As many of you know, I teach courses in Communication, and one thing I've always found fascinating about the study of language is how words can change meaning over the years. For example, back in the late 1800s, a baseball fan was called a "crank," and you referred to your favorite team as your "pets." A psychiatrist was called an "alienist" and an eye doctor was an "oculist."
And then there's the word "friend." When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, this word referred to someone you knew, a person in your life with whom you enjoyed spending time-- maybe going to movies, or seeing a ballgame, or just talking on the phone. But then, as time passed, along came the internet and social media, and the word took on a different meaning. Now, we all have friends we've never met-- on Facebook, I've got more than 4700 friends, in fact. No, I'm not really that popular: the majority are Rush fans, and some others know me from my radio career. But in Facebook terminology, they're all my friends.
I was reading an article a few weeks ago that questioned whether online friends are really friends at all, since, in many cases, we don't know them, other than as folks who respond to our online posts. It's a valid point: online friends are very different from people I can go have an ice cream with-- many are scattered all over the world, and I sometimes wonder whether they'd even like me if we met in person. But if a friend is someone who will be there for you and share a part of your life, then I believe the word "friend" really does apply to the folks I know on social media.
In December of 2014, I had surgery for cancer, and although I'm generally a private person about my personal life, I needed to talk about it with others who had been through it. So I posted about it on my Facebook page. And I found that many, many people could relate to what I was going through. I received a lot of online support and encouragement, which augmented the love I received from my husband, my colleagues, and other people who knew me personally.
And several weeks ago, that support was there again, when I told some folks on Twitter that the autistic guy for whom I've advocated since 1984 was gravely ill and needed to undergo several surgeries. I asked for prayers for his health, but what I also got was a lot of personal messages, and a number of folks who reached out to let me know they were there if I wanted to talk. It's been a scary couple of weeks, but he is finally getting better. I am so grateful to everyone who kept him in their thoughts.
I guess the word "friend" really has changed, because even though I've never met most of the people who sent their love and encouragement, the support was as real as if they were sitting in my living room. I understand that the internet and social media have their dark side, and I'm not trying to minimize that. But I also can't ignore the fact that sometimes, the online world can be a source of comfort and compassion. And so, I want to send my love to my online friends-- whether I know you personally or not, the friendship you have given me makes a difference. And I thank you for it.