"Welcome to Malta" is the greeting the Maltese give to foreigners who choose to come to their country. This greeting has been given a new twist as it is also being extended in a Second Life, the virtual world inhabited by some 12 million users worldwide.

Indeed there is an "Island of Malta" on Second Life and under the care of the Maltese multimedia development company Alert Communications.

"Malta needs all the promotion it can get," according to Claudine Cassar, managing director of Alert Communications. "We need to get the message out there - this is a great place to visit, both in the virtual world and the real world. So one important way forward is to put in as much cultural and promotional information about Malta and Gozo as possible."

Users in Second Life create and develop virtual characters called "avatars" and go on their daily business just like in the real world. This virtual world has been making waves in the internet world for over four years now. It has attracted large companies such as IBM, Intel, Wells Fargo and Mercedes Benz which use the virtual world to test new concepts and products/services, deliver presentations and share resources. It has also attracted a crop of Maltese personal users.

The idea to create "Malta" on Second Life was prompted by what governments of other countries were doing. Late last year Sweden announced the launch of a virtual embassy in Second Life. It would not issue passports and visas, but it would inform users how to get them in the real world. But Sweden was beaten to it by the Maldives, which launched its virtual embassy eight days before the Swedes.

Ms Cassar was impressed by the Maldives' embassy.

"The building itself resembles a beachside retreat, and it is very welcoming. Once inside the 'hut' there are clickable placards which disseminate information about various governmental agencies in the Maldives, as well as their thoughts on environmental policies, sustainable development and human rights reform."

The Island of Malta in Second Life is expected to be launched very soon, and will emulate in certain aspects the functions of the Maldives embassy. The Malta World Centre and an entire office block on the island are ready to host the first guest. More buildings will be erected as the need arises.

Malta has already been associated to Second Life thanks to diplomacy. Indeed in November 2007 Maltese Foreign Minister Michael Frendo, together with the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom and the Maldives, participated in a historic joint virtual news conference through Second Life in a bid to draw the world's attention to the devastating impacts of climate change on the world's small island states and to highlight the effects of global warming on individual people around the world.

The virtual news conference took place outside the new Maldives virtual embassy on Diplomacy Island. Video speeches by the three ministers were transmitted, followed by a question and answer session with Maldives virtual diplomats and representatives of the Diplo Foundation which developed Diplomacy Island. This was the first news conference of its kind and aimed to use modern communications channels to reach a wider international audience.

This event attracted worldwide attention and associated Malta with Second Life.

Besides promoting Malta there are other reasons why Malta should have a good presence in Second Life. Ms Cassar explains.

"The second intention is to help local businesses to start experimenting in the virtual world. Buying an island and building it is expensive - so far Alert has already invested thousands of euros on the project. This is a high barrier to entry for local companies, so we are going to offer offices for rent. We have also built conference rooms, meeting rooms and even hotel suites. The idea is to empower companies in Malta to dip their toes, so to speak, in this virtual world, so as to discover what it can do for them.

"We have now started talking to clients regarding the possibilities, and there has already been a lot of interest. Hopefully this will keep growing, and Malta in Second Life will be just as vibrant and exciting a place as Malta in the real world is," concluded Ms Cassar.

When executives from San Francisco-based Linden Lab built Second Life, they had a sense that they were doing something historic. So, to keep tabs on their creation, they contracted their own journalist to chronicle the growth of the internet's first virtual world.

Now that chronicler, Wagner James Au, releases a comprehensive history of Second Life's early days in his book The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World.

Reuters reports that Second Life has lost some of its buzz in the past year. Growth has levelled, and media investigations have highlighted possible fraud and child pornography within its borders. Early hopes of Second Life's potential to market real-world brands largely failed in practice. But with 1.2 million active users it is still the dominant player in a rapidly-expanding virtual worlds industry, with the most content and a highly-loyal fan base.

Linden Lab assumed it would create an in-world experience for avatars to play in. It was only after programmers started using their own product that they realised it would be

better to allow their users to build their world for them.

Linden's users quickly began constructing their own buildings, clothing and nightclubs. Like so much else in Second Life, including the in-world currency called the Linden Dollar, the ability to buy and sell land or the popularity of adult-themed virtual goods and services, users had their own ideas about the technology and what best to do with it.

Mr Au dedicates his book to those creators of content. "They're more important to the world's success than the company which actually owns it," he said. As new virtual worlds come online and try to lure some of Second Life's users and hype, the story of how Second Life came to be may provide a road map for others.

"Second Life isn't the only model, but ultimately I think it's the only reliable one," Mr Au said. "Otherwise, a company will be forced to produce content to an ever-demanding audience of largely-passive consumers. That's destined to fail."

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