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Even today, with the Internet a well-established and vital part of contemporary existence, studying it is seen as less than fully respectable. As Tom Boellstorff argues in his 2008 book Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, this position rests on “an unfounded suspicion that cybersocialities are not legitimate or sustainable places of human culture in their own right” (p. 201)

The implications of the argument that it’s illegitimate to take online cultures, such as that of Second Life, as the object of study are troubling. It is, in fact, exactly like contending that you can’t study “gay culture” (or “African-American culture” or “academic culture”) because it doesn’t exist in isolation from hegemonic culture.

Second Life, like other internet phenomena, has a distinct culture, worth studying, and this does not require believing that the subjects that interact in it aren’t produced by and with the capitalist, racist, and sexist prejudices of the actual world—no one, least of all Boellstorff, is claiming that.

This—the positioning of virtuality as always ever derivative, secondary, and incomplete—is why no one takes us seriously.

Instead, what we have to ask about not only “virtual worlds” such as Second Life but all new media developments is: to what extent is it new or different, and to what extent is it just like one’s “first” life or “old” media?

That is, to shamelessly plagiarize Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the introduction to Epistemology of the Closet, we can’t know in advance how they will relate to each other—the cultural forms in SL and other new media phenomena are “shaped in unpredictable ways by actual-world sociality” (Boellstorff, 25).

This is to say that, though “not everything connected to virtual worlds is novel,” neither is nothing new, such that “it is imperative that we ascertain precisely what elements are new and in what ways they are new” (Boellstorff, 25).

Finally, though the technophobes and technophiles among us might want to pin everything on the technology, we also can’t know in advance how that influences the ultimate shape the culture takes

After all, technology “always comes to be through particular cultural and historical circumstances,” such that, for example, “drive-in movie theaters could not have come into existence without the automobile, but were not an inevitable consequence of the automobile’s invention” (Boellstorff, 32, 58; see also Richard Dyer‘s argument about film technology in 1997’s White).

These, then, are the major difficulties one runs into when examining new media phenomena: (non)triviality, (non)novelty and (non)technology. Through careful analysis and a willingness to stick to one’s guns, however, they can be negotiated, and truly high-quality work can emerge.

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