Second Life Avatars Take 5

Commerce comes to a halt as the virtual world shuts down for scheduled maintenance.
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Normally, anyone can log on to Second Life through the Internet at any time and create 3-D computer-generated identities. These avatars are then free to explore the massive multiplayer online world that San Francisco-based Linden Lab has synthetically created.

But on Wednesday, a giant black curtain was drawn on the virtual Internet marketplace as Second Life was taken off line from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. EDT for scheduled maintenance. When the servers are brought back online, users will be required to download the newest version of the SL software in order to have their avatars return to the so-called metaverse.

Linden Lab did not respond to a request for comment.

While the five hours of downtime may be necessary, Linden Lab may have missed an opportunity to add subscribers, while virtual business owners may have lost -- albeit temporarily -- the chance to add the currency of Second Life, Lindens, to their coffers.

Purchases can be made using the Linden currency for

virtual land space to build on, different clothing for their avatars, or even (ahem) adult-related content. Members can enter their real-world credit-card information and get a number of Linden dollars for every U.S. dollar.

Sure, it may sound frivolous, but last month there were 10,356 profitable SL business owners. That number has been rising by an average of 12% over the previous five months. In addition, major corporations such as

Sun Microsystems

(SUNW) - Get Report

,

Toyota

(TM) - Get Report

and

Nike

(NKE) - Get Report

have set up shop in SL and are selling virtual products.

As of 9 a.m. EDT, an hour before the SL grid was taken down for maintenance, more than $479,000 had changed hands in the past 24 hours among 1.11 million users. That number is expected to drop significantly, if only for one day, as Linden Lab upgrades the system.

SL has seen its population balloon from 100,000 total accounts in January to 1.11 million in October. That means an average of roughly 101,000 people are creating an avatar and joining the virtual world per month.

This population boom is affecting the exchange rate of the Linden to the dollar. The rate between the U.S. dollar and the Linden fluctuates in a similar fashion to real-life currency. Ultimately, the rate is determined by the virtual market demand. Linden dollars are primarily bought and sold through Linden Lab's LindeX, which acts as a virtual commodities brokerage.

In the last three months, the exchange rate has steadily dropped from $305 Linden per U.S. dollar to $274 per U.S. dollar, where it stands currently. That's a 10.2% rise in value for the Linden.

Wagner James Au has covered Second Life since its infancy as an embedded journalist on his blog

New World Notes . For the first few years, each U.S. dollar was equivalent to about $250 Linden. In other words, Au notes, users are now seeing the exchange rate returning to one that is comparable to when SL's population was a mere 10,000 to 100,000.

"What that suggests is a company struggling mightily to keep the world from flooding with money, obsessing over inflation like

former

Federal Reserve

Chairman Alan Greenspan on amyl nitrate," Au says.

If you look at the big picture, you have to appreciate the scale and the size of the virtual economy, says Randal Moss, who created the

Community Mobilization blog. "The Second Life economy was considerably smaller only a year ago, so something like this

shut down would make a larger impact. It just shows that it's a real market. It's a living breathing entity."

However, Moss doesn't believe the blackout will create a major currency change. "Linden Lab is doing its best to maintain a currency valuation at $274 Linden per U.S. dollar. The grid is so large that I don't see it having an impact. We'll have to watch what happens."

Indeed, it will be interesting to see what, if any effect, Wednesday's hiccup in service has on the exchange rate as well as on the virtual livelihoods of some SL members.

Robert Holden is staff reporter Robert Holmes. He reports often from Second Life.