Anthropologist Dr. Tom Boellstorff Teaches His Course on Digital Cultures Within Second Life

“We need to get away from talking about the physical world as the real world,” says anthropology professor Tom Boellstorff, who built Anteater Island. “Online sociality is a set of cultures that can be just as real as what’s in the physical world.”
Photo source: Steve Zylius / UCI

Dr. Tom Boellstorff, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, has moved his course on digital cultures into Second Life due to the pandemic:

Before COVID-19 restrictions, Anthro 128C was set to be held in the Anteater Learning Pavilion, a campus facility that encourages collaboration. When Boellstorff learned that it would have to go online, he immediately logged into Second Life and began constructing Anteater Island, a digital culture of its own.

He finished it in about a week, ensuring that it reflected the structure of the class, which involves lectures on weekly readings and group research projects. The site includes an auditorium and meeting areas for each student team, as well as spaces where they can display their work to the public at the end of the quarter, as had been planned before the pandemic. Indeed, Anteater Island retains many of the features that the Anteater Learning Pavilion would have offered.

Although the shift was a challenge, Boellstorff was in a fortunate position. He had been conducting rigorous fieldwork on Second Life since 2004 and published Coming of Age in Second Life, a book-length ethnographic study of the virtual world, in 2008. In addition, the class, which he had taught several times before, was *about* cultures in the digital realm. Due to the sudden lockdowns, students were about to become more immersed in them than ever.

The description for this undergraduate anthropology course reads as follows:

Explores cultural and political implications of the infotech revolution and the ways new media are used around the world, new cultural practices and spaces (e.g., cybercafes), debates surrounding the meanings of these new technologies, and their implications for transforming society.

Second Life filmmaker Draxtor Despres profiled Tom and his work in a 2015 video, part of his World Makers series:

Drax also produced a full-length feature documentary Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me, about Tom’s research on disability in virtual worlds:


Thanks to Luca for the heads up!

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2 thoughts on “Anthropologist Dr. Tom Boellstorff Teaches His Course on Digital Cultures Within Second Life”

  1. Thanks so much for this! Just so folks know—the class is making their final presentations next Tuesday (June 9) from 4-6pm slt. I’m opening up Anteater Island so anyone can come see the cool research projects they have done. It’s nothing fancy, but please feel free to stop by and show support to these awesome students.

    1. Thank you for your kind offer! Yes, I would love to come and see the research projects your students have been working on 🙂

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