I should make clear, here, that I don't consider it impossible to have online friends -- only that, as athenais said, I don't think it can achieve the multiple layers I look for in a close friendship. It has to go "live" at some point or it remains limited.
I also agree with whatemluv said (and thought it a very elegant way of stating same) The online thing is a wonderful way of meeting people and creating very focused discussions etc., but I think real, true friendship is too multi-faceted to maintain in cyberspace alone.
and last, lnhammer said: The past couple years, I've been slowly defictionalizing several friends I'd only known online. There's still a fair number, though, of strong aquaintances I only e-known.
All of these are points I think I'm about to address -- which is to say, I'm about to meander off the edge and around it a bit.
Reading is about the text, for me. This doesn't trivialize the online experience, or rather, it isn't intended to -- if anything, I mean the opposite. Reading is what started me on the long road to what I actually do with my life; it was, and remains, an intensely personal activity, in which the space between the text and the reader has a singular focus and intensity. It's stronger when what I'm reading is fiction, but it's strong regardless.
Some of the fanfic discussions spill into this, in a way that I'm sure they weren't meant to, because in some sense, what I read, how I experience what I read, is mine. This doesn't mean that I have an interest in writing anything at all about real people, but I think lnhammer's use of the word "de-ficitionalizing" was very apropos, if possibly unintentionally so. To some level, when I'm dealing with text, my relationship is with the text itself, and in an oddly amorphous way, secondarily with the writer.
I'm aware of this. When I was on GEnie, I was in fact so aware of this that my speaking voice, my "me" voice if you will, seldom filtered out into public discourse -- I was trying to speak clearly, to get the text of the message across, and as I knew I had no real ability to respond to the responses of the silent lurkers, I wanted to make my posts as bullet-proof as possible, where in this case, bullet-proof meant inoffensive. Not that I mind giving offense when it's merited, but rather, that I wanted to be certain I didn't give offense where it wasn't.
Because I was -- at that time -- so cautious in public posting, I was aware that my voice was distinctly different from my voice; that the text of the message was not delivered in the casual way I would normally deliver it (for one, less colourful language; for two a lot less gesticulating, which I tend to do at high speed, and for three, I speak really, really quickly in real life).
One thing I loved about the internet was the ability to have very focused discussions with like-minded people. Some of the things that fascinate me bore many, many people to death -- but in venues where e-communities gather, there's much less likelihood of this happening, because people tend to gather around mutual interests. Out of mutual interests like this, I did follow up in real life, I did make phone calls, I did have people come and visit me. My online-based friendships grew multiple layers when discussions wandered out of the realm of the focused topic and into more mundane things -- children, job stress, writing stress, family, other interests.
It's true that I don't see most of the friends who I initially met online all that often, usually for reasons of geography; it's also true that I've seen them at so many conventions or other separate gatherings, that I've built a sense of history with them, and that I do value them and consider them friends.
But regardless of the intensity of discussion online -- or perhaps even because of it -- I don't consider online-only to be entirely real; I consider it to be textual, with all that that implies. It can be intense, and personal in ways that only reading is -- but at the same time, I'm conscious of me, the text, and at the other end, someone who is interpreting themselves, filtering themselves, just as I do and did. I can understand how people feel like they're falling in love because of my reaction to and relation with text, with words, but I can't see taking that intensity and preserving it outside of the domain of text without a lot of other steps in between.
I expect that the online people I write to will be different in real life. I often expect them to bear little resemblance to what I read of their words online. I expect that they will find that I'm different, although, aside from manners (mine are, sadly, much better online), I can't predict how.
I don't need to meet people to value what I find online, and to prize it very, very highly -- but I don't have a word for what I do find online that doesn't somehow involve 'fictionalizing', the opposite of the de-fictionalizing that lnhammer mentioned previously. The sense of community is both personal and profound -- but at a remove, I'm not sure how much I'm reading into it and how much is already there, if that makes sense.