Over the past 25 years or so a lot of words have taken on new meanings, mostly because of computers, new media, and the fact that all the good words were apparently taken.
Meanings of words change all the time, of course. That’s why dictionaries have multiple definitions for many words. Words like straight and gay never used to have any sexual meanings, and a tea party used to involve tiny cups and saucers.
In the world of computers we’ve called a pointing device a mouse, a malicious program a virus, and a brief message a tweet. Icon, which used to represent something, well, iconic, now means a little symbol on a computer screen.
I was thinking about the word “friend” the other day. Friend is a word I take pretty seriously. For whatever reason, I don’t have many friends. I have a fair number of acquaintances, colleagues, clients, neighbors, and relatives, but only a handful of real friends… except on Facebook, where a friend is basically someone you’ve agreed to communicate with.
When I entered the world of Facebook, I decided to do so for mostly mercenary reasons, by which I mean pure self-interest. I wanted a way to connect with clients and a network of people I’ve met through the years who might be of assistance to me someday. I’ve never been very good at networking, so I thought I’d try to improve on it using Facebook.
After a year of daily searching, I had accumulated over 400 friends. As time went on, I also “friended” some real friends, members of my extended family, some members of the community, former classmates, and people I find to be interesting acquaintances.
Recently, I’ve been unfriending some people. Some of them are people I hardly know and who shouldn’t have “friended” me in the first place. Some are people who I know and like, but who often write posts that make my blood pressure go up. I’m afraid that if I keep reading what they write, it will affect my non-on-line relationship with them.
A few people who are Facebook friends constantly post pictures of food or pets – both of which I like very much – but enough is enough! Some of them play various on-line games like “Farmville,” which is fine, but not of interest to me.
So, bit by bit I’m winnowing down my list of friends. But, each time I click the “unfriend” button (another word with a new computer meaning), I feel a little sense of loss. Maybe it’s the word friend that tugs at me. In the real world, I’ve lost a few friends to death, and others to the natural drifting apart that happens in life.
That drifting apart, ironically, is perhaps exacerbated by our obsession with the on-line world. Yes, it does help us keep in touch, but not in a real-world context. News reports claim that nearly half of marriages that break up do so because of relationships on Facebook. Should our spouses be our true friends?
I guess my point is that just as the word icon has been watered down by its new definition, the word friend is at risk of losing its depth and intensity of meaning. I might have been better served in the past year by making new real-world friends, or investing more time and effort in those I am fortunate enough to have.