I got my first email account when I was 13. That's really not a surprising age anymore, but when you consider that this was 1993, it's a bit more rare.
The same day that I got internet access, I started posting on an old usenet newsgroup that became my favorite haunt for several years. I met a lot of people there, including getting to know people I went to school with but had never actually ended up speaking to for one reason or another.
One of the people I met in those early days was a guy that lived a few hours away. Five years later, we were still friends when we met in real life. We dated for a few months, and that didn't work out, but we stayed friends. To this day he is the person I have known the longest (outside of family) that I still keep in regular contact with. We never would have known each other at all if it wasn't for the internet, and I can easily say my life has been better because I have known him.
So when a friend of mine (another 10+ year friendship) posted today that someone had once again told her the common refrain, "online friends aren't real friends" I got mad again.
It's a stupid thing to say, and the only people who say it are those who are older than about 35 and haven't grown up with the internet in their world and so they still have a part of them that doesn't understand it.
I have friends both online and off, so I feel like I can compare those friendships pretty easily. I wouldn't call myself an extrovert by any stretch, but most people who know me would be surprised by that. I don't particularly think that I have a hard time meeting people either, because I like to talk and so I'll just find somebody to talk to in most situations where I don't already know somebody.
In the end it boils down to one question: how do you define a friend.
For me it's somebody that supports me when I need it, congratulates me when I do well, thinks of me when I'm not present, and will have my back when it's important. Somebody I can laugh with, cry to, and who will listen when I want to rant about how the world sucks.
For people who think online friends aren't real friends, the only thing I can surmise is that they define friends as somebody you can shake hands with. I mean, really, what about all of those things I described as friendship requires a physical presence or a nearby location?
Sure, you will have online friends that disappear and you don't speak to much. And they could go away at a moment's notice and you wouldn't know why. They could suddenly reveal themselves as racist idiots and you'll have to defriend them and yadda yadda. But that's all possible with real friends too, and it's even MORE likely in my opinion. I can't tell you the number of real life friends I've made that I haven't stayed friends with because we discovered the only thing we had in common was being in the same place at the same time.
With an online friend, you started talking because of something other than proximity. You both really love Sherlock, or Star Trek, or reading fanfiction, or playing a certain game. And if you have one thing like that in common, you probably have more. It builds together. It's the perfect way for you to meet people that are in completely different walks of life than you are. Different ages, races, ethnicities, people who live in countries that you can't even spell. Being online and talking to people can open your world up immeasurably. It's like all the great things you get from reading books, but with actual human being and first person stories to share.
I've also met a lot of my online friends in real life over the years. I've gone to their houses for parties or visited when I was traveling. Friends have come to see me, we've met up at conventions, etc. I do tend to try to make sure I meet new people in public places or with a group, because it's common sense. But I think that people who consider there to be a distinct difference between online and offline friends clearly have never had real online friends, and that's their fault. It makes me wonder if they have offline friends too, or just people who put up with them.