FLETCHER, AKIL: QUESTIONING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXT: BOELLSTORFF, TOM: COMING OF AGE IN SECOND LIFE

Text

What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually? Coming of Age in Second Life is an ethnographic text which features Tom Boellstorff providing an ethnographic outlook on the virtual world of Second Life. The fieldwork takes place entirely online and explores the modes of communication, expression, and group making within the space. This is very much like traditional ethnographies for the mere fact that people behave similarly even under online circumstances.  However, Boellstorff takes the time to point out that there are both differences and similarities in producing what he calls a digital ethnography.

What modes of inquiry were used to produce it? Boellstorff uses multiple points to approach his topic, for one he implements the use of classical Greek philosophy to provide the term Chora and techne which provides a theoretical foundation for the meaning making within Second life. Additionally, the book also functions as a push back to the typical need to view the virtual as something separate from the physical. In doing this Boellstorff examines the way in which Second Life’s residents find importance in the world and how that this importance or meaning cannot be separated from the physical space. He explores this through interviews, geographical mapping of the space, and a recording of the activities they do to give second life meaning, which followed everything from having virtual sex or making virtual clothing to sell.

 How is the text structured and performed? The text is structured by chapters opening first with the core theoretical premise of “techne” and background and then dives deeper into the more specific cases of interaction and happening. Each chapter is labeled with a specific theme such as sex and gender or digital economies.

How can it circulate? The book circulated through the anthropological and computer science crowd successfully. For many anthropologists this was their first look at an ethnography of a virtual space and  for CS studies it served as an example in how to apply ethnography. Sections of the book were also made into shorter articles. The book was also circulated within Second Life's groups. However, it did not seem to make a splash amongst the general population, perhaps, because of its lengthier theoretical foundations. 

What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics? The text tackles issues of embodiment and meaning making through the theoretical lenses of Chora and techne. Techne being a greek word which is “meaning made through action or craft”. In this way the residents within Second Life are made human by way of their actions. By reducing the divide between physical and virtual Boellstorff does in fact make a case that each are important while maintaining the reality that there is a slight difference between them. This addresses the shifting reality of life made through the virtual and discusses how individuals come to find meaning from things other than the physical.

Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy? The phenomenon/text takes place entirely online within the virtual world of Second Life. This means their economy is linked to each player, working, playing, and selling within the game. Additionally, this also connects it to Second Life’s parent company Linden Labs which is a stake holder in the American economy. 

What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount? The text follows two separate chronologies or rather steps out from Queer theory, and digtal text/ICS studies on the topics of embodiment. What it means to be embodied is very much a core question within this book, one that most likely stems from Boellstorff past work in the Gay Archipelago. The political forces at play are ones which view the virtual as lesser to the physical rather than its equal, a common theme within both academia and outside venues. Ironically, however the text does a good job at placing how the socioeconomic realities of the Second Life residents are in fact entangled to the physical. For many of the residents their ability to make money or US currency within Second Life immediately collapsed the barrier between the virtual and physical and this connects to an economic belief which makes things real once they become profitable. A dangerous belief within a capitalist system. While the book does address many issues the issues such as race are more or less left on the back burner. Gender, sex, and economics however is very much at the forfront of this text.  

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale? This is a difficult question, however, I would argue the text works on a macro scale because it analyzes the entirety of a virtual world which while contained does connect to the entirety of the internet and collapses borders. This brings questions of security, internet practices, and online conduct into question. However, Boellstorff does indeed look at the micro within his weekly group meetings, or individual interviews with Second Life store owners, couples, and partiers. Additionally, on the meso level the top down ownership of Linden Labs would function as the organization in charge of the world. However, Linden can easily be seen as both Macro and Meso, because for the inhabitants of Second Life, Linden did in fact set the rules of who could be monetized and how one could even communicate. Thus the data scale is one of the most important here as LInden controlled the digital infrastructures that affected each residents life. 

Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example? Boellstorff himself is one of the key players as he is the mechanism through which the text has been constructed. The other key players are indeed his interlocutors the people who told him Second life was not just a game, and the individuals he came in contact with even in passing which made him privy to the world, like the fireballs and non-human characters which gave him another angle to explore in a conversation of embodiment. Lastly, Linden Labs again comes to become a player as through patches (structural updates to a system) they have shaped the cultures of what can and cannot be done. For instance many players of color found Linden’s options of diversity to be lacking and thus made their own skin colors. However, this took a high level of computer skill or the money to purchase such creating a skin economy within Second Life. 

 What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? In 2008 when the book was published there were major events happening around the world, however the reality is the field work was most likely done in the years leading up to the books release. The book mentions multiple moments of major change within the Second Life community, such as changes to economic processes and how people could make money, changes to the ways people interacted by adding voice chat, but the major changes around the book was and continues to be the changes in technology. For example, the creation of better visual hardware in fact changed the way people experienced the world entirely. However, 2004-2008, was in fact a turbulent time and 2007 features the running of Obama which was in fact a big deal in many communities. Additionally, the early signs of the housing crash were sure to be taking place during the time period of research. This could have easily influenced how the individuals of Second Life viewed the prospects of a sales economy.

What cultures and social structures are in play in the text? Online communities of Second Life, this includes the LGBTQ community, and multiple creator/sellers communties. 

 What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds? There are many practices described within the game itself, for example the economic practices within the virtual world such as creating clothing or becoming landlords to sell land within the game. Additionally, there is an entire chapter explaining the sex and gender practices such as gender experimentation or playing characters which better embody the player themselves. Additionally, many of the relationships formed crossed over from the virtual space in which player who developed friendships or romantic relationships in virtual, at times do the same in the physical. However, there is a contradiction in the text that many find their “true” selves in that of the digital, a space in which many write off to be less real. This ironically, provided the space for many residents to discover and explore themselves but made it hard for people outside of the virtual world to understand. 

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described? Technology is very much at the core of the study with it taking place entirely online, this is not to say people are not central, but it would not be the same if the virtual space of second life was left out. This means technology, offered a space for people to interact and in many ways determined this space to exist in a realm all its own, while still being connected to everything from the physical. 

What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text? One of the ubiquitous powers within the book is that of the Second life company Linden Labs. Since this virtual world is owned and maintained by a parent company this was always a factor of the book. Linden Labs through a constant need to manage their own capitalist interest made fundamental changes to the way’s residents could make money and communicate. The language within the Western server is also usually English (while not entirely). The virtual world also gave favor to those who spent the most money, thus allowing them functions and abilities others could not perform or take part in. Linden Labs, however, is a company and must adhere to the laws placed upon companies, this causes Linden to look for unique ways to make money through taxing residents in various ways. 

How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? In addition, to Linden functioning as both a Macro, and Meso force within Second Life, language plays a key role. While Boellstorff does point to techne or craft as the key means of meaning making, language or speech served to give life to the world. Since the space was indeed virtual, talking to people would be the quickest way someone could interact. At times this would be to insult or hurt and at others it would be to make love. However, language was always key. In addition this the language that developed around Second Life, such as Res, port, and LL. Shows the ways in which language was both recreated and formatted for world specific speech. Additionally, some speech or language was forbidden by Linden Labs in which the company would ban those who transgressed their rules, removing one from the world entirely. However, this did not stop players from being offensive, racist, or discriminatory in anyways in fact some saw it as a challenge, creating multiple accounts to keep harassing residents in the world. 

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? The phenomena captured in this ethnography is very similar to that within other virtual worlds. Take for instance the comparisons Boellstorff make to World of Warcraft, while stating that they are different in purpose many of the same behavior is performed within such. People make themselves known  through speech, there is a hierarchy of paying and non-paying players (not as much though since WOW is based on subscription). This however connects to a larger conversation of online practices and internet conduct. The behaviors of trolling, and meaning making are not limited to Second Life, but in fact are found within social media sites, forums, and other media sites abroad. 

What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims? The text serves multiple purposes, however, the key focus is to push the application of ethnography in a non-physical space. By doing this Boellstorff challenges previous claims of the virtual absorbing the physical or humans transcending the physical but at the same time takes time to note that the physical is not supreme either. Here he writes in conversation with Huizinga’s magic circle, plato’s allegory of the cave, and later posits what he calls creation capital.

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? The main conceptual argument is that the experiences within the virtual world of Second Life are just real as the physical world around it. Thus embodiment in the virtual world is just as important and real as in the physical one. Additionally, that virtual worlds are just as meaningful field sites as physical spaces. 

 What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument? Creationist Capitalism is one of the later concepts Boellstorff puts down and sort of tops off his techne argument. Where he posits that the economy of Second Life is wrapped within the need to create and sell the reality of the world. This is done by literally creating home, skins, costumes, and so on. This provides people with prestige meaning and a different environment they must navigate. Among other topics are temporality, history, and intimacy.

How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument? Boellstorff takes multiple first hand accounts from current residents, he also maps the geography of the world (which is constantly expanding) by taking an air balloon around the early versions of the world. Lastly, Boellstorff builds upon other games scholars and philosophers to verify his claims.

How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged? The main argument is rather strong though at times it becomes overly complicated to read. The easiest way to challenge this text would be to exclaim that one virtual space is not representative of other spaces. Let alone the physical world. For example, when Boellstorff mentions intimacy and the ability to feel close despite being so far away, one could easily say ( as he mentions himself) that they are pretending or depriving themselves from actual interaction. However he does in my opinion argue against this successfully. 

How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text? The arguments around embodiment are quite useful to say extend the arguments of blackness or whiteness appearing in the digital space. While, Boellstorff argues this very fact briefly this can be taken further to argue against the burgeoning idea of a color blind online world. Additionally, one could take Boellstorff interviews and geographical data to perform examinations like a verbal analysis to see how often people talked about embodiment at all in the virtual space.  

Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text? I would argue that the backdrop comes from a rising concern in digital/ virtual practices. Cyber security, DDOSing, cyber terrosism is very much on the rise and fears of the virtual permeate the public conscious around the virtual world. In addition to this the virtual space is already rife with misconceptions/ sci-fi theory which has left the virtual circulating with many questions but having many left unanswered. 

 What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? Boellstorff is very much engaged with the “deviant” as much as he is with the typical residents. His claim that embodiment is possible online is claimed to appear all the time ( Part of me wonders how much this came up or was asked). Boellstorff does in fact argue that the individuals online are rational actors despite stereotypes point to the opposite.

 What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained? Ethnographic data was collected through exploring the world and chatting with residents. There was also a big experiential aspect of this as he hosted his chat group which altered the typical ethnographic settings but took advantage of the gaming space abilities to warp and be at a place instantaneously Statistical data or rather cost and amounts for Linden Labs was also gathered from online. 

 If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews? Questions around embodiment were indeed asked. Some residents Boelstorff spoke expressed how they felt more themselves in Second Life than in the real world. Questions of ownership and labor were also asked, especially around who owned what the players created. Boellstorff, also seems to have learned place need not be physical, or even visible, that in fact text, conversation, and other non traditional forms of space can in fact be place, like the place created through a phone call or old school MUD when people converse and talk. 

 How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? It could be inferred that Boellstorff rifled through the notes, screenshots, and recordings he took in game. They were then organized into sections and chapters as a big part of ethnographic research can often be finding the patterns that your interlocutors are providing you. 

 How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories? Boellstorff separates his interlocutors and objects into quite a few categories. He separates a few communities such as the builders/ creators vs those who focused more on embodiment, and enjoying the company of others. However these groups are easily interchangeable or had leakage. In the book he separates the chapters by major topics such as Culture in the virtual world, History, Place and time, and more. 

 

What additional data would strengthen the text? I would argue a focus on race would strengthen the text, but that is not what the text was made out to. Additionally, aspects of conflict and competition between players would strengthen it as well. While Boellstorff does speak about trolls and the little ways players would extort each other for money and expansion on the defense tactics would indeed be beneficial. (although this could put players at risk.)

 

Structure and performance?

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? The introduction is literally titled the “subject and scope of inquiry”, here Boellstorff point to the need for a book which pushed ethnographic methods into the virtual space. This is a research project for this very reason, however boellstorff pushes this further by pushing the posthuman analysis by stating “t is in being virtual that we are human”.

Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? The theory is stated straight out from the beginning. Boellstorff backtracks to plato’s allegory of the cave and uses such to build upon techne. It is all clearly stated which is both a benefit and and curse for the reader as it is all nessisary to understand Boellstorff's arguement but may scare off non-acedemic readers. 

What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided? The most recurring binary in the text is that between the physical and the virtual. However, the book does address the gender binary subtly and works to disengage from the binary in many ways. For example, the constant use of the fire ball or genderless avater seeks to complicate the gender binary. 

How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development? The text does work in a chronological order citing the historical moments in both theory, and moments for Linden. However, the text is more broken up by subject than chronology. 

 

How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text? Temporality takes a similar role as distance in the text. Both are transformed and in some ways folded upon themselves due to the aspects of the virtual world being located online and thus accessible from many different locations. Time zones, take on new meaning when people are experiencing multiple at once and provides a new list of conflicts, some as simple as missing sleep to speak to a friend. 

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text? The text points to the multiple cultures that group together in Second Life. There are those who look for friendship, or those who look for more symbiotic relationships, like a mother and daughter typesetting, or those who group through capitalist interest. While Boellstorff points out that they can very much intermingle people do make use of private spaces (built homes) to provide a space where they can carry this out, and this helps Boellstorff in his marking of cultures. Such as the clubs that are frequented and create a physical and virtual eyesore / disturbance for many of the players.

 

How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? One of the strongest points in Boellstorff’s text is in fact his cooperation of informants details. Multiple interviews are taken in length, including screenshots of text box conversations. The informant details work to push the theory along, for instance when an informant talks about herself playing multiple accounts to embody different aspects of her personality, Boellstoff uses this to highlight the multiplicity and complexity of embodiment.

 

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described? The entire text functions as an exploration of technology and human interaction. Technology is at the core of the text and works to be the space in which people interact and communicate.

How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers? This, I think is where the text struggles. As much as one can learn from the text it is quite rigid in the first 3 chapters. It picks up immensely by the gender chapter, but the book does enough to keep you reading by hinting at the more engaging topics to come. 

What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument? The text is fairly straightforward like most academic text chapters are linked in themed but disparate enough to be able to be read as a stand alone piece.

What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect? Boellstorff uses screenshots of both ingame textbox and avatar scenes in order to help explain some of the more harder to understand scenes. This helps those who have not visited virtual worlds or video games to understand what Boellstorff is explaining. 

 

What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes? The footnotes serve to offer extra resources such as a links to blogs and quick explanations of peculiar situations or theory, but more importantly it is used to point out and explain some of the lesser known terms such as rezing/ resing offering non-second lifer's or non-gamers a quick how to guide.

How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”?  The author directly critiques the arbitrarily drawn line between physical and virtual. However while not destroying these line, Boellstorff offers a reexamination of what this binary means insisting that both are equally as real or as fake as the other while still maintaining their differences. The same can be seen in his argument towards capital in which he critiques the ways in which capital can be produced, however this works more like an explanation than a critique.

How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not? Reflexivity in the text is addressed by consistently attempting to walk the tight rope of virtual and physical. While the text does claim the virtual is extremely important it never goes as far to say that it is more important. It recognizes the want for many scholars to offer a posthuman reality in which the virtual transcends the physical but instead Boellstorff centers this focusing on the people rather than solely the virtual or the physical. 

Circulation?

Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences? The text is very much written for academia, it is in direct conversation both with ethnographers and games scholars. The chapters, topics, and especially theory is all pointed towards the academic crowd. 

What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope? Games scholar, Queer studies Scholars, Anthropologist, anyone that utilizes ethnography, and posthumanist scholars.

What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious? The breaking down of physical and virtual space, and the capital practices of virtual residents.

How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research? The main argument is one that is easy to follow, that theory that leads up to such however can take a bit to get accustomed to. However, this does lay the groundwork for future virtual ethnographies to try similar methods and allows one to build upon the gaps that could not be covered by Boellstorff like a closer look at companies who own virtual worlds instead of the people who inhabit them. 

What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? 

There isn’t so much a call for action but instead a call for rethinking. Where as some text may push you to physically go do something Boellstorff ask that you take seriously the actions and events online. 

Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? This book could be a video series, using actors to recreate moments. Additionally, this could be a stream. However, the aspect of protecting one's interlocutors would be a major concern. Yet, there is still a huge viewership for educational/ethnographic streams and it would be something that could prove fruitful. 

 

License

Creative Commons Licence

Contributors

Created date

October 14, 2019

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019.