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!

Linden Lab and Draxtor Despres Launch the Second Life Book Club

Yesterday was the first episode of a new, livestreamed weekly book club series called the Second Life Book Club, hosted by Draxtor Despres. If you missed it, you can watch it here:

Drax, the truly indefatigable video chronicler of both Second Life and Sansar, is also an avid reader and book lover. He has been hosting The Drax Files Book Club Show in Sansar for well over sixty episodes, interviewing various authors in his broadcast studio tucked away in the basement at 114 Harvest, every Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would become involved in this new initiative: a book club in Second Life!

A press release from Linden Lab about the project states:

As book publishers adjust to coronavirus-era restrictions, the virtual world Second Life is launching the Second Life Book Club, a new “virtual world book tour” initiative that enables authors to have real-time book readings, engage in meet-and-greets with their fans and promote their publications in front of a live audience within the Internet’s largest user-created virtual world.

The Second Life Book Club, which debuts April 8th at 10 a.m. (Pacific), will kick off with a multi-author panel that will discuss the new reality of writing and selling books in the age of COVID-19. The event will feature a live Q&A with best-selling authors Matt Ruff (“Lovecraft Country”), Ken Liu (“The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories”), SL Huang (the Cas Russell series) and CB Lee (the Sidekick Squad series).

Upcoming shows will feature guests such as Tad WilliamsChristopher BrownQiufan ChenKelly RobsonChana Porter and Premee Mohamed.

The Second Life Book Club is hosted by virtual world personality Draxtor Despres, who is also producing the series in partnership with Linden Lab (creator of Second Life).

“When I first reached out to authors, some of them very high profile, I was surprised to get super enthusiastic feedback like: ‘Of course I will come on the show. Can I be a tentacle monster? Can I be a parrot? Can I fly?’,” says Despres. “It’s a dream come true for a book nerd like me!”

Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg adds, “Second Life offers a safe, fun retreat during a time of great anxiety, stress, and social isolation. Through the virtual world, people can stay connected and engage in friendly conversations and fun social activities such as visiting live music performances, virtual nightclubs and deejay events and now even book readings. Virtual world interactions offer a much deeper connection with other human beings than for example video conferencing: through the avatar and the shared space we feel as if we are fully present together.”

This is a win-win-win situation: a win for Linden Lab, a win for the authors, and also a win for Draxtor Despres, whom I believe to be the hardest-working man in virtual worlds, a non-stop whirlwind of activity! Drax is busy making promotional videos for Second Life, hosting regular shows and events in Sansar, running The Drax Files Radio Hour podcast—and on top of all that, he found time to complete and release a well-received, full-length feature documentary on virtual world use by the differently abled, titled Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me. He’s truly an inspiration.

The Second Life Book Club will be every Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. Second Life Time/Pacific Time. And you can join the live studio audience on the new Book Club Island! (Be sure to pick up a stylish free Book Club T-shirt for your avatar at the entrance!)

See you there!

Second Life Has Seen an Increase in New and Returning Users During the Coronavirus Pandemic (Plus the Launch of the Second Life Book Club)

This morning, host Strawberry Linden had as her guests for her weekly talk show Lab Gab:

  • Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg (a.k.a. Ebbe Linden); and
  • Linden Lab’s Senior Director of Marketing, Brett Atwood (Brett Linden).
Ebbe, Strawberry and Brett Linden at today’s Lab Gab

When asked if Linden Lab has noticed an increase in usage because of the pandemic, Ebbe said:

Absolutely. We’re seeing quite an interesting resurgence of returning users, as well as new users coming in to explore Second Life. We see registrations up over 60%, [user] concurrencies up north of 10%, and we’re just a week or so into people being locked up. We can actually see countries and states that imposed strict stay-home policies, we see a corresponding jump in people in those markets jumping into Second Life.


Second Life is launching a monthly Book Club event with Draxtor Despres bringing established authors into SL (much the same as he has in Sansar!) to do readings. A blogpost on the SL blog gives more details:

As book publishers scramble to adjust to new social distancing protocols and other coronavirus-era restrictions, Second Life offers a safe, synchronous way for authors to hold real-time book readings, engage in meet-and-greets with their fans and promote their publications in an immersive person-to-person setting.

We’re proud to partner with Draxor Despres for the introduction of the Second Life Book Club, a new series of literary-minded events. Drax has lined up many established authors for a series of recurring in-world “virtual book tours” that will be kicked off in April with a multi-author panel that will discuss their thoughts on writing and selling books in the age of COVID-19.

Scheduled for the kick-off event, which will happen on April 8 at 10 a.m. (SLT) in Second Life, are a slate of best-selling authors: Matt Ruff (“Lovecraft Country”), Ken Liu (“The Paper Menagerie”), SL Huang (“Zero Sum Game”) and CB Lee (the Sidekick Squad series). This premiere event will also feature a yet to be confirmed guest from the publishing end of the book business. Stay tuned for further announcements.


When asked about people who are experiencing difficulties in paying for sims due to pandemic-related financial difficulties (with Second Norway being a recent example), Ebbe encourages users to call the Support team at https://support.secondlife.com to discuss their particular situations, to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.


Linden Lab offices in San Francisco are closed, since California is on lockdown during the pandemic. All staff are currently working from home. Ebbe does not expect any interruptions to its service.


For those wanting to know when avatar name changes will be available to users, Ebbe said that “very few weeks” is the outer bound for that feature. (Which would be before the end of April….but we’ll see.)

There were many other questions, so here’s the full livestream on YouTube:

Abramelin Wolfe Brings His Abranimations Brand of Avatar Dances to Sinespace

Abranimations is a well-known brand of avatar animations in several virtual worlds, including Second Life, IMVU, and Sansar. Jim Clark of Edinburgh, Scotland (better known by his avatar name, Abramelin Wolfe) is the creator behind the Abranimations brand.

Abramelin Wolfe has been profiled by the documentary filmmaker Draxtor Despres twice: once in Second Life (in 2013) and a second time in Sansar (in 2019):


Well, Abramelin Wolfe has finally brought his dance animations into Sinespace! Here’s a link to his brand-new store on the Sinespace Shop, where he has dozens and dozens of dance animations available for sale for only 50 Gold each (and some dances can also be bought for 5,000 Silver):

And here’s a quick sample, a 7-second video courtesy of Sinespace user Alicia, dancing her heart out at the Welcome Centre (thanks, Alicia!):

Earlier this week, I interviewed Abramelin Wolfe via text chat about the launch of his Abranimations brand in Sinespace:


How did you get started in creating animations and other content for virtual worlds? Please tell us a bit of your background.

I first found my way into Virtual Worlds in 2004 when I Joined Second Life. At the time I was working as a freelance website developer. I played Second Life for fun and enjoyed using my prior programming experience to create fun toys and gadgets. I had no expectations of it making any money, I just loved the creative outlet it provided. I can’t remember exactly when, but at some stage I found it was making a substantial part of my monthly income so I dedicated more time to it. When I first joined SL I played a lot with particles and tried making various vehicles, furniture and I made a magic staff for my avatar (who was a wizard at the time). I found myself wanting to learn all the tools SL had so before long figured I’d try animating too. I started with Poser which was recommended by LL at the time. For a while I created animations using that. A bit later I decided to invest in a relatively cheap inertial mocap system which was how I got into mocap. Today I primarily use an optical motion capture system that is much more precise.

What platforms have you made animations for?

As well as the Second Life store, we also have stores in IMVU, Sansar, and more recently we opened a Hypergrid-enabled OpenSim region. This week, I opened up shop in Sinespace, too.

What hardware and software tools do you use to create animations today? Have there been significant changes in the tools you used since you started doing this?

I create most animations now using an OptiTrack mocap (motion capture) system to record trained actors & dancers. I use the system software to clean up the raw optical data and then perform further cleanup and final processing in Autodesk MotionBuilder. My first animations  back in 2004 were made using Poser. I used it a lot for quite a few years. I liked Poser, but it was not very good for motion capture data cleanup. I moved to use MotionBuilder which is built for this purpose. There is a dramatic difference in quality and realism in mocap over keyframed animation. However it is very expensive (equipment, studio space, dance hire, software etc.) and it can be very time consuming recording and cleaning up the data to a high standard. If I want a quick animation and am not worried so much about  realism I will still keyframe animate by hand. We  also make lots of other content today, my wife works with me now too. As well as helping with the mocap studio she is an artist and makes all our avatars and other characters. 

Could you briefly outline the steps involved in creating an animation from scratch (not too technical, just a general overview that my blog readers could understand easily).

I first decide what animation I want to make. This could be a specific dance or something else. I’ll research and refine a shot list and then hire a dancer or actor that is able to perform the motions. In the studio we suit them up in a black lycra suit  with reflective markers stuck to it and record them with special mocap cameras. The mocap system records the markers as dots moving in 3D space and the software processes this to generate a moving skeleton from it. The resulting data tends to need a lot of post-shoot work to fix various problems. Once the optical data is clean I export it from the system and import it into MotionBuilder for further cleanup and processing of the skeletal data. There are various issues at this stage too that also need fixing. Once the animation is free of errors and is processed to look as intended I transfer the data onto the final skeleton used by the end platform. If it all looks good I’ll then  upload the animation onto the end platform and hopfully it works!

What advice would you give to people who want to create content in Sinespace and are just starting out?

Well Sinespace is based on Unity, so the first thing I’d say is download a copy of Unity!  There’s  loads of tutorials online that can be helpful in learning just about every game engine and software application. Don’t be put off by any initial daunting feelings, some  software can seem pretty formidable when you first open it up. But if you persevere eventually everything falls into place.  Finally, never think something is too hard or impossible even if other people tell you so, just give it a go, and have fun!


This blogpost is sponsored by Sinespace, and was written in my new role as an embedded reporter for this virtual world (more details here).