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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tom Boellstorff: "Coming of Age in Second Life"

This is a great day. Anthropology meets Virtual world. Isn’t it wonderful when a degree in anthropology isn’t put to waste because one decides not to dig for artifacts in Belize? Learning, and reading about SL from an anthropological perspective of Second Life creates a starting point that is more important than the technological appearance that SL provides on a surface level. People do things on SL and their activities can be whatever they choose. There can is a lot there to imagine and to do.

Tom Boellstorff uses analogy to languages when talking about virtual worlds in Coming of Age in Second Life:

“...there are common aspects to virtual worlds, just as there are features shared by all human languages even when they are mutually unintelligible”.

Here, he provides an easier way to look at virtual worlds when compared to languages. Languages are an important part of our identities. Languages enable communication by conveying thoughts. Language differences can separate people into groups of language users that share a common language. On Second Life, there are people using many different languages to communicate. There are aspects that many SL users have in common, such as being online, creating an avatar and browsing through different worlds. They are also there for a reason. The reasons for going onto SL vary and may overlap other reasons. For example, I went on SL because of my course that is held on SL. But if I wanted to talk with random people and befriend people along the way, then I am also building an online social network simultaneously. From there, language communities are created, or entered into existing communities. I found out about some of the terminology this way...

According to Boellstorff, “persons in Second Life typically say objects are “rezzing” into existence, a verb that dates back to Tron, one of the first movies to use computer-generated graphics and to represent a virtual world”. Someone used that word with me when they gave me my new hair. It looked like white particle dust until it suddenly appeared. It isn’t editable so I just went with it. My first SL ‘friend’ gave me a folder of lovely goodies to try on. There are a number of hairstyles – ones I thought I wouldn’t require because all I wanted was something a little closer to what I wear, a scarf over my hair. I could only find the type that tied around one’s neck. Oh well, its SL. Might as well go with the long hair; after all, isn’t this a world on imagination and of possibilities? My take home message after reading about rezzing is that I had been exposed to a language of inclusion. I know what rezzing whereas before, I had no clue. When I was told me hair was rezzing, I had to ask what it meant. I am adding this to my Second Life newbie vocab. Now I feel more like a ‘local’.

When Boellstorff says that “virtual worlds provide the opportunity for many forms of social interaction, and this can include anthropological research”, I agree with his take on the potential for social interaction in a virtual environment – just as there is with any sort of human interaction. It is simply a different form. Not everyone will embrace the technology, but the issue of technology has always had resistance whenever something new emerges. I imagine the telephone was not so well received by some when it was first invented. In the 1990’s, I remember how people were talking about how the internet would be the end of libraries. It turns out the technology can be of great use for people. Of course, there may be concerns about online interactions and the dangers of communicating with strangers. Online, you are able to control who contacts you and interaction is an option, not a necessity. I found myself being an observer most of the time when trying to figure out the basics of SL so I can see how useful  it could be for anthropologists to watch, learn and ask the occasional question to make sure he isn't making ethnocentric assumptions.

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