Ethnography of the Virtual

I just finished reading Tom Boellstorff’s ethnography, Coming of Age in Second Life, which I first learned about on 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.

20 thoughts on “Ethnography of the Virtual

  1. I hate to leave an unrelated comment on your post, Kerim, but the RSS feed for Savage Minds has stopped working (the most recent post it shows is the June 1st “Around the Web”).

  2. Glad to see you review this book, Kerim. I’m waiting for my copy to arrive in AUstralia so I can read it myself, but I am trying to find out more about SL and other online social worlds so that I can set up a research project for some of my students in a graduate-level methodology class to do their own mini-research projects in a cyber world.

    I was intrigued by the premise of your last critique of Boellstorff, revolving around the fact that it was he, and not his avatar Tom Bukowski, who authored the ethnography. How is that different from the situation of any other anthropologist, who tends to have very different lives (with different kinds of authority) in their fieldwork sites and ethnography-writing sites? I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like there’s a pretty big disconnect between my life as an anthropologist doing fieldwork and my life as an anthropologist who writes about it and teaches at a university. My own traditional experience seems not so different than the Boellstorff-vs-Bukowski difference, and I expect I’m probably typical in feeling like there’s a disconnect between my two anthropological personae.

    Meanwhile, one thing I’ve found interesting as I’ve been reading up on Second Life for this methods course I’m teaching is the ways that Boellstorff has merged his real life authoritative anthropologist persona with his online avatar. He’s set up some U of California real estate on Second Life for researchers who are working on Second Life. He’s done an interview for the Second Life Herald in his Tom Bukowski persona where he talks about his ethnographic research (both in Second Life and Indonesia) but uses the dialect of Second Life (“kewl!” and “LOL”) while talking about Haraway.

    I guess I’ll have to read the ethnography for myself before I can decide how I feel about your nagging feeling that B “preserves for himself a degree of subjectivity which his methodology necessarily denies his subjects,” but perhaps I can press you to clarify how the way he does this is any different from the way that any anthropologist does this when s/he writes up.

  3. @LLWynn: The problem isn’t that he merges the two identities, but that he only does it for himself, while his subjects remain (mostly) just avatars, stripped of their real life identities. In fact, thinking about your question I find the practice even more troubling. If I was writing a school ethnography, I wouldn’t limit my discussion of students and teachers to their life at school, but would go out of my way to show how school life interacted with other domains. (To be fair, Boellstorff doesn’t completely exclude the real world lives of SL residents, but his methodology does seem to marginalize them.)

    I also think he could have benefited by using a more traditional community of practice approach which divided up the Second Life world into more meaningful overlapping communities which could have been studied in more depth, rather than taking all of Second life as a single field of study. Again, using the school analogy, we can see communities of practice around the classroom, play, and administrative domains…

    @John: I know. Seems like a lot of Google services are having trouble today, and our feed is through Feedburner, which recently moved over to Google.

  4. Hi Kerim,

    I think there are a lot of people researching Second Life now who will probably write about little parts of Second Life. But it’s really interesting to think about it as a whole, too. And as long as there are enough people like me who are clueless about these kinds of social worlds, then there’s still a place for describing the whole thing and how it is different from, or interfaces with, offline social worlds.

    Rex, maybe you can chime in: are you working on an ethnography of World of Warcraft as a whole, or were you going to focus on smaller communities within that social world?

    And back to Kerim’s argument about why Boellstorff writes with the authority that he does, I don’t see how it can be the pressures of academia that make him write as Boellstorff and not Bukowski. He has tenure and he’s the editor in chief of AA. If anyone can write what he wants, it’s him! I guess what’s interesting to observe is that it’s the sort of thing that *isn’t* getting written by grad students for their dissertations (or is it and I just don’t know?). Like back in the 90s when people were making the point that you had to cut your teeth on a traditional village ethnography and get a job before you can write about hybrids and travelers and America. Now it seems like people can do their first books about hybrids and travelers and transnationals, but how long will it take before people can write their first books about a cyber-community and still get a job in academia?

  5. @LLWynn. Nobody would accept an ethnography of Taiwan or the Philippines “as a whole,” why should we accept an ethnography of Second Life? Boellstorff seems to want to have it both ways, both suggesting that virtual space should be taken seriously, but ultimately ignoring the limits of virtual space in his methodological approach. Which isn’t to say we can’t say interesting things about Second Life as a whole (and he does) – just that I think the book’s premise deserves some closer scrutiny.

  6. You beat me to it Kerim! I’m writing a lengthy review of the book that I’ll post shortly on SM.

  7. My friend Celia Pearce (who interestingly was initially one of Tom’s students, but actually was one of the motivating forces for Tom to start working in virtual worlds) has a lengthy section in her ethnography (MIT Press 2009) about group trans-ludic identities [identities preserved as players migrate across games] dedicated to just these kinds of ethnographer’s subjectivity issues that you mention at the end of your review. Ultimately, she chose to meet some of her subjects in person at an event. Interestingly, she’s given presentations and published papers as both Artemesia (her avatar name) and Celia together, and one editor even made Artemesia (the fictional character) sign paperwork. (see here for more:

  8. My thanks to Lynn for pointing out that this thread about my book is growing rapidly; I’m flattered! Allow me to chime in on a couple points.

    #1 @Kerim. Your claim that “Nobody would accept an ethnography of Taiwan or the Philippines ‘as a whole,’ why should we accept an ethnography of Second Life?” misses the point. Actually I’ve written two books about Indonesia “as a whole” and argued that the equation of culture with locality is one reason why gay, lesbian, and transgendered Indonesians have traditionally been ignored by anthropologists. In other words, I’ve argued that you can’t understand gay, lesbian, and transgendered Indonesians without thinking about “Indonesia” as a “whole.” The relationship between culture and spatial scale is complex (wasn’t Neil Brenner’s great work discussed on this blog at some point). As many anthropologists have noted, it’s crucial that we not allow others to equate ethnography and locality. There are powerful ways to do ethnographies of the national, of global connections, of diasporas and other forms of the translocal.

    #2 @Kerim. I’m not sure how you think the slippages you mention cast doubt on the book’s premise. Most people in a virtual world like Second Life don’t meet each other in the actual world; it was interesting for me to examine that sociality. It’s not like a classroom where class ends and then people can meet outside that classroom context. Of course there are legitimate research methods, designed to answer other kinds of questions, that involve interviewing people face-to-face in the actual world. But those are not the only valid methods.

    #3 @ Kerim. I find this comment of yours interesting:

    “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.”

    I’ve been struck by how the ostensible “cultural relativism” of anthropologists often evaporates when discussing virtual worlds. I’ve encountered more hostility and dismissal for studying a virtual world than for writing two books about gay, lesbian, and transgendered Indonesians. Interestingly, however, scholars of Indonesia who focus on locality rather than upon the archipelago as reconstituted by national ideologies and practices quibble with my analysis of gay, lesbian and transgendered Indonesians in a manner analogous to how some quibble with the study of virtual worlds.

    #4 @ Kerim. As Lynn notes, your claim that:

    “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.”

    Is quite incorrect; given my position, I’m fortunate to not face those kinds of pressures. I didn’t attempt to have the book authored by “Tom Bukowski” because I’m Tom Boellstorff. Princeton University Press thought it would be fun to have an “avatar biography” on the back cover, but I never claim that my avatar authored the text. Linden Lab decided early on that Second Life would require folks to have avatar names that differ from actual-world names, (there’s no reason this has to be the case for all virtual worlds). So I chose the same first name, which Second Life allows you to do, and chose a last name from the provided list that was most similar to “Boellstorff.” There are interesting ways that having an avatar can affect senses of selfhood, but this need not necessarily blur authorship.

    #4 @Kathy- your chronology with regard to Celia is incorrect. I was already doing my research in Second Life when Celia and I sought each other out. She’s been an incredible resource and thought partner for me throughout my research in Second Life, but wasn’t a “motivating force” as such. She asked me to serve on her dissertation committee because I was already working in Second Life.

    #5 @L. L. Wynn – thanks for mentioning the American Anthropologist Virtual Campus. I don’t know if the Virtual Campus will work out, because I just don’t have time to make it thrive while doing all the work of the editorship, but I am trying. I have a graduate student helping me. So if anyone out there knows of anyone doing research in Second Life that’s remotely anthropological, please have them contact me or my graduate student (whose Second Life avatar name is Rhoulette Kips) and I can create a space for them to present their research and help gain it a wider audience.

    @everyone: thanks for taking the time to engage with my work. It’s been many years of work to make Coming of Age in Second Life a reality, and it’s gratifying to see people responding to it so soon after it’s been released. One key goal of the book is to get the discipline of anthropology to take technology in general (and virtual worlds in particular) seriously as aspects of contemporary human existence; another is to argue for the usefulness of ethnography as a method for studying all kinds of online socialities. I’m hopeful that anthropologists who may not be interested in “cyber” issues will say “Hey, the Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist is doing research in Second Life; maybe I should give this topic a chance!” We shall see. I hope that my work will help create a space where anthropologists will take seriously the work of Rex, Celia, and everyone working on these topics. In any case, I’m flattered that you all have taken the time to engage and respond!

  9. @Tom,

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I’ll just reply to one of your points, #3.

    I didn’t want this post to be a diatribe about why I dislike Second Life, but I thought it important to state my bias upfront as it certainly colored how I read the book. But since you raise the issue, let me elaborate a bit.

    First, I dislike SL “as a platform.” I am a fairly tech savvy person, but I’m also the kind of person who likes Apple computers. That is to say, I appreciate an easy to use user interface that doesn’t get in my way. Your book discusses how noobs would walk around with a box on their head because they couldn’t figure out how to properly take things out of the box without training from more experienced players. Enough said on that.

    Second, I dislike SL as a platform because its private and inaccessible. I’m more than willing to provide content on the internet, building numerous websites and taking time to nurture the virtual communities that develop around them – like on Savage Minds. I also work hard to make sure the sites I develop are accessible to anyone with a browser. So I dislike SL for the same reasons I dislike Flash, and also for the same reason I disliked the early incarnation of AOL.

    Third, I dislike SL because for the reason you state in your book – real understanding of the community requires participating in the practice of buying property and building on it. I have not done this, and I have no desire to do this.

    Finally, I admit that there are parts of Second Life I would probably like, given the opportunity – perhaps the Virtual Campus? But one has to be motivated enough to get there, and I am still unsure after reading your book as to what is gained by spending time interacting in this manner as opposed to, say, Twitter (which I enjoy greatly because of how it flattens space rather than recreates it virtually).

    I’ve elaborated at some length because I want to make it clear that I don’t have antipathy towards the idea of doing research on a virtual world, nor am I against SL in some fundamental way (although I am bias towards more accessible and open-source platforms). I just didn’t like the experience of SL and thought I should say so as it colors my review.

  10. UPDATE: I just visited the virtual campus. Nobody was there except a cat, but clearly a lot of work has gone into designing a the virtual space. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much to do in the space unless other users are there at the same time. Or did I miss something?

  11. First, let me express my biases: I am NOT an anthropologist, I am a fan of Second Life in particular and virtual worlds in general, and Tom’s book accomplished a few things for me: it helped to create a framework for understanding sociality in Second Life, and it made me interested in learning more about anthropology – so if nothing else, it may serve as a recruiting tool for what I see as an important field of study to help make sense of the rapidly expanding domains of human expression.

    I’d like to respond to a few of the comments from these perspectives.

    First, Kerim – I appreciate your frustrations with Second Life. Usability issues, orientation, and simplifying the interface for the new or casual user are priorities of the platform owner, as well as key focal points for various in world businesses and developers including myself.

    However, using this as a dismissal of Second Life as a robust platform may speak to the experience of people who only have a glancing interest, but it doesn’t speak to its use by educators, scientists, artists, architects, urban planners, and others who recognize that the tool sets of Second Life allow the user a full suite of tools with which to craft their own experiences, interactions, and domains of sociality. It may be YOUR experience, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a reason to dismiss the platform.

    Usability and orientation are more complex in Second Life than, say, a blog, because the range of options for content creation by the user are vastly more complex. If you can point me to another Internet-based space where you can access terrabytes of user-generated content, create interactive exhibits, play with physics and with particles, script objects and interactions, animate, build vehicles including boats, cars, airplanes, and hovercraft, change your identity through complete control over your avatar’s appearance, utilize search and group functions in order to connect with people and places and “travel” in a world the size of New York City and so so without a few struggles up front to learn the interface, please let me know.

    I’d also point out, however, that there are two companion claims that you’re making: one, that any platform that is difficult to learn is less deserving of respect than a user interface that “doesn’t get in the way”, and two that there ARE user interfaces that don’t get in the way – and sure, I love Apple, but it took me 30 minutes to explain to my mother how to use an iPod, and she couldn’t get a handle on a Mac – could never equate the icons with the folder system of a PC.

    Second, you claim that accessibility is a sort of core requirement for being something that’s interesting to look at. But this strikes me as incredibly elitist, although I think your intention is that accessibility defines ‘consumable by the masses’ and therefore somehow better. Just because an HTML page is accessible by more people doesn’t somehow imply that it’s therefore better – that strikes me as a moral judgment rather than a quantitative one. If I was to extend your argument, I’d point out that a vast majority of people don’t even have the Internet, therefore I could make the same claim about the Net in general and say that only oral storytelling is worthy of my attention, because the interface doesn’t get in the way.

    Third, Tom doesn’t make the claim in his book that you need to own land in order to understand it. He does make the claim that the switch from an object-based economy to a land-based one had an implication for the culture within Second Life. Like any anthropologist, I imagine, he would look at the basis of the economy as a source of insight into how the culture has been shaped.

    There are 400 universities in Second Life. I would wager that 95% of the students attending these universities don’t own land. The usage statistics of Second Life also point out that a large proportion of residents don’t own land. While I agree that the basis of Second Life’s economy is property, the implication that you need to own property in order to build something (Tom mentions sandboxes and groups) or to learn from or enjoy Second Life is a false claim, and I’d invite you back to Second Life so you can gain a deeper understanding of the range of things you can do and experience.

    By one calculation, for example, it would take you YEARS of exploring Second Life before you saw it all. And that was if you visited an island (or simulator) an hour, every hour, all year. In addition, on any given day there are lectures, reading groups, discussions, cultural events, art exhibits, dances and opportunities for exploration and sharing.

    Finally, to compare Second Life to Twitter is, um, odd. I will point out that many of the participants in Second Life use Twitter – it is a layer upon their participation in the 3D space, and in fact you’ll even find Twitter “fountains” in Second Life where you can view SL Twitter streams in a 3D space.

    It is interesting, however, that you mention Twitter, because it strikes me that it highlights perhaps a bias, or what I perceive as a bias, towards staccato consumption of content. A 3D space like Second Life is NOT a place you’ll go because you want rapid-fire social discourse – it’s a CULTURE, it’s a virtual WORLD, it’s not a Twitter stream. However, I suppose you’re right, in a world where we’ve become used to digesting information and where we socialize in increasingly bite-sized bursts – whether a poke on Facebook or a tweet, Second Life must seem counter-intuitive.

    I think there’s great value in studying the emerging Internet culture for those with shortened attention spans. For those of us who don’t mind investing a bit more time in a platform, in learning to use deeper tool sets, in understanding the emergence of concepts of identity and sociality, or for the recursion that Tom talks about so eloquently, then there’s Second Life and other virtual worlds.

    Finally, I’d like to address your point about the virtual campus and the cat. You imply that because it was “empty” when you arrived, that perhaps there’s nothing of value in the space. While I’m not sure that Tom intended the space to be anything more than a site where people can meet up, discuss ideas, and have a place to build or experiment, there’s an odd implication that its emptiness is a sign that there’s a vacancy of content.

    That would be like saying “I went to community centre and there was no one there” and neglecting to say you went at midnight.

    The idea of ’emptiness’ in a virtual world because no one’s there to meet you or there’s no little game to play or whatever ignores the fact that just like the real world, content is created because of a network of acquaintances, connections, groups and conversations. You don’t show up at the local pub and say “none of my friends were there, so this place doesn’t have value” – you arrange to meet them there, it’s a domain of sociality and content, not sociality and content unto itself.

    Working back through the thread, a few comments on identity and the “blurring” of real and virtual. This is a preoccupation of mine, and I think is one of the richest and most meaningful things that will arise from virtual worlds – namely, when identity is expressed through our avatars (whether they’re avatars with the full potential for expression as in Second Life, a warrior in World of Warcraft, or the way in which we express ourselves through Facebook or Twitter) how do we as humans find a ground on which to understand ourselves and our place in societies when these identities are both split off because virtual is still virtual, and increasingly part of who we are.

    As our avatars and representations in technology become more expressive, as our avatars begin to act intelligently even when we are not present, how will our concepts of identity change, and how will our ideas about who owns these representations of ourselves present challenges in the years to come?

    Already, there are issues arising over whether an avatar can be ‘inherited’ when we die, for example. Not to be ghoulish about it, but if we start to work, create, and embed intelligence in our avatars, I’m not sure I want my avatar to live beyond me. The same can be said about a mySpace page – who owns the content? How are those rights protected? And how does this impact sociality?

    Have a read of UgoTrade’s interview with Eben Moglen, it touches on the idea of the emergence of a tribal morality:

    I’ve also written on the subject, related to alts and the question of whether avatars are possession or expression:

    The idea that virtual worlds, games, and the social Web is giving rise to a tribal versus territorial morality is an important insight into how “code” impacts sociality.

    Tom has done us a great service in bringing a robust academic study of a culture in order to help us to grapple with these issues of identity, highlighting in his opinion that the blurring of the virtual and the actual serves to reinforce rather than simply create disconnections. Discussions of what name Tom wrote under are a red herring – they ignore the deeper question of how the “blur” or what I call the strange loop, is having an impact in both the virtual and the actual domains.

    Instead, worrying about the name with which Tom writes belies a bias for establishing authority at a meta level, and for those who Twitter, you’ll realize that issues of authority and reputation are no longer solely vested in your “name” or what ivy-covered wall you work behind.

    I’m convinced, on little authority of my own, that Tom’s book will be considered one of the most significant publications of a time in which technology has provided us with the tool set for a new range of human cultural expression through, as Tom says, the embedding of techne within itself. By laying the framework on which future studies of its kind can reference and build upon, Tom has done a great service to helping us to grapple with both the terrifying and liberating potential of these new domains for expression.

    Edward Castranova established a methodology for studying the ecomomic underpinnings of virtual worlds. As he pointed out, there is an exodus to virtual worlds – growing yearly, and quite possibly shifting ecomonic value out of the “real” economy and into the virtual. Now, Castranova has his own peculiar slant on how we should extrapolate this exodus, but he’s done a great service in establishing a framework for studying and understanding a domain of sociality and economic activity that’s one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

    Likewise, Tom has established a framework for an anthropology of virtual worlds, and as these worlds continue to grow and become places in which people work, interact, and create new cultural artefacts, he has done us all a great service.

  12. I’m glad you liked the space – I did all the designing myself! Now that classes are almost over at Irvine (still gotta grade the finals), I’m going to try and get some content into it, but it may not work. We’ll see. The issue is that I’m just so busy with all of the editorial work of American Anthropologist that I can’t manage the virtual campus on anything like a daily basis. I got it set up, but I can’t run it myself. So it’s an experiment. If it fails, no biggie, but hopefully others interested in online research will take on the everyday use of the space in any way they like. Otherwise my virtual cat will be lonely!

    In that regard, if you know anyone who would be interested in displaying their research results, work in progress, would like to organize a meeting or seminar on the virtual campus, anything at all, please have them email me and I can put them in touch with my graduate student who is helping me try to get things going.

  13. @Dusan

    It may be YOUR experience, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a reason to dismiss the platform.

    Agreed. I was just saying that the book doesn’t do much to change this impression. Perhaps there is another book to be written which might do a better job of making the case for why and how Second Life is useful to academics and educators. This isn’t that book.

    one, that any platform that is difficult to learn is less deserving of respect than a user interface that “doesn’t get in the way”,

    I would rephrase that as saying that one has to be motivated to learn such a platform and I am still unconvinced (including by your lengthy comment) that there is a payoff to spending my time in this way. I can appreciate the care that Tom put into building the Virtual Campus, but still don’t see why I would expect my students (none of whom have ever used Second Life) to learn how to navigate such a space.

    Second, you claim that accessibility is a sort of core requirement for being something that’s interesting to look at. But this strikes me as incredibly elitist, although I think your intention is that accessibility defines ‘consumable by the masses’ and therefore somehow better. Just because an HTML page is accessible by more people doesn’t somehow imply that it’s therefore better – that strikes me as a moral judgment rather than a quantitative one. If I was to extend your argument, I’d point out that a vast majority of people don’t even have the Internet, therefore I could make the same claim about the Net in general and say that only oral storytelling is worthy of my attention, because the interface doesn’t get in the way.

    This is a strange argument, but I see some of the confusion as deriving from my use of “accessibility” as a shorthand to handle a number of separate issues: This would include the use of open standards, the ability of the disabled to use the site, and the ability of anyone with internet access to be able to use the site. While it is true that not everyone has internet access, I believe the true digital divide is over internet speed and processing power, not access. There are now computers with internet access in rural India, Africa, and in schools around the world, not to mention cell phone access for many people without desktops. All of these users could make use of MIT’s Open Course Ware, but few of them can access the Virtual Campus.

    Third, Tom doesn’t make the claim in his book that you need to own land in order to understand it.

    In fact, he does say that owning property and building on it is central to the experience of Second Life and implies that casual visitors (such as myself) will be deprived of the ways in which those activities draw one into the community. As Rex says, I think one can understand Second Life fairly well from reading the book, so I don’t think you need to do these things to understand Second Life – I just think you need to do these things to enjoy Second Life. And while I appreciate the work that people have put into creating these virtual spaces, I’m not interested in creating content on a platform I see as lacking accessibility and of only marginal utility.

    Part of my argument here, which is still developing, is that by taking too seriously the metaphor of a “virtual world” we mystify what is essentially yet another platform. I’m happy to debate the relative merits of one platform versus another, but I worry when I’m told that I should treat one platform as a “world.” I understand that people do, but there are also people who do civil war reenactments. We wouldn’t take seriously that the civil war is still going on just because those people do.

    There are 400 universities in Second Life. I would wager that 95% of the students attending these universities don’t own land. The usage statistics of Second Life also point out that a large proportion of residents don’t own land.


    I’d invite you back to Second Life so you can gain a deeper understanding of the range of things you can do and experience.

    I’d be happy to if I knew where to begin. As Tom says, the Virtual Campus hasn’t been finished yet. I don’t know of any other interesting places for an anthropologist to visit. Everything I’ve seen is mostly about shopping and real estate, as I’ve said. The only other place I’ve visited is the virtual world for the Science Friday radio show – but again it was of less interest to me than the Science Friday web page.

    By one calculation, for example, it would take you YEARS of exploring Second Life before you saw it all. And that was if you visited an island (or simulator) an hour, every hour, all year.

    This is part of my problem with the book – that it focuses on the platform as its field site, while simultaneously insisting that we should treat Second Life more as a “world” than a platform.

    In addition, on any given day there are lectures, reading groups, discussions, cultural events, art exhibits, dances and opportunities for exploration and sharing.

    I believe you. I have not participated in any such activities. Nor does anyone I know.

    A 3D space like Second Life is NOT a place you’ll go because you want rapid-fire social discourse – it’s a CULTURE, it’s a virtual WORLD, it’s not a Twitter stream.

    But then why would I want to go to Second Life to participate in a reading group? You see my confusion?

    Finally, I’d like to address your point about the virtual campus and the cat. You imply that because it was “empty” when you arrived, that perhaps there’s nothing of value in the space. While I’m not sure that Tom intended the space to be anything more than a site where people can meet up, discuss ideas, and have a place to build or experiment, there’s an odd implication that its emptiness is a sign that there’s a vacancy of content.

    I understand that Second Life is a temporal space, and that as a resident of Taiwan I may be excluded from participating in that space by fact of being in a different time zone. But then I’m still left wondering what exactly I’m missing – and nothing I’ve read in the book or seen in your comments really explains that to me. I can understand Second Life as a game or as a platform, but your comments, the book, and the other comments here, including Rex’s post, all insist that these are the wrong way to approach second life. That I must accept the world’s own metaphor of space and time in order to “get it.” This strikes me as mystification, and I remain skeptical that this is the best way to understand what is going on. And so far what I’ve read seems to ask me to accept this argument more on faith than on personal experience.

  14. Kerim:

    I appreciate the lengthy response. I’m left feeling as if I’m lacking clarity, but perhaps that’s because I’m not sure whether your issue is with Second Life as a platform for sociality and culture, or whether the issue is that you haven’t found anything interesting to do.

    First, Tom’s book doesn’t make the case that Second Life is useful to academics and educators. He’s not saying it isn’t, but his book is premised on building a case that Second Life is a valid place for field work and not on whether anthropologists will have a fun night on the town. So I take it that the comment about whether Second Life is of interest to academics has nothing to do with his study, but rather whether it’s of interest to you personally.

    Now, your claim that there’s nothing interesting for an anthropologist to do I can’t argue with. I have no idea what anthropologists like to do….I guess you’re wishing there was some sort of anthropology, um, library or something, I’m really not sure.

    But I suppose that’s where I’m confused. Because first, you’re arguing against Second Life’s attraction to educators and academics, so I’ll return to that shortly.

    But to be clear, you seem to be making the case that Second Life is a platform, it’s not relevant or interesting (being based mostly on shopping or land), and it’s inaccessible. So, I’m not sure you’re truly arguing the merits of Second Life as a culture, you’re merely arguing that you don’t find it a compelling place to spend time. On that basis, I don’t find, hmmm, Buffalo an interesting place to spend time (no offence, and I have friends in Buffalo) but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a site for anthropology field work.

    So unless I’m mistaken, your argument is against Second Life as a “platform” because, primarily, there’s nothing to do there, (for academics) and it’s inaccessible.

    This doesn’t seem like an argument against considering Second Life a valid field site, although your argument about real estate and shopping seems to imply that as a place in which culture is expressed these trivialize it. Perhaps real estate is trivial. Perhaps shopping is trivial. Maybe these things aren’t important to understanding a culture – nor I suppose would crafting, or ritual or gifts for that matter – all of which might be seen as trivial if you have a condescending view of a culture. But then, I’m not an anthropologist, I just found Tom’s comment compelling on how it’s through the mundane that we can extrapolate broader meaning.

    Which leaves me with the idea that the complaint you have is that Second Life isn’t “rich enough” to warrant further exploration. You’re not particularly arguing that it’s not a valid field site, you’re arguing that it’s just not particularly interesting, and you take issue with it being called a world.

    The “world” label certainly carries a lot of weight. I’m often loathe to use it, because it implies escape, it implies leaving the world for another. I find that as a metaphor it conjures up all kinds of strange associations, most of them baseless, but for those who have never engaged on one of these ‘platforms’ I can understand how the word could be misinterpreted. I remember similar misinterpretations of the Internet. Remember when it was called the Information Superhighway? Maybe it’s time to retire the term virtual world in the same way.

    So yes, Second Life is a “platform”. It’s a bunch of code running on a bunch of servers in California. But before I discuss what values I’ve seen on this platform (many of which look or feel like things that happen in “the” world but which happen to take place on a platform) let me address your comment about accessibility.

    The code upon which Second Life runs was developed privately and is not open source. However, the technology road map for SL has included both opening the source to the viewer (leading to Web-based interfaces to the world with no need for a download, access via cell phone, and low bandwidth access for social functions) as well as plans to integrate with OpenSim (an open source platform) and further decoupling of the architecture towards the goal of greater ubiquity and open standards.

    However, I don’t think you’re really arguing for open source. Because Twitter isn’t open source. And neither is Facebook – sure, it has APIs, but Second Life is entirely user generated, and Facebook lets you make a widget. So in both cases, the platforms are closed but the ability to create content isn’t, so I’m not sure if the argument is for the ability to create content, or to get your hands on the source code. But I assume you don’t need the source code for Word to write a letter, so I take it that your argument is for creating content, which you can do openly in Second Life.

    However, the open source argument is in any case a red herring, in my opinion, especially coming from academics who are loathe to open up the source of their intellectual property, but are first in line to demand open source technology. Besides which, even the Internet is no longer truly open source. Flash isn’t open source, and yet many of the richest interactions and learning objects are based on it. Video coded to youTube isn’t open source. And sure, WordPress is open source and so is Wikipedia, but that doesn’t put a lie to the fact that the Internet is filled with pockets of plug-ins and walled gardens and widgets and closed code.

    What IS open is that anyone who can access Second Life can create content in it.

    Now, having said that, I’m the first to admit that the struggle for open standards for 3D content is a massive and nearly insurmountable issue. And this isn’t just true of Second Life, it’s true of VRML, and 3DXML, and countless other approaches and closed systems for 3D simulation and content development. However, I’m not about to throw out 3D visualization, simulation, or avatar environments because of it. I’m not about to throw out my Apple or iPod out either.

    I’ll concede that the issue with Second Life right now, like many content-rich applications including console games, MMORPGs, online video, online audio, Web-based conferencing, etc is that it requires bandwidth.

    So yes, Second Life is part of an overall issue with the Web, which is that as it becomes increasingly rich, we’re seeing a further widening of the gap between “haves” and “have nots”. And this has been written about far more eloquently by so many others, Castranova included, that economies and access are rapidly moving to a a time when our place in the world isn’t defined by where we live, but by whether we have high speed access to technology or not. Which I agree, is a scary thought.

    However, I’ll use the example of video and its use in education. Far more than Second Life, video has shown incredible value in education and yet has become such a bandwidth “hog” that ISPs are now metering Internet use because of it, and threatening to create bottlenecks in the flow of information. Based on your reasoning that accessibility is critical to adapting new modalities of learning and experience, video should also be excluded as a modality of learning. Not only is it far less accessible in rural India etc because of bandwidth issues, but its ubiquity is slowing down the Net for the rest of us.

    So that really leaves us with the fact that Tom’s book didn’t convince you that Second Life is an interesting place to visit. Now, I don’t think he set out to do that. What he set out to do was not crib a tour guide for academics, he set out to construct a sound academic study of the culture of Second Life during the time of his field study. He did this because he believes, like many others, that more and more people will spend time in virtual environments, and that through this new cultures will arise. His task was to therefore study both the mundane (AFK, shopping, land) and the possibly profound. Not to pick on Buffalo again, but an anthropologist might have very valid reasons to study its sub-cultures, but his task isn’t to write a tourist pamphlet.

    So you’re right, none of us have put forth a compelling case for why you SHOULD visit. But to be honest, Second Life IS a community that’s primarily composed of early adopters, geeks, storytellers, artists, creative types, and adventurous academics. I don’t anticipate an exodus from Twitter and Facebook anytime soon. It takes time to learn, to meet people – hmmm….it’s like moving to a new city, really.

    And it’s an analogy often used – if you were dropped in the middle of New York City with no guidebook, no ability to speak the language, no friends, and bad hair…well…good luck, it takes a bit of fortitude and time to find your bearings.

    But for the people who do stick it out, and look around, and talk to people, like any culture the doors will open.

    And again, I have no idea what interests an anthropologist. It’s why they call it Second Life really – and reminds me of the first question I was asked when I arrived there: “What do you want to do?” and I had no idea. When the possibilities were nearly infinite, where would I begin?

    But let me give you a few headlines from the past few WEEKS from the good Hamlet Au at New World Notes :

    – Phoenix Fundraiser for AIDS: All proceeds will go to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the nation’s leading industry-based, nonprofit AIDS fund-raising and grant-making organization.

    – Stand-Up Comedy from Pakistan in Second Life: On May 31st, a Shiite in Pakistan performed stand-up comedy for a live audience in a post-apocalyptic landscape known as The Wasteland….It’s also a chance to tweak negative stereotypes about Muslims and Pakistanis in front of an international audience, in a setting that defies them.

    – UK City Displayed As Scale Second Life Model With Google Earth API

    – From SL to San Jose: Interactive Music Installation Prototyped in Second Life, Built At The Tech Museum

    – Metaverse Milestone: Interoperability Between Second Life And Open Sim Virtual Worlds

    – New World Newsfeed: Wikitecture’s Collaborative 3D Wiki Technology Claims Open Architecture’s “Founders Award”: This is great and game-changing news: when we last checked in on Keystone Bouchard and Theory Shaw’s Wikitecture project, the technology which turns Second Life building into a true wiki experience, they were using it for an entry in the Open Architecture Challenge, an AMD-sponsored contest for designers to create sustainable buildings for the developing world.

    – IBM Metaverse Evangelist On Vollee Mobile’s Second Life Viewer

    – How To Stream Your Webcam Into SL Via Veodia

    – The Story Behind “Paralyzed Man Walks In SL” Article: You’ve probably noticed this story floating through Internet news channels today, in Wired and elsewhere, about a Japanese university project that enabled a paralysis victim to control an SL avatar by thinking. I interviewed the team lead Junichi Ushiba last October, and he talked about the avatar they used to experiment with the technology, how the hardware-to-brain process works, and the personal inspiration which drove him to create it.

    And now a few random items from my own blog:

    – Students in Second Life: Suffern Middle School Case Study: Suffern Middle School serves around 1,200 students in Suffern, NY. But it is also the first middle school in the nation to have a learning presence in SL.

    Open Habitat Project will Establish Best Practices for Virtual World Education: A multi-institution project called Open Habitat involving the University of Oxford, Leeds Metropolitan University, King’s College London, the University of Essex and Dave Cormier, based at the University of Prince Edward Island will help to establish best practices, tools and software, and protocols for education in multi user virtual environments (MUVEs)

    Loyalist College in Second Life: Loyalist College in Belleville, Canada was the first Canadian college to build a virtual campus in SL, in 2003. Ever since then, the college has been fielding calls from all manner of sources asking them to use their expertise to build them a viable SL educational presence, according to So, building on their reputation for innovation, Loyalist College recently launched Infinite Spaces, their Virtual World Design Centre that will build exclusively for SL.

    Video Captures Virtual Nursing Training in SL: John Miller Tacoma, Washington joined a panel to talk about the use of virtual worlds for training. Joined on the panel by participants from much larger institutions (Stanford among them, if I remember) John has managed to put together a nursing curriculum in Second Life.

    STDs in Second Life – Public Health Education in Virtual Worlds

    Pharmacy Patient Case Studies in Second Life: The school has started to use SL as a training module, and has created a virtual version of Greensboro’s Moses Cone Family Practice Center, a local medical center. Students create an avatar and move through the center either as a student interviewing a patient, or as a patient.

    Medical Education in Second Life: Kathleen Crea, an Information and Education Services librarian at Lyman Maynard Stowe Library (part of UCHC) since 1996 and also a teacher, writes in her blog about the need for educators and medical professionals to get up to speed in SL. In attempting to convince her peers to join SL, she provides a comprehensive overview of what is available in the medical field in SL.

    I mean….the list goes on and on.

    So what do we have – a paralyzed person “walks” for the first time, interacting with a world using his brain. Countless examples (these are just a few) of robust education in Second Life, from medical to high school, from science to nursing. Cultural barriers being broken down, events being held to raise money for real world charities (thousands have been raised in Second Life annually and there is an entire resource centre for not-for-profits), prestigious architectural awards being won because of techniques used for collaborative design in Second Life.

    Nothing I guess for anthropologists such as yourself. And as I say…maybe this is all early adopter stuff. But there’s always room for one more and you’re always welcome.

    For now, I’m going to decide if I should get addicted to Twitter and move on. There’s so much to see and do and so many different ways to learn about it.

  15. Dusan,

    Some clarifications:

    First: open standards, open source, and open access. You’ll be happy to know that I support all three, and maintain the website. However, it is open standards that I want in a platform. I care less whether its open source or not.

    Another issue that needs to be kept straight is my critique of the book vs. my critique of Second Life. One colors the other, but they are distinct.

    I critique the book for treating Second Life as a “field site” as opposed to a specific community of practice within second life. In my last comment to you this critique developed somewhat to add another component which is the worry that by taking emic (user-centric) notions of virtual reality too much at face value we run the risk of mystifying what is essentially a content platform analogous to other web content platforms. I don’t think we would do this with other realms in which people take on imaginary personas, such as CosPlay or civil war reenactments.

    I critique Second Life, the platform, for other reasons. (Which I won’t re-list here.) In doing so I admit that this may come from ignorance, but I simply point out that after reading the book and venturing into SL several times, I still don’t see any reason to change my mind on this front. It was also something of a challenge to see if any of our readers (or the author himself) might be able to convince me otherwise. I was intrigued by the list you posted at the end of your comment, but I’m still unsure what the SL platform adds that can’t be done in other, simpler ways – say via Yahoo Live video/chat conferencing?

    The two issues overlap in that the fact that SL is a platform means that there is an unlimited amount of content on it. I’m sure some of it, as well as some of the communities which have developed around that content, are worthwhile. I just don’t know how to find it. But this ties back in to my concern about treating SL as a “field site” rather than restricting that field site to specific spaces/communities within SL.

  16. Thanks Kerim for the follow-up, and your post today highlighting some of the intriguing findings of Tom’s book, the concepts of alts (on which point I have a different feeling from how Tom presents it, but that’s an aside).

    A note of interest – they’re currently adding avatar selections that are gender and species neutral. 🙂 I think one is a robot and one is a dragon if I’m not mistaken.

    I suppose in the end I don’t have the authority or knowledge to say whether Tom made a strong enough case for whether Second Life as a whole is a field site or whether it’s a community of practice. I will say that I believe that during the time that Tom conducted his research the community was quite different from today – a few thousand participants when he started, and I wonder if this is where some of my confusion lies.

    I understand your point about not ‘mystifying’ the platform. It hasn’t taken an anthropologist to have this debate. This discussion has been going on WITHIN Second Life for nearly as long as the platform’s existed. Within the Second Life community, it’s called the argument between the augmentationists and the immersionists. On the one hand, there are those who believe that Second Life is a place you “go”, it is separate and distinct, and what happens to your avatar is what matters. On the other hand are the those who believe that it’s simply a platform which extends the tools and capacity of expression of the person behind the avatar.

    The truth is likely along a spectrum of sorts and you’re absolutely right, this does cause methodological issues as studies of Second Life carry forward.

    This also plays into the notion of the walled garden and the magic circle. Castranova argues that virtual environments should be protected, because they offer a site of play, discovery and imagination that is rare in the real world. He argues that the intrusion of real world economies into places like Warcraft rob these ‘places’ of part of their power.

    Now, Castranova also argues that by keeping these worlds enclosed we can also then tinker with their economies and policies in order to gain insight into economic behaviors, and he believes that the lessons from virtual worlds should be more broadly applied to public policy – his idea is turn your trip to renew your driver’s license into a quest, or to set up guilds at City Hall – and I part company with Castranova on both the idea that virtual spaces should be walled gardens and that public policy should learn from games in order to make citizenry more “fun”.

    So the concept of walled gardens and their protection as unique sites of play and sociality, when taken to its logical extreme, gives us Castranova who believes that lawmakers and public servants need to create a gamer environment in how they relate to the public, and who believes that the qualities of play such as ‘questing’ and ‘grinding’ provide lessons for how businesses and governments should be constructed – and there’s something that I find rather terrifying about that.

    The concept of the magic circle as well has come under fire, because as you point out the line between what happens within the circle of play and the transmission of knowledge and impact on the actual is more porous than the ‘circle’ would imply.

    I’d suggest that the following paper probably speaks most closely to your points, and I think it’s a well crafted argument with the provocative title “Virtual Worlds Do Not Exist” (provocative to some, and probably a nod of agreement by others):

    In this paper, the author makes the argument against the ‘magic circle’/MMO framework and argues instead that virtual worlds be studied from Anselm Strauss’ social worlds perspective. As the author says:

    In academic literature, certain online games and services are referred to as “virtual worlds” and compared to cities (Taylor, 2006: 21), countries (Castronova, 2006b) and most frequently, the Earth (e.g. Castronova, 2002; Castronova, 2006a; Nash & Schneyer, 2004, Lastowka & Hunter, 2004). Such language is intended to communicate the scale and complexity of these systems and the activities that take place within them. But the powerful metaphor also affects the conceptual framework from which researchers draw their research design.

    The author recommends three questions that researchers ask themselves:

    1) Out of all social world sites and technologies, why am I focusing on MMOs?
    2) Out of all possible interaction modalities, am I justified in limiting my observations to the MMO server?
    3) Do my results concern MMOs in general, a specific MMO, or some completely different category?

    The author then generally concludes:

    This paper could well have been titled “The real world doesn’t exist”. If there are problems with the concept of the “virtual world”, so are there problems in the way “real world” is implicitly conceptualised in many MMO studies: a uniform, monolithic reality, where people lead a rational “real life” with their unitary “real identity”. Such a view is in stark contrast to the views prevalent in contemporary sociology, which emphasise the multiplicity, fluidity and even fragmentation of identities (e.g. Turkle, 1996; Slater, 1997) and the often arational, constructed and “aestheticized” character of everyday life (e.g.Featherstone, 1991; Giddens; 1991).

    So, even the sociologists are struggling with the concept of where the “site” is and what to call it.

    Now, I’ve been called an augmentationist and yet don’t feel like one. Whether it’s a community of practice that I enter when I log in to Second Life or a “world” doesn’t really matter to me – I find value in Second Life and other virtual environments for a multiplicity of reasons. I think, based on no other insight than intuition, that the discussion is productive regardless, and that every individual who finds themselves exploring, socializing, creating, and participating in what I can only call a culture (because to me, how I behave in the Second Life culture is often quite different than how I behave in other cultures, mainly because the tool sets cause me to – how we talk and how we express are quite different in a virtual space versus an actual one, and I feel part of a distinct set of social expressions).

    I do however take exception that what people do in virtual worlds can be equated to ‘acting’. I know people who LIVE in virtual worlds, and their lives are productive, they earn a good living there, and they are as much a part of reality as someone who works in a cublicle somewhere. They may be expressing themselves through an avatar, but they derive economic and social benefits from these spaces, and they’re no more reenacting as someone would the civil war than someone else would reenact being an office worker.

    As I said, I think the term “virtual world” is fraught with danger, including this creation of a sense that it’s creating a mystique or a metaphor that’s not sustainable when you start to think about the ways in which virtual and actual spaces coexist.

    However, this doesn’t mean that the baby should be thrown out with the metaphor. In the days that Tom studied SL, I believe that he was looking at a distinct culture. Whether the platform has grown so huge that this is no longer a sustainable argument it’s hard to say – I would agree that there are a lot of people using Second Life who truly DO use it only as a platform. Folks who use it primarily for simulating physics or weather might be using its tool sets and not engaging in any sort of cultural exchange, for example.

    And this has actually caused concern amongst folks who have been in Second Life far longer than I have – as if their cultures risk being diluted by the newly landed immigrants who are there for the ecomomic benefits or the great ocean view, and don’t appreciate the subtleties of the culture. It might be interesting to think of how the extension of Tom’s work might be taken to the next step of understanding the impact of immigration on a society.

    A resident-initiated discussion of “upholding social norms” might give a hint of this issue – of the diluting of one culture, and I wonder if this isn’t an interesting thread of study on its own.

    Which I think leaves us with the question of how you make decisions about where cultures within Second Life form and end, and where they become merely communities of practice. Because I strongly believe there are both, and perhaps the challenge that someone like Tom might face is in continuing to argue that Second Life as a WHOLE can be studied as a culture, when clearly there are segments of its user base that are logging on for task-specific reasons.

    However, this doesn’t mean that there are not cultures that exist and thrive within the SL environment, merely that as the platform has grown its uses have also become more varied. I try to remember, however, that at the time of Tom’s studies it was a much smaller world.

    What I suppose I find most intriguing about this whole thread, is that you’ve managed to touch on the same issues that long-time residents debate about, care about, and worry about. So maybe you’re right – maybe it’s sufficient to read a book and be done with it.

    My personal interest in virtual worlds is not solely on what they are today, however. I’d rather be a proactive participant in the future, learn from the practices and lessons of today, because I sincerely believe that 3D spaces will continue to grow exponentially, and that their peril and promise is far more significant than we can imagine.

    As fidelity grows through platforms such as Blue Mars, as devices are used to mix realities, as we see more and more examples of mirror worlds such as the Google Earth recreation within Second Life, and as we continue to grapple with issues of identity and expression, I think that the tools with which we express our humanity are creating both gaps because of technology access, are unleashing potential through our ability to connect globally through what you can call communities of practice, or through what others call culture, and which are providing new tools for the conceptualization of content, intellectual property, and mass collaboration that are not replicable in 2D media.

    The future will have more open standards, different ways to access these spaces through “light” clients and other means, and will include worlds within worlds. Because of all this, I still argue that there’s enough stuff that’s interesting enough to do that it merits staying in touch with, and a need for sound academic leg work so that as these spaces evolve we have a framework on which to continue our explorations and understanding of technologies that have the potential to shift the site of human sociality.

  17. Thanks Dusan, that’s a very thoughtful and helpful comment full of stuff to think about. Very much appreciate your input.

  18. Hello all,
    Regarding focusing on the whole ‘world’ or smaller ‘communities’, I started my research (on commercialisation of blogs in Malaysia) intending to look at ‘probloggers’ – i.e. bloggers who devote themselves to monetising their blog – but then decided that since so many bloggers do some of it, and the more successful ones reject the label of ‘problogger’, I would look at the practice of problogging, and how it resonates with the bloggers as a whole. So, as Latour would say, I’m following the ‘trace’ of problogging throughout all Malaysian blogs, and looking at how it casts light on the multitude of practices occurring on- and offline. This is maybe similar to what Boellstorff says above: “you can’t understand gay, lesbian, and transgendered Indonesians without thinking about “Indonesia” as a “whole.””

    Regarding dichotomies of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds, I would agree with the ‘Virtual worlds don’t exist’ approach, and as Dusan notes, it can be turned around too. It makes me think of Laclau’s essay on “The Impossibility of Society” – he says “The social only exists as the vain attempt to institute that impossible object: society. Utopia is the essence of any communication and social practice.” (92). As far as social analysis is concerned, I find it more useful to look at practices and nodes that articulate those practices (which would tie into communities of practice). Those nodes can be seen as actants, i.e. semi-autonomous influences on other actants in the network. Thus, on the one hand if people see SL, or the blogosphere, as being a ‘real’ influence in their lives, then it is real – so Boellstorff’s methodological decision to operate purely within SL makes sense for those people. In the wider picture, that is only one facet of the world of SL, one facet of ‘the world’ we all live in. However, looking for a ‘culture’ runs into the same problem as looking for ‘reality’ – it’s trying to lock down something that only exists as an object created for analysis, or as “an effort… to mobilize social relations” (Amit 20). Streams of contingent and interlocking patterns of practices flow throughout on- and offline contexts, and as anthropologists we can only hope to elucidate facets of that flow – remembering that facets in a gem are sliced through the original irregularly shaped crystal.
    Amit, Vered, and Nigel Rapport. The Trouble with Community : Anthropological Reflections on Movement, Identity and Collectivity. London Pluto, 2002.
    Laclau, Ernesto. New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. London: Verso, 1990.

  19. A comment from the peanut gallery?

    I’m not “tech savvy” and Second Life did not seem very difficult to learn to me. It has fewer command options than most word processing programs.

    I encounter a fair number of casual visitors that don’t think there is any value to SL. “There’s nothing to do” would be a close approximation of most of their statements. I usually advise them that they have to set their own goals and put some effort into achieving those goals, just like any other endeavor in life. If you have no personal goals, I would completely agree that Second Life is just not that interesting.

    And land? Not really the most important thing. The people are much more interesting than the “stuff”.

  20. I tried to get off the island for thirty minutes and then never went back. The next week I bought WoW instead, and became addicted. Something about WoW’s pre-packaged goals , I guess.

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