And not the NeoPet or Harvey or Bonzi Buddy type virtual friends, but friends you find online and then perhaps later in physical space.

BBC reports on the University of Southern California Center for the Digital Future‘s 2007 Digital Future report:

Virtual pals ‘soar in importance’

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.

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.”

[… see article for more]

Read the full Center for the Digital Future 2007 Report here.