Design Notes · · 22 min read

Digital Anthropology: Tom Boellstorff, “Coming of Age in Second Life”

Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff on life—and the future—in virtual space.

Digital Anthropology: Tom Boellstorff, “Coming of Age in Second Life”

In this episode, Liam speaks to Tom Boellstorff, Anthropologist and UCI Professor, whose ethnographic work in Second Life (documented in his book, Coming of Age in Second Life) provides important insights into how virtual space – and our interface with it – informs and interacts with our lives in actual space.

In virtual worlds like Second Life, inhabitants exist only through their own acts of creation, which also serve as a primary mode of experiencing life in virtual space.

Liam Spradlin: Hi, Tom. Welcome to Design Notes.

Tom Boellstorff: Thank you for having me.

Liam: So to start out with, as is tradition on Design Notes, tell me a little bit about your work and specifically the journey that led you there.

Tom: Sure. I'm an anthropologist and I'm a professor at the University of California, Irvine. And I actually started out doing research in Indonesia many years ago about gay and lesbian Indonesians and sort of how identities move around the world on how they change and don't change when that happens. And I started doing that research in 1992. I started doing it a long time ago before the internet was even there. But when I was doing that research, I really saw the influence of mass media already, television and films and things like that. And that got me interested in technology and media.

And after doing that research for about, oh, 15 years in Indonesia, I thought, "Oh, I'll try something a little different." And so I had had that interest in technology and so got interested in virtual worlds. And this was in the early 2000s when they were just getting started and thought, "What would happen if I tried studying virtual worlds using the same approach that an anthropologist uses when they go to Indonesia or anywhere else, trying to understand a culture? How is it different or similar? How does it work?"

And so I sort of tried that out as an experiment and it worked really well and there you have it. And so for a while now I've been doing digital anthropology research about the internet. So I've been very lucky to have a career where I get to do all kinds of different stuff and I'm getting ready now to sort of come back to virtual worlds and do a research project on the anthropology of the metaverse, people are calling it nowadays, and looking at some things that are going on around that.

Liam: It's striking to me when you characterize your work before virtual worlds as exploring kind of the nature of identities and how those shift and change in different regions of the world, that studying a virtual world must kind of explode that concept.

Tom: It is interesting. Like in some ways it explodes it. But one thing that has always surprised me studying virtual worlds is that a lot of it isn't that different. And so seeing a film or a movie or getting an idea of a concept from somewhere else in the world and transforming it. Like in the case of Indonesia, which is the fourth biggest country in the world, that's been going on for hundreds, thousands of years. Indonesians are almost 90% Muslim and many of the others are Christian or Buddhist. Those all came from elsewhere. The idea of the nation state came from elsewhere, being a nation and so many ideas. And that happened in the US as well.

And so humans have always been very trans-local, like ideas and things have always flowed and moved. And sometimes that's because of people moving. But sometimes ideas can move when people don't. And that is something that with the virtual world kind of thing really gets transformed in really interesting ways. And one thing that is sort of exploded, or one thing that is truly different is the difference between an idea moving from one place to another physically, whether that be aided by radio or movies or internet, compared to an idea taking form in the internet itself. And that is something different because a movie or a book is really interesting, but we can't talk there together. But right now we're talking. And so there is something really cool that happens with the possibility for those kinds of virtual spaces, for sure, that's something that's really interesting to study.

Liam: I wanted to get into that more, but first I want to back up and just define a couple of terms as we get into this conversation. So first, how would you characterize a virtual world or virtuality in general?

Tom: Yeah, that's a really good point. So right now, especially in this sort of new era of metaverse hype that we're in, virtual gets used in two different ways that are actually very different. And so it's important to keep those separate but also look at areas where they overlap. So one is VR, virtual reality, which means the goggle kind of Oculus Rift thing where you see things in 3D and that's really cool, and whatever, the technology's improving.

But you can do VR without the internet at all. You could have a flight simulator on your computer, on your laptop, if it's not even plugged into the internet. So virtual reality is about an interface. It doesn't have anything to do with being online at all. You can do it, unplug your computer from the internet, turn off the Wi-Fi, and you could do VR with any kind of game that you're playing or a flight simulator or something. And so that's what virtual reality means.

Virtual worlds means a shared online place where this is a picture of my house in Second Life, one of my houses in Second Life, where if I shut off my computer and I come back the next day, it's still there because it's on the cloud. It's a shared place online. That's what a virtual world is. And that's different from a social network site. And we even see that in English where we say that you go on Facebook but you go in Minecraft or Fortnite or something like that, Second Life.

Many of the early virtual worlds were text-based. You don't even need VR. You don't even need graphics. They can just be text, where it would say, "Tom walks into a room. The room has three chairs and a table." And for instance, when some disabled folks with visual impairments use Second Life, they use readers that read it out as text. So even nowadays. So you can have VW, you can have a virtual world without VR and you can have VR without VW. One's about interface and one is about shared place. And so it's confusing because those are two pretty different meanings of the word virtual.

Now, part of the whole metaverse thing is the kind of Venn diagram where you can have a virtual world that uses VR. Super cool as long as you don't get nauseous or whatever. And so you can combine them, but you don't have to. And it's actually pretty clear that most people don't. And I don't think the future of the metaverse is that they're always going to come together, which is sort of a matrix idea. Because that's why so many companies are doing all of the AR, augmented thing where you can still see through if you wear the glasses. Because it's clear that having that kind of 360 immersion in a virtual world can be super cool, but probably not all day long, at least for most folks.

Liam: Out of curiosity, what do you think the implications would be of widely adopted augmented reality in the actual world?

Tom: It's so hard to say because so often with these kinds of things, companies will come up with use scenarios and then what people actually do with it is so different. And if you look at the history of technology, which I'm very interested in, you see that. When the iPhone first came out, people thought you'd hold it up and talk on it and everyone was worried about brain cancer and people didn't really even think about apps or that it'd be connected to a watch or whatever. And so often uses are emergent from new technologies. And so there's a whole bunch of predictions out there, but if history is any guide, they're mostly going to be wrong. And the really cool stuff we're going to really want to sort of be watching to see what it is that folks do with these things. The big warning around all of this stuff is that you could have this stuff being largely developed by governments or nonprofit organizations, but that's not the world we live in. We live in a world where the Metaverse kinds of technologies are overwhelmingly being developed and implemented by for profit corporations. And so what is being talked about in terms of what is going to be used for is very much driven by a certain kind of commodity product mentality of those companies. Which is probably just scratching the surface of what could actually happen. And so right now that kind of prediction stuff is very much being driven by marketing and it's very much being driven by for profit corporations that probably aren't going there in all kinds of directions of cool stuff that could be done with these technologies.

Liam: I think that many of the things that we're seeing predicted, there was a video circulating recently, at the time we're recording, of someone shopping for I think a bottle of wine in a store in, again, NVR. But I think that many of the things that people are thinking of in terms of the notion of having property, the notion of buying things, the notion of creating things have already played out in Second Life in a certain way.

So I want to talk about a concept that you established in your book, Coming of Age in Second Life called creationist capitalism. Because I think this idea that the world that we're talking about is actually a space in which you can do things and in which you can create things although it is a creation itself is really interesting and something that should be talked about as we revisit the idea of existing in this space.

Tom: Yeah. So a couple great points you mentioned. One is that one really negative effect of the corporate hype around the Metaverse, but around this stuff more generally is a lack of attention to history, which is very common in that hype. And it's amazing, Second Life is almost 15 years old now, and it's amazing how many people will be surprised or say, how can you still be doing stuff in Second Life, it's old.

And no one ever asked me that about Indonesia. No one ever says, why do you still go to Indonesia, why are you still interested in Indonesia, Indonesia's really old. You should only be studying new things. And that idea that we're only interested in what is new or big is definitely coming out of that pipe of the industry that can damage our research agendas in that way.

And this idea that people will often ask about, is this going to take over and have a billion users or should we just pack up and go home without any idea of a middle ground is also I think damaging. Because there's so many interesting things going on let's say with virtual worlds that have between a half million and five million active users. That's a lot of people. But part of the hype cycle is, if you're not going to hit a billion then I don't care.

And so I think thinking about looking at the whole range of things that people are doing online, not only the top two, is very, very important because often a lot of pioneering and interesting stuff is happening in smaller spaces that aren't getting noticed by the tech framing of these things.

And that idea of creationist capitalism is also really interesting and important because, especially right now, this moment that we're in around the Metaverse, not everything is new. A lot of what's going on is not new, but some of it is new. But it's really hard to tell right in the moment what is actually new and what's not, it's surprisingly difficult. That's always the case.

After five years, it's easy to look back and say, oh, this part of it was innovative and new and this part was not. But right when it's coming out, it's remarkably difficult sometimes to figure out what's new and what's not.

So the creationist capitalism thing is just thinking about, in the most basic sense of thinking about economics, going back to Marx or going back to basic economics, commodity production requires materials and labor, so if I'm going to build a house or a chair or a car or something, I need human labor to make that. And then there's the materials, I need cloth to build a shirt or a coat, I need metal and plastic to build a car, I need wood or whatever to build a chair. And the commodity models of economics are based around these factors of materials and labor and other things as well. But those are the big things, time and other things show up as well. But materials and labor are the big stuff.

And with creationist capitalism, what I was trying to think about is that with online commodity production, you really lose in many ways that material side of it. And so creativity itself becomes a new kind of labor in a virtual world, whether that's Fortnite or Decentraland, you get cool gear in Fortnite or you build something in Minecraft or you build a chair in Second Life. To make a thousand copies of that chair or one copy of that chair is almost no difference, just a teeny amount of bandwidth and server space. But you don't need a thousand times the materials like you do if you're making a thousand chairs.

So creationist capitalism is a way of thinking about what happens to capitalism when that materiality shifts. There's still the materiality of the computer and the keyboard, but there's not the materiality of what's needed to actually make the commodity in the same way.

And so we are moving into a world where, there's still going to be physical objects sold, lots of them, but there's a lot of stuff nowadays being sold that is virtual. And the NFT, the non fungible token thing, is part of that. Part of what an NFT is doing is actually trying to break this model of creationist capitalism. It's worth more because of scarcity, there's only a few of them.

And for 15 years, in Second Life you can do that. So if you make an object, a chair in Second Life, you can have it be free to copy or you can say this is unique, it can't be copied further. And you are basically turning it into an NFT then. And that interrupts that scarcity model where the same cost to make a hundred or to make one. So NFTs are basically trying to recreate the scarcity of physical objects where you need more wood or more metal to increase the value. It's that same idea.

So yeah, I mean, there's more to creationist capitalism than that obviously. But to me, one interesting piece of it is this issue of digital objects for which the materiality cost of their production is zero or close to zero compared to the physical objects.

Liam: I'm curious because it strikes me, and I think this comes through in Coming of Age in Second Life as well, that this mode of material-less creation or creation that is not as intensive on materials has huge implications for your experience of the virtual world, but also can reflect back into your experience of the actual world. Specifically in how you design your own embodiment and environment in a virtual world. So I'm curious about your thoughts on that. And also from a philosophical perspective, if the manufacturing of scarcity has an impact on that and what that impact is?

Tom: Yeah, I mean, that's a deep question, so I don't really have a complete answer for that. But it is true that because of the lack of scarcity in that sense, often people in a virtual world, their homes are palaces or they're really big, or they can have 10 cars, they can have a virtual Ferrari. And there has been interesting thinking about how is it that you can have a shift in social class in that sense.

But then also the other side of that, once again, I'm not the first person to say this kind of thing, is could this then, if it's not done right, lead to a world where rich people have a big house and a yacht in the physical world and less rich people have a pod or a small studio apartment and they have a yacht and a mansion online. And is that a way to shut them up because they don't get to have equality in the physical world.

So you can imagine this as being a way to exacerbate or increase class inequality. Or not. It's not really inherent in the technology, as with so many of these things it's what we do with it. And so it is interesting how we think about scarcity and abundance, and the way in which NFTs are trying to reintroduce scarcity into a virtual environment that, historically, one of the selling points is you don't need it. You don't need to have scarcity. But because our economic models are predicated on scarcity, then how are things going to get expensive if everyone can have it, right? And one point of view would be, who cares? Let's let everyone have stuff. Another can be, if I'm thinking in that capitalist model, or I need to make money, and the only way I can think about that is through scarcity, then I have to try and artificially create scarcity in a virtual space, because that's the only way I can think about money making.

So it's a really interesting question, once again, about how our economic models are intersecting with these new technologies, especially, once again, given a context where it's not, when you think about VR or virtual worlds, these metaverse spaces, it's not like you have five big corporations going up against like five nonprofits, a nonprofit consortia all doing it and seeing what happens. It's all corporate, and so we really have to push back and be creative to think about these other kinds of things, because the nonprofit space online, the kind of Wikipedia, Internet Archive, other kinds of things that are out there, nonprofit stuff, it's out there, absolutely. But it is very much overwhelmed in the public discourse by the corporate stuff. It is much, much bigger.

Sometimes, when people say, "Oh, the technology causes X, or the technology is doing X," we need to step back and say, "The technology when viewed through this capitalist model does X, but we can think otherwise. That's not the only way this technology could be used." And that's going to be a real challenge moving forward, unless there's some big movement to sort of think of these things more on the line of utilities, where we really want to support non-corporate models for them.

Liam: In a previous episode of the show, I talked to Kerry Murphy, who runs a studio called The Fabricant, and The Fabricant produces virtual couture, so fashion that only exists in virtual space, and you can apply it either to a photo of yourself or to an avatar. In Kerry's case, he had a photorealistic avatar created, and in the episode, we talked about how he tried out programming this avatar to do certain dance moves or wear clothes that he would never wear.

So I'm really interested in this idea that I think you also get into in the book about how this mode of creation in virtual space allows you to embody yourself in ways that are perhaps wildly divergent from the embodiment that you have in the actual world, and what that means to people and the implications that it has when you can kind of design yourself?

Tom’s Ethnographia in Second Life

Tom: Yeah, no, it's a super interesting question, and it's something that is really affected by the particular kind of virtual world in question. So some virtual worlds, and a lot of the biggest virtuals out there are designed as games, right, like World of Warcraft or Fortnite or something like that, and often, in those virtual worlds, there are fairly strict limits placed on your avatar embodiment. If you are in a Star Trek virtual world, you can't be a hobbit and you can't be Darth Vader because it's supposed to be Star Trek, not Star Wars, right? And so there are limits, and often in those spaces, avatar customization is often more about clothing or weapons, gear, stuff like that.

And then there are virtual worlds that allow you to look almost any way that you want, and so in a virtual world like Second Life, you can be photorealistic. You can also be a refrigerator or an animal or a ball of light or a different gender or between genders or a dragon. So some of them are very open ended and some of them aren't, so that has an effect. And another thing that has an effect is whether you're allowed to have one avatar or more than one avatar. So in Second Life, you have one avatar, but you can have as many free Second Life accounts as you want. It's just like getting Gmail accounts or something like that.

And so most people in Second Life have multiple avatars, and they'll call them alts, and sometimes a common thing that will happen is someone might have an alt that is closer to their physical world embodiment, and then another one that's more different for sort of fantasy purposes or for fun, they want to be another gender, that kind of thing. So if you only get one versus if you can have multiple, that's also going to change what people do with them.

And so you see all kinds of amazing creativity around that kind of embodiment, whether that be people who think they might be trans trying to be the other gender, and maybe that helping them understand themselves. There are support groups that happen for that kind of thing. People who identify with animals and love animals being animals, people who want to be younger or older than their physical world embodiment. I've worked with people in Second Life who are in their eighties, and they sometimes embody as a avatar who's 20 years old. In several cases, I've talked to people about that, where they say, "I'm not trying to hide who I am, but I don't want people to know that about me at first," because they love going to a dance or going to a club and having people talk to them and dance with them and whatever, and then if they ask, "Oh, who are you? How old are you?" they'll say, "I'm 82."

But they'll say, "In my physical world, that same person just would walk past me on the street and not even talk to me or look at me. But if they meet me and they talk to me, this 20-year-old body is actually, in some ways, it's who I am. I used to be this old, and I think this is some way the authentic me." And people just, I had one person say, "It's like you take a zipper and pulled me out, and that's who I am. And I love it, because I'm not immediately dismissed for being 80 years old. People get to know me, and then I tell them." And so there's also that interesting kind of thing that can happen socially, where people can be so quick to judge people based on their race, based on their gender, based on disability, based on age, and to not be immediately judged on that, people... One person in Second Life once told me, and this is in my book, where in Second Life, you get to know people from the inside out, instead of the outside in.

So that kind of thing is really wonderful. And then in some virtual worlds, yes, you can not only have clothing, but you can make and sell clothing, and in many virtual worlds, that can be a real source of income. And one thing that's from, it's not in my Second Life book, in some of my more recent writings on disability, one person I worked with was a fashion designer in the physical world who had to stop because of a disability, because of Parkinson's disease, and sort of just stumbled into Second Life just to check it out, and realized that she could actually do fashion in Second Life. So this is another example where we can't often predict what the use will be.

And she started making money in Second Life, some pretty good money in Second Life, and is now a very well-known fashion designer. But for her, it was also this huge emotional thing of being able to reconnect to a career that she thought she would have to get rid of forever because she could no longer hold a needle or do that kind of stuff, and she was able to bring back a creative side of her life that really meant a lot to her. And on top of that, one thing she really found interesting, having been a professional fashion designer, is that in Second Life, gravity works differently. Avatar bodies work differently, fabric drapes differently, and that was a cool challenge, and is a cool challenge for her. And I know people who are architects who had to quit their jobs, and love building homes in Second Life as well.

But yeah, so the avatar embodiment kind of thing is really interesting. And unfortunately, we still see racism and sexism and ageism happen in these spaces based on avatar looks, but it doesn't have to be that way, and there's also a lot of people pushing back against that and trying to think about new kinds of inclusive communities that we can build through avatar embodiments in these spaces. And so it's going to be a really interesting area moving forward, because in theory, you could have a virtual world that didn't have avatars, that people just sort of looked around and were ghosts, but it basically never happens. And so it is a really interesting area to watch as we move forward, and once again, how do people do different stuff with them based on the degree to which there's flexibility or multiplicity?

Liam: Right. And I think that that whole discussion highlights another point from your book that I thought was so important, which is that when we think about corporations coming into a space like Second Life and their motivations. What they would actually find out is that this mode of creation is the consumption that people are interested in, that creation is the mode of existence in that space, right?

Tom: Yeah. Well, and that idea of user generated content has become huge because YouTube doesn't make the videos, Facebook doesn't make the posts, Twitter doesn't make the tweets, and so a lot of these companies are based on a user generated content model. And in virtual worlds, open ended ones like Minecraft or Decentral and Second Life, that kind of thing are doing that. Ones like Fortnite or World of Warcraft that are more game oriented have less of that. The company is doing more of the content in the game oriented ones, but the more open ended ones actually share a lot with things like Facebook or Instagram or Twitter in that it's based on a user generated model where the company isn't creating most of the content.

The interesting distinction with something like Second Life, and this shows up with the game worlds as well is the current corporate model around the metaverse, the sort of two big paths, the two main ways that they make money is either advertising or subscription based, and a lot of games are more subscription or purchase based. So you buy Zelda: Breath of the Wild for $59 or you buy League of Legends or you buy Red Dead Redemption or whatever. You purchase the game or you pay $10 a month for it or whatever, and Second Life is free but to own land, you pay a monthly fee, so it's also subscription based, and that's one model. And then the other model is the advertising based of the free things like Facebook or Instagram. And what's interesting is that with the subscription model, and they both have whatever, pluses and minuses, but with the subscription model, you don't get the surveillance capitalism kind of thing.

Second Life doesn't care if your identity is different and they aren't tracking everything you do and spend, and the online games aren't doing that in the same way as well. Animal Crossing isn't doing that in the same way because you pay 50 bucks to have Animal Crossing. That's how they make their money. And so those are the two main forms that it is taking and both of those can use the user generated content model. So Facebook does it or Twitter does it and their advertising based, where something like second life does it but they're more subscription based. Online games are more subscription based. It's more of a Netflix model in that sense. And so it's going to be something very interesting and important to watch moving forward is what are the effects of those different commodity models? One subscription, one advertising. And then we can sort of make a grid, how does that then interact with the degree to which a virtual space is using a user generated content model or a company made model?

And there's an in between model that even Second Life uses a lot that a lot of these places use, and this shows up even with things like YouTube nowadays where between the company and the average user is the content creator or the influencer. So you have the idea that because like in Second Life, I mentioned that person who creates clothes and sells them or whatever, we're talking one or 2% of people in Second Life who are doing that kind of thing, and then there's a bunch of people who just hang out and buy the clothes. Think about YouTube. You have people who make a lot of money doing YouTube videos and they aren't employees at the company, but they are paid actually, some of them a lot and then you had the average person who watches it.

So you have a kind of hybrid third model that is showing up in a lot of these spaces where it's not the company making it the stop, like Nintendo for Animal Crossing, you get the rollout of the new content they're making, or the user, the average person making everything like tweets or Facebook posts, where you have this in between kind of semi-professional position of the content creator or influencer who's not an employee of the company, but in many cases, is paid by the company or by the users and often ends up creating most of the core content so the company doesn't have to and the average user doesn't either, and it's the average user that levels up. Maybe they get into it and they become content creators. So it's interesting how that model has also emerged as a third model, and how will these different models shape what happens socially is a really interesting area to be looking out for as we're watching what happens with these things moving forward.

Liam: For sure. Is that one of the things that we can expect in your work on the metaverse?

Tom at his desk in Second Life

Tom: Probably. I'm still figuring out where I will go with that, but all these things I'm mentioning are things that I probably will be looking into. What are the different models out there? What are some unexpected models that are out there? What are some possibilities that we can look at with these things? Because Jaron Lanier, who's very well known sort of coined the term virtual reality, and one of his books talks about the idea of lock in, that we still type HTTP for a website or we still talk about a desktop with folders and that kind of thing, and that once a format gets locked in, it can be influential for years and decades. And so it can be really important to be asking these kinds of questions and doing this kind of research now while the stuff is a little more unstable and emerging, and we can try to steer it and think about how can we do it better, rather than wait until things get locked in and one format or one company wins out.

And then we see now with things like Facebook where it's way more difficult to change it once it is so dominant and locked in, that it's hard to imagine an alternative and it's hard to imagine how it would be implemented, even if we imagine it once something has become so dominant. And so I think it's really important to be having these conversations and thinking about these possibilities while things are still a bit more emerging and unstable and there's the potential to steer the conversations in ways before that lock in happens.

Liam: All right. Well thank you again, Tom, for joining me.

Tom: You're most welcome. This has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much.

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