I just finished reading Tom Boellstorff’s ethnography, Coming of Age in Second Life, which I first learned about on Anthropologi.info last year. I have to admit coming to this book with a certain degree of antipathy towards its subject. It always seemed to me that playing Second Life was much more cumbersome, time consuming, and less entertaining than reading the real estate or personals sections on Craig’s List. Indeed, Boellstoroff’s book confirms my conviction that Second Life is mostly about real estate, with a little relationship stuff thrown in for good measure.
If Boellstoroff never really convinced me that I should care about Second Life, it is because he doesn’t even try. His argument is that whether we care about virtual worlds or not, they are here to stay, so we’d better try our best to understand them. And, what better way than ethnography? Indeed, Boellstoroff has given us a very competent, thoughtful, and well written, ethnography of one such virtual world. And this is perhaps the most interesting thing about the book – it is an ethnography of a virtual world.
Here’s Boellstoroff discussing his method:
It might seem controversial to claim one can conduct research entirely inside a virtual world, since persons in them spend most of their time in the actual world and because virtual worlds reference and respond to the actual world in many ways. However, as I discuss in chapter 3, studying virtual worlds “in their own terms” is not only feasible but crucial to developing research methods that keep up with the realities of technological change. Most virtual worlds now have tens of thousands of participants, if not more, and the vast majority interact only in the virtual world. The forms of social action and meaning-making that take place do so within the virtual world, and there is a dire need for methods and theories that take this into account.
The book’s conceit works because, like soylent green, Second Life is made of people. In this sense it is no different from any other community of practice which might be studied by anthropologists. Yet, this makes the book subject to the same criticisms which community of practice theory has been subject to; namely, that one must make a special effort to link individual communities to large-scale practices (see Bergvall). Boellstroff tries to get out of this by arguing that to the extent large-scale processes are important to Second Life they will be reflected (in some way) within Second Life itself. It sounds convincing, but I’m still thinking about whether or not I buy it.
In fact, the most interesting parts of Coming of Age in Second Life are those where Boellstorff talks about ways in which the real world intrudes upon Second Life. Avatars get frozen because people forget to log off. Boellstorff tries to demonstrate Second Life to a group of people and finds it difficult to have his avatar speak for all of them. One person gets put to bed in Second Life before starting her day in real life, making her real life little more than her avatar’s dream world. Spouses take over their partner’s avatar for a day, confusing other residents. And so on. These slippages show how hard it is to maintain the boundary between virtual and real identities, but they also serve to cast doubt upon the book’s premise.
There is one exception to Boellstorff’s self-imposed limitation, and that is his own authorial voice. In Second Life he is Tom Bukowski, born on June 3, 2004 who has a home in Ethnographia, located in the Dowden region of Second Life. But the book isn’t written by Bukowski, its written by Boellstorff, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California. Boellstorff’s corporality is very much tied to his authority as an anthropologist. Boellstorff draws extensively on his fieldwork experience in Indonesia in discussing his work in Second Life. It is easy enough to see here how the real world pressures of academia require the book to be authored by Boellstorff and not Bukowski, but it also serves to strengthen the distance between the anthropologist and his subjects in a way that I find somewhat problematic. I have no problem with anthropologists assuming authority. I think we do so whether we acknowledge it or not. But I can’t help but feel that the author preserves for himself a degree of subjectivity which his methodology necessarily denies his subjects.