I feel that, having a year and a half (or thereabouts) of experience in Second Life, the time has come for me to pass on to the next generation of new people all of my knowledge thereof. If a newbie come and asks for help, I will shamelessly spam this link. Maybe I'll put it on a notecard, because, at least for me, Second Life makes my computer drop to its knees when I try to upload links.
You've downloaded the client, created an account, and logged in. What you are now witnessing is what is known as "Orientation Island". This is an island where you are completely sequestered from the rest of the scum of Second Life so you can learn how to use Second Life without have goatse and Dissent cubes hogging your view.
I will tell you right now that you can forget anything on this island. Detach the HUD you see on screen (the one that lists your 'quests') by right clicking it (Cmd + click for Macs, if I recall correctly) and selecting detach from the menu. Right clicking will be your friend. Trust the right click. That circular menu is about one third of learning how to use Second Life. Anytime you see anything and you want to know more about it, sit on it, buy it, take a copy, mute it, or abuse report it, is but a right click away. Learn this well.
RIGHT CLICK EVERYTHING.
You can, if you wish, wander the rest of Orientation island and play around. There's a few good things but nothing special. Trust me, not much of it will be any use and a lot of it is displayed as awkward as a Chinese engrish shop. It's up to you.
You may be wondering how to not look like a clone. This is where you meet your second best friend, the edit menu. Right there at the top of your screen. This edit menu is about the only one up there that you ever need or ever will touch. You'll see lots of options here. There is a bunch that will detach your clothes and objects attached to you (more on that later) and oh look! A selection called 'edit appearance'. This will bring you to the actual editing appearance box. There's lots of sliders to play with how you look and I highly recommend taking as much time as possible tweaking your avatar to your whim. It's worth it to not look like John or Jane Doe. Clothing selection is slim and I advise against making your own until later when you REALLY get a hang of it. For now, just edit your shape and maybe your skin. You will see both of these options listed on the menu that pops up. Take your time, I'll wait right here.
Before you exit this mode, click on "Save" at the bottom to make it permanent. You can also click "Save As" provided you want to name your creation. Which brings us to our next obstacle.
By now, you'll see a bunch of blue boxes at the bottom, This is your second best friend. You'll see a curious box like button on the far left, that can be clicked to bring up the local chat box for... local chatting with anyone nearby. Typing has a range of about 10 to 13 feet ingame, so keep that in mind and be kind to friends who might have wandered outside of that range and thus didn't quite hear you. The other buttons are self explanatory. There's communicate which will bring up your friends list (friends can be made by right clicking someone and selecting... make friend or something similar) where you can Instant message your friends anywhere in a manner similar to any IM programs such as AIM (AOL Instant Messenger). There's also Fly which causes you to fly, Search which bring up a search box (more on that later), Map and Mini map which bring up a large and small map respectively, and finally Inventory.
Inventory in Second Life is chaotic and down right confusing, even for me. There's a lot of folders and a lots of objects and a lot of mess. But there is some hope. It will be tricky, so try to bear with me.
The Inventory window has a menu at the top like a Mac. And this has a file, create, and sort buttons. Create allows you to make folders among other things. What is most important is the ability to make folders. Under sort you'll see a bunch of options, I would suggest doing it alphabetically as opposed to date created/received. Now, the trick is to treat inventory as you would sorting files in an office job. Name the folders as you wish to sort everything, and then drag the objects you wish into each. Let me give you an example.
Let's say I have a water gun, a skin, and a notecard. I could make three folders, one for toys, one for skin, and one for notecards. Above all, take the time to sort your inventory often. Do NOT be like me and just let it sit at random. You'll thank me.
If you don't know where to find a specific object, there is hope. At the top, under the menu, is a white box. Type in the name or part of the name and Inventory will return and show you all objects with that in its name. So, if I search "Water" it might in my inventory turn up water bottle, A guide to water sports, and the water gun mentioned above. That is all there is to inventory. Not so bad, but this is something that Second Life and even instructors in Second Life tend to gloss over.
Anything in your inventory, by the way, can be right clicked and you get another menu which will allow you to wear or delete or whatever. It's self explanatory, but if you were searching for a skin for your avatar to wear then you could search for it in the inventory, right click it, and select wear. Be forewarned: do that slowly and give Second Life a good minute or so to process that kind of thing. Second Life can be notoriously buggy, laggy, and temperamental. Keep that in mind.
So you're set. You know how to edit your appearance, how to right click things, and you're somewhat comfortable with inventory. And now you're asking, "Now what? I'm still stuck in this lame island". Do not worry my friend, for you have come for the quick and dirty guide to Second Life. I will not disappoint.
Go to the center square. There will be a billboard of sorts. Click on this, and it will spit something out to you. This is what is known as a landmark. Let's discuss landmarks, because you'll get a lot and they're not intuitive.
When you get a landmark, it is displayed on your screen and is also copied to your inventory so if you should accidentally click it off you can still find it in your inventory, usually under "landmarks" folder. The landmark will show you a picture the land owner uses for that particular landmark, a short description, and the location (in this format: "Name of Destination, Name of Sim or Island, Coordinates in X Y Z planes). The two options are "teleport" which teleports you to that destination and "show on map" which will bring up the map and show you with a red circle on the map where you would go if you followed the landmark. Imagine landmarks as something like a link from a website.
Get the landmark by just left clicking the sign. It may or may not ask you things, whatever it does, just get the point across that you want to get outta there.
Now, how we proceed is dependent on where that landmark sends you. Likely, there will be lots of people and at this point just socialize. You'll get the hang of it. You'll likely make a few friends. Try to have an open mind about things, because Second Life is nothing if not weird and most people are good at heart, try not to dismiss someone because they are a furry or they wear leather chaps or what have you. If you do need help ( I doubt it), try an icebreaker. Discuss the weather, sports, or comment on the local architecture. Obviously, try to avoid 'hot' topics such as religion, politics, or toast unless you're confident in your current friends. Above all, don't be shy. No one is out to bite your head off. Be confident. I may have repeated myself there.
What about Money?
Money is an elusive beast in Second Life and the currency is L$. You need it to buy land, and buy stuff. How do you get money?? Well, there's a bunch of ways. The most obvious is you submit your credit card/paypal info to LL on their main site and transfer some funds there to your avatar. That's the easy way.
But if you're like me, you either can't, or won't, give Linden Lab your payment information. Then, it's much more tricky. One way is to start making, building, scripting, or writing and selling that to earn cash. But that's a long way off and we're just trying to get you used to Second Life first. Details come later. It's an option, but one in the distance.
That leaves us in a bind. There are numerous areas where you can get some free cash, using Search and typing in NCI will bring up a few landmarks to the NCI hubs of which some give you cash if you're less than three months old. There's money trees, but I don't know how to operate those. There are places called camping spots, where if you right click and sit on them you will earn a small amount of L$ per hour or so. Camping is very boring but good if you really really REALLY want some money.
But worry not! There are many places that will give you freebies. Try searching for a place called "Orientation Station", it is a place very similar to Orientation island that we were in earlier however in one section of it there are numerous freebies available that you can buy (using, again, right clicking and selecting buy). Using the Search button and searching for freebies will turn up some results. One trick to using search is to visit one of the top ten returns, and then one of the results lower down on the page. This ensures that you don't end up in some jerk's parcel who just put 'freebies' in his descriptions to generate traffic (similar to, I suppose, spam mail in real life).
You've got some objects now. There are two ways you get objects. You either get the straight up contents, and all you have to do is find the object in your inventory and wear it or use it. The second way is annoying. You have to find an area that allows you to make objects, and then drag the object from your inventory to the ground in front of you. Once it is outside, you have to right click and bring up that circular menu and select 'Open' and then "copy to inventory". Why people do this, I do not know but the fact is they do so it's best to know how to unpack as they call it.
Parse through your freebies, you will likely have lots of things. Skins, shapes, hair, clothes, shoes. The skins will definitely be better than anything you can make at this stage and I suggest you experiment and see what you like. There are shapes too, if you're not happy with the one you made. Clothes are the same, you find them in inventory and select wear. If you think there is a mix up, then you can go to the edit tab at the top of the window and select "Detach Clothing" and then pick what you want to shed. You might see a few objects such as "shoes" or "necklace" or "hair". Here is where the fun begins.
You see, clothes as such are not the only thing in Second Life. For you can wear this other objects too! Definitely try some of the hair attachments (attachments being what these objects attached to you are called in general). It will look more realistic than the default hair. Just right click the object in your inventory and select wear. By this point, I should start sounding repetitious and that is a good thing. We're getting somewhere. Play around with your new freebie clothes.
And then you're done. The only task left is to play around with Second Life and see where you want to go with it. You could be like me and be an eternal bum, blogging about this and that and hanging out with a few friends. You could learn how to build and script and create things. You can try to buy and sell land and become a 'land baron'. You can do any number of things and honestly, the sky is the limit. Don't be afraid to test everything and ask people for help.
That's about it, I believe. That's the quick and dirty guide to Second life and getting settled in. In doing so, I skipped over building, all the inane movement controls and building and such, and probably many other things. However, those are more extraneous and you can learn those later when you're more comfortable with the game itself. For now, you've learned the skills that are absolutely necessary. Good job you! You've learned them!
Sorry if this got lengthy, but congrats if you stuck with me long enough to get here. I assure you, it's well worth it. And hey, if you ever get confused, you can just as easily search and find my name and pester me.