PGS Dialogue: Tom Boellstorff, author of Coming of Age in Second Life

Tom Boellstorff (AKA Tom Bukowski) conducted more than two years of ethnographic field research in Second Life before writing the book Coming of Age in Second Life. Here, anthropology and religion editor, Fred Appel asks Boellstorff about the particular challenges he faced during this research project and the future of virtual worlds.

Why did you choose to conduct your research in Second Life?

In January 2004, I decided I’d begin a new research project, one that would focus on virtual worlds. I looked at the press about virtual worlds (which at that point were not nearly as numerous as they are now) and started to explore a couple of them. I actually began by spending some time on The Sims Online (which is now defunct) before trying Second Life. I found Second Life interesting because it was very open-ended, which made it easier for me to imagine doing ethnographic research there. At that point Second Life was very small, with only about 500 people maximum in the world at any one time. I had no idea it would get so much larger, with 50,000 or even 70,000 people online at once (though of course that makes it at best a “medium-sized” virtual world, since some can have millions inworld simultaneously).

What were the challenges you faced in conducting this type of research?

For the most part, it turned out that the challenges I faced in conducting this type of research were no different than conducting ethnographic research anywhere else. These were the typical problems of gaining entry to a community by really devoting the time and energy to become familiar with the community and learn its social norms and practices.

However, it’s true that virtual worlds are very different from the kinds of places most anthropologists study. Prior to my book there had been some ethnographic research on virtual worlds, but very little from anthropology and very little based on extended fieldwork. So I did have to invent my methodology as I went along, but for two reasons this wasn’t a huge issue. First, all ethnographers have to shape their data collection methods to fit their specific fieldsites, and some of this always takes place during the process of the research itself. Second, one of what I see as my most counterintuitive and important findings was that the kinds of methods ethnographers normally use in the physical world also work well in virtual-world contexts.

The book you wrote previous to Coming of Age in Second Life, The Gay Archipelago, was set in Indonesia. How did the research and writing that went into the Second Life book compare with your work on the previous book?

As I noted above, one thing that surprised me has how little I had to change in terms of the research. For instance, I decided not to use “alts,” or additional avatar accounts, in my research because when you’re doing participant observation you’re not hiding who you are—it’s okay that people know you’re an anthropologist, and that’s actually important for building trust. Since I can’t have more than one body in Indonesia, that’s not a decision I had to make with regard to research in that context! I didn’t have to fly halfway around the world to do the Second Life research, which was nice, but I soon learned that I did have to set aside a lot of time for fieldwork, just as in Indonesia.

In terms of writing, Coming of Age in Second Life is actually my third book, because I published a second monograph based upon my Indonesia research (A Coincidence of Desires, Duke University Press, 2007). I am very happy with all three of these books, but one thing about Coming of Age in Second Life is that because it was a new research project, and because I already had a tenured position and thus some job stability, I was able to write it as an organic whole. None of the chapters were published first as journal articles. In fact, if you look at the subsections of every chapter they are between 2,000 and 2,500 words—none are very long or very short. So there’s a kind of pacing to the book that I really like.

What has happened to SL since publication of your book?

Whenever we do ethnographic work we are creating historical documents, because the things we study don’t just sit there without changing. That’s the case for the Indonesian communities I studied in The Gay Archipelago, and it’s true for Second Life as well. Since the publication of Coming of Age in Second Life, the virtual world has grown even more, but that growth has more or less plateaued. Of course, there are anthropologists who spend their entire careers studying a community of a thousand people, and learn very profound things from that research with broad relevance to many aspects of human existence, so the issue of size doesn’t bother me that much. The company that owns and runs Second Life has gone through lots of changes, including the hiring of a new CEO and then the firing of that CEO in mid-2010 (along with about 40% of the staff) and the return of the original CEO. Features have been introduced (like voice) and others eliminated (in August 2010, Linden Lab announced that the separate “teen grid” would end).

What are the future prospects of Second Life, and what is the future of online virtual worlds more generally?

I get asked these kinds of questions all the time. My first response is that anthropologists sadly don’t have crystal balls, and technology changes so rapidly that speculating about virtual futures is treacherous indeed. So with that big caveat in mind, I’ll engage in a little idle speculation. With regard to Second Life itself, several factors have led to its plateau. It’s relatively hard to learn to use, and because it’s so open-ended, many new residents have trouble finding things to do or communities with which to engage. Some specific communities, and also some educators and businesses, have found innovative uses for Second Life that seem sustainable, even if not always scalable. So my best guess is that Second Life will continue for a time at least as a medium-sized virtual world, but beyond that I can imagine scenarios where it goes bust as well as scenarios where it grows drastically.

In terms of online worlds more generally, like earlier Internet technologies, they are here to stay. They aren’t going to go away, but at the same time they aren’t going to take over everything. We aren’t headed for the world of The Matrix movies, where people live in virtual worlds every waking moments, but virtual worlds will continue to diversify and play a range of roles in people’s lives. Most of the largest current virtual worlds are for children, and kids’ virtual worlds will continue to be significant. Virtual worlds designed primarily as games (like World of Warcraft) are also very popular and they will continue to get more immersive and complex. On the other hand, we’ve also seen the rise of stripped-down, simplified virtual worlds like FarmVille that can be easily embedded into a website (even a social networking website like FaceBook), or accessed via a smartphone or other mobile device. There will be open-access virtual worlds, ones that you have to pay to access, and ones with restricted access for educational, corporate, or military uses, among others. Like the Internet more generally, what we’ll see happen with virtual worlds is a continued expansion outward in all directions. Individual virtual worlds will come and go, but the overall trends will continue.

What are you working on now?

Until September 2012 (and for the last three years), I am Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist, the flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association. It’s a great honor and can help to legitimize the kind of research I do, but it’s an overwhelming amount of work and the main thing I do nowadays. In terms of research, my main project is a new book manuscript, A Handbook of Ethnographic Methods for Virtual Worlds. In that book, I along with three colleagues (Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor) explore how we might better understand the forms of identity and community emerging (1) in specific virtual worlds, (2) between and across virtual worlds, and (3) between virtual-world and physical-world contexts. Ethnographic methods have long been recognized as one of the most powerful ways to explore such questions of culture. However, there remains great confusion as to how ethnographic methods must be modified (or not) for different kinds of virtual-world environments. The Handbook will address this confusion by focusing upon questions of ethnographic methodology with regard to the specific context of online virtual worlds (including both non-game and game spaces). So far it’s been great fun to write and I’m looking forward to the book’s completion.


Interesting fact: the cover of Coming of Age in Second Life is no ordinary cover. Boellstorff and the design team here at Princeton University Press conducted a contest in Second Life to find an iconic image. The author also hosted his first official book “launch” in Second Life.

Coming of Age in Second Life has won the following book awards:

  • Winner of the Media Ecology Association’s 2009 Dorothy Lee Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Culture
  • Honorable Mention for the 2008 PROSE Award for Professional and Scholarly Excellence in Media and Cultural Studies, Association of American Publishers
  • One of CHOICE Magazine’s 2009 Outstanding Academic Titles