Just 18 months ago, these questions might have been ridiculed. Today, they're not only legitimate, but the answer to each is “yes,” according to Jeffrey Cole, director of a long-term, international study of the impact of computers and the Internet on society.

The technology has empowered people and affected business, politics and social behaviour more than most ever imagined, and there has been an increasing sophistication of users and the Internet itself within the past 18 to 24 months, he said.

“There's a debate to whether there has ever been this much change, this fast, and a lot of people think yes, during the industrial revolution.

The amount of time people are spending in online communities, where they can create their own characters, is soaring, as is the emotional attachment to these virtual spaces. About 43 per cent of people participating in online communities such as Second Life say their virtual world is as important to them as their physical community, according to the USC-Annenberg Digital Future Project.

Get the full stoy at globeandmail.com

See also "Marketers see virtually no limit in Second Life"