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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006, 11:58 GMT
Virtual pals 'soar in importance'
Second Life screenshot (Linden Labs)
Online community members value their virtual friends
Virtual communities are as important as their real-world counterparts, many members of online communities believe.

A survey found 43% of online networkers from the US felt "as strongly" about their web community as they did about their real-world friends.

It also revealed net-users had made an average of 4.6 virtual pals this year.

The survey, from the US-based Center for the Digital Future, of 2,000 individuals forms part of a six-year study into attitudes to the web.

The internet has become an essential source of entertainment, information and communication
Jeffrey Cole, Center for the Digital Future

Each year, the University of Southern California researchers publish data tracking the changing opinions of the same American households to the internet.

On the results of their sixth report, Jeffrey Cole, director of the centre, said: "More than a decade after the portals of the worldwide web opened to the public, we are now witnessing the true emergence of the internet as the powerful personal and social phenomenon we knew it would become."

Social interaction on the web has become a phenomenon in recent years, with the rise of sites like MySpace and Bebo, and the development of virtual worlds such as Second Life.

However, the report also discovered virtual friendship is not confined to the PC - those surveyed had met an average of 1.6 of the friends they had made online in person.

Keeping in touch

It also found 40% of net-users were using the web to stay in contact with people, and 37.7% believed the internet was enabling them to communicate more with friends and family.

The survey also revealed 7.4% of those surveyed kept a blog, double the figure in 2003; and in that period, the number of people posting pictures online grew from 11% to 23.6%.

Mr Cole added: "The internet has become an essential source of entertainment, information and communication... However, in 2006, we are beginning to measure real growth and discover new directions for the internet as a comprehensive tool that Americans are using to touch the world."

More than three-quarters of Americans are net users, spending an average of 8.9 hours online a week, according to the team. And, for the first time in 2006, the number of women logging on equalled the number of men.

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