While I have very good, close friends who I met in real life (the non-virtual world), I have to admit that I also have very good friends whom I met in the virtual world first and then had the pleasure to meet in person subsequently. There is one group with whom I have been particularly close; a group of technical folks with whom I actually help to run a technical web forum (LessThanDot). From these people I have learned not only a great deal about how to do my job better but have also established friendships that I cherish highly. While I would not have considered "online" friends to be real friends, the relationships I have made with these people are as real as any I have made with people I know and see everyday.
Now, whether these relationships would be as good as I consider them to be if I had not actually met many of them in real life (after we first met online) is another issue. The reality is that a relationship can best exist where there is physical proximity and a familiarity built up through such proximity. I know more than a few people only online and consider them to be friendly enough, but those with whom I am closest (either online or offline) are those with whom I have had time to create a truly personal relationship in person. People that I grew up with but live in different parts of the world today are still good friends of mine - even if we only talk rarely. People who I have known online for years may not be at the same level because we haven't had time to develop that personal rapport - something that I think is best done face-to-face.
But this should not viewed as a denigration of online relationships. If anything, many of my online relationships have opened the world to me in a way that would not have been possible in my father's generation. I count among my many online friends people from countries that I will likely never have the opportunity to visit; but their willingness to share their lives gives me an insight otherwise unavailable via conventional media. But should the day come where I have the ability to meet some of them, I will have a good opening from which to continue building those relationships. For that, I am grateful to be of this generation where the miniaturization of the world through our growing interconnectedness makes such relationships possible.