The setting sun casts a lurid red path on the dark sea. Behind me are tall buildings, their windows unlit. The road ahead of me is empty, but to my left, through an archway, I can hear sounds - voices, a snatch of music, quiet tapping. Uncertainly, occasionally bumping into the wall beside me, I make my way towards the square between the buildings.
A strange collection of people is gathered there. A tall man dances in a circle, his long black tail describing figures of eight as he moves. He is watched by a long-haired figure squatting on the ground and a girl with an old-fashioned peg leg and heavy bondage leathers who is gyrating on her real leg and swinging her hair. Other, less grotesque figures move purposefully about or stand as if hanging in space. The sky is darkening, and the persistent tapping suddenly results in a printed message on the screen. "What the f... are you doing here?"
This is Second Life, and I am a newcomer. I was looking for the Learn4Life island, but having arrived too late to catch anyone there I've come exploring. I have assumed a cringeworthy name and fairly grotesque appearance, and right now I'm not moving in the hope that no-one will notice me - or at least realise that I'm online. I feel as threatened as I would if this were a real environment, and I feel ridiculous. What is interesting, though hardly surprising, is that no-one is actually doing anything very interesting. The conversation, if that's what you can call the sudden outbursts of profanity and text-speak gibberish on the screen, is banal and repetitive. Some of the protagonists obviously don't speak English as a first language, but no-one is really saying much anyway. Every so often, someone turns and looks at me. One man seems to put his hand round me - then through me. It is strangely disconcerting. I find the relevant menu and tell him to get lost.
A voice is gibbering like a chipmunk as I hit teleport and head off. I'll certainly be back, but I'm beginning to wonder where the educational possibilities actually lie in this - unless we somehow persuade avatars to have meaningful chats about symbolism in between changing their appearance. Most of the action I've seen so far is as tedious as the real lives in which it is rooted. Feel free to enlighten me - but I'm not sharing my Second Life name with you!