Balancing Act: Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life

Christopher R. Friend
University of Central Florida

Tom Boellstorff. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. 336 pp. $32.95 (978-0691135281); forthcoming pbk $22.95 (978-0691146270).

[1] As the foremost ethnographer studying gay cultures in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff brings a significant experience and expertise in the discipline to his work. In Coming of Age in Second Life, his reputation is brought to bear on a virtual landscape previously untouched by anthropology. As such, he recognizes his unique opportunity with this project: not only does he present ethnography of an unstudied society to anthropologists potentially unfamiliar with virtual worlds, but he also presents his studies to a more general audience potentially unfamiliar with ethnography. Acknowledging this dual audience in the opening chapter establishes Boellstorff's intricate balancing act. Those who are interested in learning more about virtual worlds might be drawn to the technology but may have no familiarity with ethnographic methodology. Conversely, those interested in Boellstorff's work for ethnographic reasons might bring misconceptions about virtual worlds—or thoughts of 'virtual reality'—to the discussion. This vast divide within the anticipated audience guides not only the language and assumptions used in the text, but also the text's organization.

[2] The first of the book's three sections is an overview of the application of ethnography to a virtual environment, noting the terms used in Boellstorff's discussions, the history of virtual worlds in general, and the use of "posthuman" as it is sometimes applied to the use of virtual environments. Other reviews have faulted this portion of the study with unnecessary length or jargon; however, it does more than simply enhance the ethos of the author. By thoroughly discussing the implications of participant-observer ethnographic research in a virtual space, Boellstorff establishes both the viability of such a study and the need for the rest of the book. The author recognizes that he is the first to create an ethnography of a virtual space, and he spends the first third of his book not only explaining his methodological approach, which helps readers unfamiliar with the field better understand the nature of his work and the source of his conclusions, but also explaining his perception of the realness of a virtual environment. He thereby establishes the social relations formed within Second Life as worthy of study as a culture unto themselves, rather than as simply representations of cultures that exist offline. This view of self-sufficient online cultures is essential not only for his findings but also for his premise – that the society of Second Life can and should be studied ethnographically without a referent outside the virtual environment.

[3] To achieve his goal, Boellstorff creates an avatar, a character inside the virtual Second Life environment, named Tom Bukowski. Bukowski's mini-bio appears on the back cover of Coming of Age, complete with the avatar's 2004 birth date, marking a deliberate blurring between the actual author and the virtual one. This blurring, while an occasional subject for discussion in the book, is a unique characteristic of virtual-world ethnography. While Boellstorff wrote the book, it was Bukowski who performed the research, amassing tens of thousands of pages of notes and transcripts over the two and a half years during which the study was being performed. Bukowski was the interface through which (whom?) Boellstorff acted and interacted within the Second Life environment. It was through Bukowski that Boellstorff experienced Second Life, and it was with Bukowski that other avatars interacted, conversed, shared stories, and learned. Because avatars – indeed, the entire Second Life space – do not exist offline, Boellstorff's research had to be conducted online by Bukowski. The distinction between a Second Life avatar and the actual-world human controlling it meant that Boellstorff needed to use his Bukowski avatar as the mediator of his research. This additional filter of information lends credibility, rather than distortion, to Boellstorff's work. Because the research was done entirely within Second Life by a Second Life avatar, Boellstorff establishes himself as a foremost authority in that virtual culture. This placement of authority comes as a result of numerous challenges he has in acquainting himself with the unique customs of Second Life culture—a process of learning from one's mistakes that Boellstorff considers essential to effective ethnography.

[4] Since he was "born" in 2004 and is now among the oldest of the avatars in existence in Second Life, Bukowski has been witness to a great number of major shifts in philosophical approaches to virtual environments and their governance. These shifts in philosophy richly inform Boellstorff's analysis of governance toward the end of the text in ways a new or casual Second-Life user would simply not see. His experiences allow him to evaluate the impact of the absolute governmental control possible in virtual worlds as it contrasts with actual-world governments like the one he sees in his Indonesian ethnographic work. Additionally, his long-term engagement within the virtual world directly adds to his credibility. By owning property, building a homestead for himself, and extensively engaging members of various Second Life communities, Bukowski occupies a social stratum in Second Life surprisingly similar to the actual-world academic reputation of the author. That connection forms the greatest strength of this ethnography: Boellstorff's expertise and Bukowski's experiences form a rich, intricate, and uniquely informed stance from which to write the deeply engrossing story of Second Life and its cultures.

[5] That said, Boellstorff is explicitly aware of the timing of his book in two ways. First, he addresses his decision to use a printed book to document a virtual, electronic system, deliberately using this medium to force himself to use lineal organization and to make the text self-contained and time-limited. The paperback edition of the text is unchanged from the original, published two years prior and based on research primarily conducted two years earlier still. Yet Boellstorff is presciently aware of the potential for his work to quickly become dated; the frequent system-wide updates to the environment he was studying were a constant reminder of that inevitability. However, the often-used refrain of "during the period of my research" constantly reminds or reassures the reader that this book details a specific period in the development of Second Life as a virtual world. The "coming of age" referenced in the title perhaps refers more to Second Life itself than to any of the residents thereof. Boellstorff shows, through mundane examples and practical theories, that Second Life is very much an experiment in bringing actual people together to form communities in virtual space.

[6] One of the more telling aspects of Boellstorff's writing is that he steadfastly avoids using the phrase "real life," even though it is frequently used by residents of Second Life's virtual environment to distinguish between what happens online and off. By referring to offline environments as "actual life" instead, Boellstorff effectively sidesteps the chance for readers to question the usefulness of performing studies of places, or the inhabitants thereof, that are not "real." Boellstorff's technique here is not simply self serving in an effort to legitimize his own work. Indeed, it is a major tenet of his philosophy: an actual person's virtual embodiment in a virtual space is as "real" as the surrounding environment. The landscapes and buildings within that environment are themselves the virtual embodiment of the data structures used to define, structure, create, and reify them. Chapter five in Coming of Age discusses the essence of this embodiment and its implications in Second Life. After establishing what a sense of identity means in a virtual environment, Boellstorff highlights interactions among those identities, in the forms of friendships, intimate relationships, and larger communities. His examples illustrate mostly that virtual-world relationships are varied, diverse, and fast-paced, yet still have relevant emotional impact on those involved.

[7] Communities in Second Life offer much that has yet to be studied. Indeed, with over 50,000 simultaneous users in Second Life at any given time, entire teams of ethnographers would be at little risk of overlapping in their efforts. Though Boellstorff never explicitly calls for further ethnography in Second Life, he clearly establishes a theoretical framework and justification for such efforts, and the number of times he refers to a lack of space for elaboration or the ability to "write another book" on a specific topic suggests the intent—or rather the need—may very well exist. At the same time, one of the common criticisms of Coming of Age is the brevity of the ethnographic reporting itself. Only one section of the book is reserved for observations of the environment and its residents; a discussion of methods and implications constitute the other two. For representing over 10,000 pages of notes in only 116 pages of this book, Boellstorff appears to have made an error not of economy but of omission. Readers with a passing familiarity with Second Life stand to gain more insight into ethnographic methodology than on the environment in which that methodology is employed. For ethnographers, this text provides only a brief introduction to the virtual world of Second Life, rather than an in-depth or near-complete survey of the culture. However, it is more significant that Boellstorff succeeds in other ways. He establishes both the epistemology and the technique needed to perform ethnographic studies in virtual worlds, be they Second Life or others. Coming of Age will undoubtedly be followed by other studies and other authors, but this book provides future texts with the plausibility and respectability they will need to become a part of our understanding of human communities, both online and off.