Cyber chums 'as valuable as real people'

People who bond with internet communities and online forums say their virtual friends are just as important as their real-world relationships.

Each adult has an average of five cyber chums, but most will never meet in person, despite a steady increase in such face-to-face meetings.

Web-based communities provide a 'haven' from offline interaction, with members citing benefits like gaining a second set of values which can be compared to society.

These are the findings from the latest Digital Futures Report, which annually polls 2,000 households across the US, to gauge the Internet's impact on everyday life.

Contrary to popular belief, the Web has made people more sociable - evidenced by 40% having more friends today, and is frequented most by women, not men.

However it was the first time in the report's six-year history than females have the edge, found its authors, based at the University of Southern Carolina.

The use of websites, online photo albums and blogs is increasing across the board, as is the perception that information online is now more reliable than at any time in the past four years.

Media giants like CNN emerged as the most trustworthy portals, contrasted by a deteriorating faith in government websites - yet around 70% still saw these as reliable.

The Web as a learning tool remains popular, especially among those in a net community, evidenced by the majority involved in social activism now fighting a cause that was unknown to them before logging on.

Among more general net communities, 43% said they 'feel as strongly' about their virtual community as they do about their real-world communities.

Reflecting on the findings, Jeffrey Cole, of the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future, said people are "now beginning to measure real growth and discover new directions for the Internet as a comprehensive tool."

Over a decade after the portals of the World Wide Web opened to the public, the medium is not only a source of entertainment, information, and communication, but also a "powerful personal and social phenomenon," he said.


14th December 2006

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