As noted above, the Internet expands people's ability to associate by making it very easy for an individual to find other, like-minded individuals. It also allows an individual to pretend: perhaps this can be seen as the cyber-space equivalent of an amateur dramatic society, and that's just what it looks like in the case of virtual communities such as World of Warcraft. The anonymity of the Internet can have bad results (middle-aged paedophiles pretending to be football-playing 15-year old girls), of course, but this may be a short-lived phenomenon (see evolution of the Internet, below).
Alongside sophisticated internal bodies of laws governing behaviour, with severe sanctions for those who break the laws, Virtual Internet Communities (VICs) also have 'real' economies, in which actual money can be made or lost through trading activity. Although the progenitors (and supervisors) of these games (as they were originally) are ambivalent about this commercial activity or in some cases opposed to it, the only way in which they'll stop it is to become like a State, and this is probably not what their players want. There is completely transparent competition on the Internet, and few external limits (yet) on how players should behave. In the case of E-Bay, coming from the opposite, commercial, direction, sub-economies have already sprung up, many of them 'groupish' in nature; E-Bay also has had to construct a complex body of law dealing with the behaviour of its users.
Perhaps because alternative communities on the Internet are the special home to young people, older people and particularly the 'authorities' worry about whether they encourage violence or sexual permissiveness, and about whether they so distort a youngster's idea of 'reality' that she will be somehow unfitted for life in the 'real' world.
What is the 'real world'? Surely it is no more than a series of social situations in which a person has to behave with her peers in such a way as to maximize her success in terms of the goals of life, including but not limited to survival, mating and the pursuit of happiness. It is very hard to see why 'alternative' reality communities should not serve these purposes just as well as 'real' ones. Perhaps they don't ideally do so at present, largely due to the relatively primitive stage of development of the sites themselves; but even now they are not doing a bad job.
This is a large subject, and in terms of the social change that may flow from the seemingly inevitable dominance of the Internet as a communications medium, it is addressed from some different angles in later chapters. Here we will consider a few aspects of the Internet which are important to its future role as an agent of social change.