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

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

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

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


Millions of people around the world today spend portions of their lives in online virtual worlds. Second Life is one of the largest of these virtual worlds. The residents of Second Life create communities, buy property and build homes, go to concerts, meet in bars, attend weddings and religious services, buy and sell virtual goods and services, find friendship, fall in love--the possibilities are endless, and all encountered through a computer screen. Coming of Age in Second Life is the first book of anthropology to examine this thriving alternate universe.

Tom Boellstorff conducted more than two years of fieldwork in Second Life, living among and observing its residents in exactly the same way anthropologists traditionally have done to learn about cultures and social groups in the so-called real world. He conducted his research as the avatar "Tom Bukowski," and applied the rigorous methods of anthropology to study many facets of this new frontier of human life, including issues of gender, race, sex, money, conflict and antisocial behavior, the construction of place and time, and the interplay of self and group.

Coming of Age in Second Life shows how virtual worlds can change ideas about identity and society. Bringing anthropology into territory never before studied, this book demonstrates that in some ways humans have always been virtual, and that virtual worlds in all their rich complexity build upon a human capacity for culture that is as old as humanity itself.


Prehistories of the virtual—Histories of virtual technol
ogy—A personal virtual history—Histories of virtual
worlds—Histories of cybersociality research—Techne.


Too often, virtual worlds are described in terms of breathless futurism and capitalist hype. Above all they seem new, and this apparent newness is central to their being interpreted as harbingers of a coming utopia of unforeseen possibilities, intimations of a looming dystopia of alienation, or trinkets of a passing fad. Yet the fact that millions of persons now regularly enter virtual worlds, adapting to them with varying degrees of ease, indicates that something is staying the same; something is acting as a cultural ground upon which these brave new virtual worlds are figured. Because virtual worlds appear so novel and in such a constant state of change and expansion, understanding their history can be difficult. However, virtual worlds did not “spring, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, full-blown from the mind of William Gibson…. [They have encoded within them] a complex history of technological innovations, conceptual developments, and metaphorical linkages” (Hayles 1996b:11).

Throughout human history, technologies—from the wheel to the book and beyond—have shaped forms of selfhood and community. Indeed the distinction between society and technology is misleading. Technology, like language, gender, religion, or any other domain, always comes to be through particular cultural and historical circumstances—as neatly summarized by the well-known quotation from the computer scientist Alan Kay that “technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born.” This chapter recounts the history of Second Life and virtual worlds more generally, but there are many ways to tell that history. Rather than attempt to provide a definitive chronology, I present several different histories: each sheds light on the others, resulting in a multifaceted (but still partial) background to the emergence of virtual worlds.

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