How can something that is virtual be real? Over 6 million people apparently find no problem with the concept as they socialize, create, build, and become willing advertising test dummies in a not-quite make believe world called "Second Life."

Anyone much over the age of forty is probably going to have trouble with the concept of Second Life and with the idea that it is being discussed in a space normally dedicated to issues of real estate and mortgages. We will try our best to explain the concept and hope that gradually our reasons for looking at what must be called a real estate phenomenon will become obvious.

Second Life describes itself as "a 30D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents." The website was opened in 2003 and now has, as was noted above, 6,240,591 residents or registered users. This number appears to be growing exponentially, it increased 100,000 in a little more than a week after our first visit, and every time we have entered this strange new world there have been between 25,000 and 30,000 others there with us.

One can become a Second Life resident for free although using most of its tools and services requires a premium membership that costs $9.95 per month (less if you pay annually or quarterly.) As you register you must create an Avatar or alter ego which explores the virtual world for you. First you pick a first name and then select a last name from a list of several hundred rather esoteric choices. Provided it isn't a duplicate name, Basilford Fimicoloud is born. At this point you also pick from an array of a dozen stock characters ranging from a fuzzy figure which looks like Bugs Bunny's girlfriend to quite scary male and female Goths. These can later be customized in all different ways.

The basic currency of Second Life is the Linden Dollar and it has real value, at the time of this article trading at around 266 Linden Dollars to the U.S. dollar. This currency can be used to buy goods, services, and land and can be converted to real money at various exchange sites. There is a thriving economy in Second Life with dozens of people earning an income by designing and selling things to other Second Lifers not to mention acquiring and selling virtual real estate.

The site is layered like an onion and it would probably take months to explore all of its regions, utilities, quirks, and ramifications. We have spent a bit of time on the site but will continue to explore and bring you along on the trip. Since this will be an in-the-moment travelogue we apologize for any disorganization in the narrative and will probably say "whoops" more than usual as we come to understand the virtual world better.

Once we registered and logged in we were teleported to "Orientation Island" where we learned to navigate our Avatar through the landscape. Moving this creation around is not as easy as it looks and we found our self frequently losing the path. All around us were other Avatar's, most of who seemed to be having as much trouble navigating as we were. Each was labeled with name and sometimes with a description of its current activity (busy, altering appearance). This seems to be an etiquette thing to explain why that Avatar might be ignoring you if you stop to chat. And that is another lesson of the island; how to communicate. That part at least is easy; it is just like an on-line chat. We could "listen in" on people chatting around us. Most of the dialogue seemed pretty inane but again, it may be age betraying us.

The Avatar also learns to fly. Watch this one. We managed to fly right off of the Island, couldn't get back and had to log out and start over.

At another training spot we learned to change the Avatar's appearance. We were quite pleased with the off-the-rack Mrs. Bugs we had adopted on entry but somehow managed to lose her ears, all of her animal features and fur, and a neat torch we had acquired along the way. In fact we had a totally bald, nude department store mannequin. We managed to get her some clothes and hair but ended up with a 1960's Barbie. It is a little embarrassing to march her through this brave new world of cutting edge inhabitants.

Once the lessons are learned, one can leave Orientation Island, and the choices are unlimited. There are dozens and dozens of regions to visit. Some appear to be private and many are labeled "mature" but we were able to access everything we attempted and saw nothing that wasn't PG rated.

The first region to which we were transported was fairly busy with a dozen or so people standing around chatting or changing their appearance. We struck out toward a long palazzo studded with shops. Always wanted a tiny heart-shaped tattoo for the small of your back? This is the place to get one for your Avatar. At least that is a little useful; we are still trying to figure out why one would use hard-earned Linden dollars to purchase five pieces of virtual gum from a sidewalk gumball machine.

In a quick visit to a resident sector of the site we found dozens of groups with varying numbers of members. There were, for example, at least a half dozen yachting sites where members appear to own or to create virtual boats to sail and even hold races; there were sites/groups for sci-fi enthusiasts and dozens of other interests.

But, what does this again, have to do with real estate? Well, in addition to a lot of social interaction, Second Life is really a total economic empire which includes real property. We will attempt to get a handle on the growing Second Life economy and let you know where it might be going.