Well first off, they're not. Not even close. But this for those beta males who need to feel better about themselves.
I'll start off by saying good for two reasons - The honest and the dishonest.
• When you're talking to someone online you can take longer to respond. This is good because the kind of people for whom these conversations would appeal no doubt have trouble verbalising their thoughts in public. While you shouldn't take to long or the other side may get bored or think you're just being damn rude, there is an obvious advantage. There is no reason for ever making a mistake in online conversation ever. Because you can take longer to respond (assuming you're not still on a dial up connection) you will not make any silly utterances or questions because you have at your fingertips a near bottomless pool of knowledge to draw from. Now this is obviously highly problematic as you're presenting to your online compadres something that you are not. Why is that bad? Because it is a lie. And like all lies it can spiral our of control and become progressively harder to maintain believability--not least when you leave the comfort of your keyboard. This is the dishonest part.
• Probably one of the greatest things about online friendships is they become much more spontaneous. You can be friends with those who would never had the opportunity to meet had you been of a generation that rarely frequents online realms. When you meet someone in 'real life' (or conventional life--internet life is real life) you might meet them at a coffee shop or a sports centre. Most of time these will be places you visit fairly regularly so your chances of running into the same person seems fairly high, especially if you tend to keep the same routine day in day out. If it's not Monday then it'll be Thursday, or the next week. There doesn't seem anything spontaneous or 'miraculous' in a meeting that has quite a high probability of occurring (because they've known each other from childhood or whatnot) even if it will conjure the same intense meaning for both parties in the end. When the odds of two individuals meeting are reduced in cyberspace because they're surrounded by many more individuals, well it seems much more spontaneous. Much more random, miraculous, or romantic (not necessarily in a lovey-dovey way)when something, anything meaningful is produced from that relationship. I believe that if you recognise the increased fragility in the chance occurrence of two people meeting up and becoming friends then you are perhaps more will to value that relationship highly and fight for it.
• The next benefit of online relationships over is one of convenience. There have been plenty of times I've been visited by friends in my ordinary life and we've struggled to come up with fun things to entertain ourselves with. In (in sounds better--it's like a room) the internet, this dilemma never occurs. Most likely what will happen is you'll both just be talking, perhaps easily doing something else offline (watching a film, tv etc). But how often in real life do you people sit down with the deliberate intention of just talking without other incentives (drinks or a good dvd)? Of course I'm not saying we should all just spend every second of our leisure time chatting and doing nothing else. Quite often online friends are already engaged in activities like Facebook games or MMOs.
•Finally, when talking to people online, far from it removing anything of value from the interaction, the very fact you aren't communicating face to face makes the experience much more intimate and realistic. You will take more precautions in your getting to know that person. You will state things outright to compensate for that fact that you can't read body language. In real life, I get the impression that much of what you take away from any face to face interaction is simply conjured not from the words spoken or from that body language but from your own presumptions that you entered with. When you know someone, before you start talking to them you already have a comfortable picture in your mind of what that person is and this prevents you or it removes the requirement to actually enquire explicitly for the truth (people might find it weird that you're asking them intimate details of their lives or you might feel uncomfortable knowing--it might not be what you want to hear). It is precisely because you have to compensate for a lot of things in online relationships that nothing gets left up to the imagination. As a result, online relationships maybe healthier, people will be much more honest with each other. If there's an incompatibility issue between them they'll figure it out much sooner. This is obviously the honest argument.
So as you can see I'm not saying we should all ditch our 'real' friends but it helps to remember that people you meet and know only online can be just as much your friends as anyone you've seen in the flesh. Don't think of them as more disposable. You may be able to walk away from the computer but you may end up hurting people because you will be walking from from them.
This node was inspired partially from personal experience as well as a desire to find out why dating websites like eharmony can boast such surprisingly high success rates.