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Nearly half of all Americans who belong to online communities claim that the virtual world they inhabit is as important as the real world.

According to a new study conducted by the USC-Annenberg School Centre for the Digital Future, 43 per cent of those who are part of a virtual community said that they felt as strongly about this society as they do about the physical world that they are a part of.

The report found that over 50 per cent of members log-in to their online community at least once a day.

An online community is typically defined as a group that shares thoughts or ideas, or works on common projects through electronic communication such as email, instant messaging or forums.

The 2007 Digital Future Project found that online communities can serve as a catalyst for social activism, with almost two-thirds of online community members who participate in social causes through the internet stating that they are involved in causes that were new to them when they began participating on the internet. In addition, 43.7 per cent of online community members participate more in social activism since they started participating in their virtual world.

"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," said Jeffrey I Cole, director of the USC Annenberg School Centre for the Digital Future.

"The internet has been a source of entertainment, information, and communication since the web became available to the American public in 1994. However, we are now beginning to measure real growth and discover new directions for the internet as a comprehensive tool that Americans are using to touch the world."

Overall, more than three quarters of Americans aged 12 and older are now online, with 68 per cent of these using the internet at home, up from 46.9 per cent in 2000. Moreover, 50 per cent of Americans now access the internet through a broadband connection.

However, increased broadband adoption at home is causing concern with a small but growing percentage of adults saying that the children in their households spend too much time using the internet. Nonetheless, almost 70 per cent of parents said that their children spent the right amount of time online.

The study also found that the number of American internet users who keep a blog has more than doubled over the past three years. According to the report, 7.4 per cent of users now use blogs, compared to 3.2 per cent in 2003. In addition, 12.5 per cent of online Americans now maintain their own website.

Copyright © 2006, ENN

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