frienship not sex is ‘foundation of cybersociality’ in SL. Most visible sex subculture was BDSM. Friendship is all about choice and egalitarianism. Residents felt you could know people in SL ‘from inside out’; residents wore their souls (opposite to actual life). SL accelerates friendships and love. As is typical of C20 love in general, SL love tied to place and belonging. Trust could be internal to SL, but some newbies didn’t get this, saw people as being far apart rather than ‘copresent in a virtual place’. Virtual kinship also to be found; many child avatars, their child play a subset of ‘kin play’. Such a hypersocial place as SL generated widespread emic concerns about addiction not so much to building or scripting but to socialising. These folk anxieties suggest fear of ‘compromised agency’ of homo cyber who is supposed to be autonomous, creative, etc.

Chapter 7. Community, pp. 179-201

 Virtual worlds are places, sites of culture where people interact. After a period of time, they become communities. Linden Lab, however, can use the vague rhetoric of community for its own goals. For SL residents social places are paramount. Avatars can be represented as dots on the screen – these dots tend to beget more dots. SL events are manifold highly varied and take place in real time, they are ‘a conjunction of place, time and sociality’. Kindness and altruism are very common in SL; some official recognition/rewards for such behaviour from Linden Lab but not too significant.  As Manchester School taught us, though, conflict is integral to all human endeavour. Serious forms of inworld harassment included lag bombs, physical assault, etc. The old CMC issue of disinhibition present here as well, though inhibitions not so much obliterated as redefined. Griefers (troublemakers) not acting in a moral vaccuum, their griefing in fact is bedrock of own forms of sociality and community. In response to griefing and Linden’s laissez faire approach to governance, a manner of ‘frontier ethic’ arose among some residents. This chapter also considers the issue of interworld travel, migration and even virtual diasporas seeking refuge in SL from extinct virtual worlds. Finally, actual-world meetings of SL residents took place but exaggerating their importance reveals common assumption that cybersociality not meaningful in its own right.


Chapter 8. Political Economy, pp. 205-236

Economy: SL shaped by Californian Ideology, ‘bizarre fusion’ of Frisco bohemia and Silicon Valley technopreneurialism. SL good example of ‘creationist capitalism’ = labour as creativity, production as creation, so that consumers labour for free. The motto, embraced by many residents, is “Be Creative”; selfhood becomes ‘the customisation of the social’. SL part of internet-wide ‘pronominal logic of customisation’, e.g. MySpace, MyYahoo. Many residents find SL creative practice to be inherently rewarding. Although time and place main foundations of SL, money sensationalised, esp. ability to make ‘real money’ (US$). Linden went from SL as object- to property-based economy. To build something permanent must own property: again, virtual worlds are places. By contrast to other forms of digital reproduction, there is virtual materiality inside SL, e.g. avatars can actually sit on a chair. Social inequality took on many forms. Governance: Unlike actual worlds, virtual worlds can be owned, usu. by a corporation. This gives corp unprecedented influence over residents. Total surveillance, no privacy for avatars, users always aware of this. Authoritarian, top-down governance but some attempts at devolution to residents. Some resistance in evidence, e.g. demo to bring back credit cards checks on new residents, concerns about safety of avatar and property. In sum, complex governance dialectic binding Linden and residents.

Chapter 9. The Virtual, pp. 237-249

In this final chapter, the author sums up the argument and explains what SL is and what it is not. SL is not a simulation; it may approximate aspects of reality for purposes of immersion, but it does not seek to replicate the actual world. SL is not a social network comparable to Facebook or MySpace – it is a place. SL is not a posthuman world; in fact, it makes us more human. SL is not a sensational new world of virtual Californication, virtual money that can be exchanged for real money, etc; more often than not it is place where everyday banal forms of interaction take place. SL  does not herald the advent of a Virtual Age that will sweep aside the actual but an Age of Techne with continuities as well as changes with what came before. Humans have always crafted themselves through culture (homo faber). What is truly unique about SL and other virtual worlds is that they allow the emergence of homo cybers, humans who can craft and recraft new worlds of sociality in a virtual ‘third place’. In SL you can find friends and lovers, attend weddings, buy and sell property: you cannot do that inside a TV programme or a novel. This is why an ethnographic and holistic approach has worked well, because virtual worlds are ‘robust locations for culture’, locations that are bounded but at the same time porous. The book ends as it started: with a reference to Malinowski’s pioneering ethnographic work.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2009 11:06 am

    I’ve just realised that Chris Kelty does some analogous conceptual clearing groundwork around his key notion of ‘recursive public’ in his monograph Two Bits (Duke UP, 2008) as Boellstorff does in his final chapter around ‘virtual world’ – analogous in that he also lists what the social formation that focusses his attention (in Kelty’s case, Free Software) is NOT. Free Software for Kelty is NOT:

    * a ‘collective’ as no membership is required
    * a ‘shady band of hackers, crackers or thieves’, i.e. an informal organisation
    * a crowd
    * a movement (Kelty 2008: 113)

    Instead, it is a ‘recursive public’, that is a public that emerges ‘through the active creation of new technologies, new tools and new means of communication’ (Kelty in press, in Brauchler and Postill, Theorising Media and Practice). By the way, there is another interesting parallel to Boellstorff’s work here, viz. to his notion of techne as applied to virtual worlds like Second Life.

  2. July 16, 2009 11:12 am

    PS. Notice, for instance, how similar the ideology of the Free Software Foundation is to that of Linden Lab, the owners of Second Life:

    “…the Free Software Foundation privileges the liberty and creativity of individual geeks, geeks engaged in practices of self-fashioning through the creation of software [or techne, as Boellstorff would put it, with the difference that Second Life residents are not generally creating new software but rather new virtual artefacts and social relationships, JP]. It gives precedence to the liberal claim that without freedom of expression, individuals are robbed of their ability to self-determine [Boellstorff refers to this as the fear of ‘compromised agency’, e.g. the folk fear that individuals who become ‘addicted’ to Second Life will lose, to quote Kelty, ‘their ability to self-determine’, JP]” (Kelty 2008: 116)

  3. November 9, 2014 3:18 pm

    Reblogged this on mysophobia 潔癖.


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