On a crisp September day in 1995 — long before there was such a term as “Social Media” — I sat at my computer with my 28K modem, sobbing as quietly as I could, trying not to wake up my 3 month-old son. And I typed this question:
“I need to know how to help a young Mom with cancer. She’s only 30, she has three young daughters and not much time. Please, can anyone help me?”
In 1995 I had no MySpace, no TechCrunch, no Twitter; no Cluetrain Manifesto. @Scobleizer was probably just a mensch working at Microsoft. Bill Gates was a minor celebrity; people shook their heads about Apple’s tiny market share. AOL and Netscape were king, and when you loaded a website, you had to watch a blue bar while it loaded — long enough to grow a whole new hairstyle sometimes.
In short, I didn’t have the power tools we have today — the myriad complicated ways we celebrate of connecting to each other – our widgets, our followers, our networks.
What I had in 1995 was an amazing friend named Sabine with a buoyant smile, three young daughters… and terminal cancer.
What I also had in 1995 was access to AOL‘s chat rooms. Yep: chat rooms.
I had found the one that said, “AOLMoms.” I entered, waited for it to load, and typed my question.
I typed that question again and again as the chat scrolled down in front of me. And then suddenly:
“I can help. I am a Mom who has had cancer. I have survived it three times. What do you want to know?”
It felt like a miracle. Her screen name was MS_Tylee, and I’ve never forgotten her.
“Anything,” I typed back. “What would help?”
MS_Tylee asked me what stage cancer my friend had; told me about what kinds of foods would upset her stomach given the type of treatment she was getting; what kind of help would actually be helpful — laundry, little errands, child care and maybe meals on days around her chemo treatments.
I was so grateful. What she did was small for her — a few moments’ typing at her desk — but it was huge for me.
It turned out I’d need that knowledge: that same month, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. And then another friend — Dale, also a mother — a month later.
Sabine died the following June. She was one of the first people in my circle to have three kids; I learned so much from her about how to handle it. She was also one of the first people in my circle to have cancer, and I guess, to leave those children so young. As I grieved her, I just determined that I would take something from this loss; that I would help people the way that MS_Tylee had helped me.
I totally got it — long before there was Community Building software — about the Internet’s power to pluck just the right help, seemingly out of the air.
I also got that small gestures — things that don’t take much time or money — can make a humongous difference to a person who needs them. Offering to fold laundry or cook a meal. Or just taking a moment to call, even when you’re scared of what you might hear.
I learned to do what I could: sometimes it would be a lot, other times it would be small.
But it would be something. Because with cancer — or AIDS, or a sudden death, or a disaster — there are, often, no mulligans. No road back if you regret your inaction.
It’s what you can live with, you’ll pardon the expression. Or not.
A few years later, a friend and children’s author was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer – with no health insurance. She fought hard, and eventually lost — but not before she and her family saw tremendous love and support, quite a bit from people they’d never met.
I bring this up because I have read and heard lately, several clarion calls – some, like Jeremy Pepper’s, really eloquent — for Social Media to quit its navel-gazing, its fascination with hearing itself talk, and actually do something besides vid-cast itself on Qik for a change.
See, it is pointed out, what you could do in the service of good — you with your thousands of followers; or you, who has made millions talking about the Web’s ability to connect. Or you — take a break from your videocast to shill for someone who needs help.
So true. But I’m not waiting for the Social Media stars or anyone else to make huge gestures – though it would be nice.
Instead we could do what the Web has always done best: a bunch of small gestures that people can live with.
The Web makes it easy for us to be outward, to have those moments when we shine outside of ourselves and afford someone else the benefit of grace — whether it’s of not feeling alone, or sending the equivalent of an overpriced cup of coffee via PayPal –because we can. Because both literally and figuratively, it adds up to more than it could possibly mean to us to put that actual cup of coffee in a cupholder and drive somewhere.
It’s your call. Maybe you click away from this page, shudder and never come back. Or maybe you click through to a link — read a story, send a good wish or small contribution, or put someone’s story up on your blog.
Or maybe you do nothing to help the people here, but instead take a minute to call someone who would just appreciate being remembered.
That’s all I’m sayin’. Just find the courage. Or the compassion. But it doesn’t have to be huge.
For me, I do this for Sabine. For my mother. For MS_Tylee. For all the many people we have lost to cancer and other illnesses, and for those who are still fighting. For Marc Orchant. For my friend Steve Koloskus (and believe me, he is a whole ‘nother story, and merits his own post sometime). For anyone who’s ever shown me kindness when they didn’t have to, through the Internet or otherwise.
Everyone has someone whom they know, in whose memory they are their best selves — cancer or no cancer.
The Internet was about connection long before it was about Friends lists. Or maybe I should say it was about Friends before it was about lists.
But either way, it was always about 1s and 0s adding up to something much bigger.