anthropology coming of age

welcome to the 21st century

Detail of the cover of Coming of Age in Second Life by Tom Boellstorff

Since quite a time I was eagerly awaiting Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human‘ by Tom Boellstorff—it just arrived with yesterday’s snail-mail, so I had not yet the chance to read Tom’s book from front to back cover. Until now I only read chapter 1 ‘Subject and scope,’ plus a dozen or so random paragraphs from throughout the book. Hence I am not yet qualified to deliver a review, instead I will jot down just some thoughts.

Although Second Life (SL) is not the focus of my own work, what I saw so far of Tom’s text again instilled that somewhat ambivalent feeling. To make it clear from start on: I am very much with what Tom wrote. My ambivalence stems from oscillating between the poles ‘Gosh, if only I had been faster!’ and ‘Yes! I am on the right tracks.’ So much on my personal reception of ‘Coming of age.’

Others had been faster—at least when it comes to reading the book ;-)—and it already triggered some discussion within that part of the anthropological community which is visible online. At Savage Minds there are two reviews: Ethnography of the Virtual by Kerim Friedman, and More on Coming of Age in Second Life by Alex Golub, plus a follow-up, again by Kerim: The Presentation of Self in Virtual Life. In the wake of those quite a number of comments spawned, including in-depth replies by Tom Boellstorff. Furthermore the topic is currently debated on the medianthro mailing-list—Tom replies in there, too. No matter the stance of any single anthropologist towards SL, online phenomena in general, or Tom’s book in particular, the issues have forcefully reached anthropology, are no more spat upon, but are seriously discussed within the discipline—anthropology is coming of age in the 21st century. Maybe not exactly as he envisioned, but what Arturo Escobar encouraged in his seminal article (1994) finally arrives … Tom’s book did and does quite something for that.

Every anthropologist who in the future wants to talk or write about SL, or non-MMORPG ‘online persistent state worlds’ in general, has to read ‘Coming of Age.’ In my view there is a trinity of absolute-must books on the topic, all of which were published this year:

AU, WAGNER JAMES. 2008. The making of Second Life: Notes from the new world. New York: HarperCollins.

BOELLSTORFF, TOM. 2008. Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

MEADOWS, MARK STEPHEN. 2008. I, avatar: The culture and consequences of having a second life. Berkeley: New Riders.

‘The making of Second Life’ strives to achieve for the understanding of SL, what David Kushner‘s ‘Masters of Doom’ (2004 [2003]) did for first-person shooter computer games—although, in my opinion, Au’s book does not reach the heights of Kushner’s. Despite Au once being—as SL’s ’embedded journalist’—on Linden Lab’s payroll, his book is far from hailing mumbo-jumbo of the marketing kind. Instead it furnishes in-depth understanding of SL’s history and background.

Mark Stephen Meadows is an early adoptor in the ranks of John Perry Barlow and Howard Rheingold. ‘I, avatar’ is outstandingly designed—Meadows is a portrait artist and author by profession—and from all physical books on the topic does by far the most justice to SL in terms of visual representation. In terms of content, it until today is the best I read on the issue of ‘the avatar,’ which Meadows does not restrict to the graphical representation of the user-controlled agent in SL. He understands it as a term for all kinds of online manifestation of a human individual’s personality. For example, in his book he also deals with interaction at YouTube—absolutely enlightening. The book as a whole qualifies as ‘experimental ethnography,’ a genre so much asked for since the times of ‘Writing culture.’