We’ve recently started exploring Second Life, a virtual world that constitutes an exciting, immersive form of online community. The best way to get your mind around Second Life is to try it for yourself, or to read Snow Crash, the book that inspired Second Life’s creators, Linden Labs.

Essentially, Second Life is like a video game environment with no actual game. You create a virtual self (called an avatar) whose phsyical appearance you control. Your avatar can then explore Second Life’s virtual environment, which looks like a 3-D world on your computer screen. What you see on screen is your avatar walking (or flying) among islands, buildings, and various public spaces. Your avatar can chat with other people’s avatars, go shopping, listen to music, go dancing, participate in online meetings, build a house, have sex, learn about social issues — basically any one of the hundreds or thousands of real-world activities that some Second Life user has translated into this virtual world. And if you think of some activity that doesn’t yet exist in Second Life, odds are that you can find someone to help you make it virtually real.

Second Life first crossed my radar a few years ago thanks to Beth Noveck, who introduced me to Democracy Island. But I was inspired to start exploring it for myself when Robert Scoble told an audience at SXSW that Second Life is the next frontier for online community innovation.

Scoble’s not alone in his excitement about Second Life. There are now 1.2 million registered users, and new registrations are expanding at an exponential rate; more than 200,000 users have logged in during the past seven days. Businesses — and to a lesser extent, community organizations — are following. Some notable organizations flocking to Second Life: Reuters has assigned a full-time reporter to report news from Second Life. American Apparel has opened a virtual store. Dell sells PCs and Telus sells virtual cell phones. And our friends over at TechSoup have opened an office on Info Island, and are helping other nonprofits develop a Second Life presence.

We encourage you to check out Second Life for yourself (you’ll want a pretty recent computer and high-speed Internet access to do so, and even so, be patient: it can take a little time for objects to “resolve” thanks to the high number of users now online). While you’re there, be sure to look for us: Alex’s username is Consultini Paperdoll; Rob is Dayglo Maladay.

And if you need some help learning your way around Second Life, be sure to keep coming back to our blog, or to our Second Life page. The fabulous Catherine Omega — one of Second Life’s longest residents and leading scripters — is coaching us on the ins and outs of SL. We’ll be blogging her coaching sessions, so stay tuned!