The problem with personas

I have felt literally ill over the past 24 hours processing the tragic death of Trey Pennington.  I haven’t been able to think about anything else.  There has been a lot to consider … reactions from the social web … disbelief … new details of the suicide … grief … and my own relationship with Trey that was apparently disconnected from reality, at least as his problems escalated over the past few months.

Some web reports have even questioned the role of the social web in all of this. After all, some have asked, how could this man be so alone and yet have so many “friends?”

A more balanced and fair assessment came from Jay Baer who states that we need to make an effort to turn our online friends into offline friends or none of this social media stuff really matters.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about to try make sense of my experience in this situation is the artifice of the personal brand and our online personas.

In the old days (10 years ago) our only real option to build meaningful relationships was through personal interface.  Yes, there were opportunities to create “social validation” in the physical world by having diplomas on your walls, or by the type of car you drive, but we all still had an opportunity to assess a person in a meeting, over lunch, in their home.

Today many of us depend on building dozens, hundreds, even thousands, of weak connections through the social web and chances are, we never do get to meet these folks in real life. There is an intense pressure to create unblemished personal brands by carefully crafting our online image with badges of power and success.  Followers. Likes. Tweets. Klout.

Trey was really aware of this and told me so.  He felt he had to keep up an image — even artificially — to continue to maintain an effective business presence on the web.  As his personal life descended into chaos, his content output through blogs and videos dried up, as did most of his business prospects.  He articulated his worry about maintaining an image of success despite his personal reality.

We’re all guilty, to some degree, of making assessments about people based on these short-hand online badges.  I’m sure more people know how many Twitter followers Trey had than where he earned his college degree.

While he may have been suffering on the inside, that rarely came through on the social web. He couldn’t be who he authentically was — a deeply troubled man — and still maintain his happy, confident image that was the core of his popularity and business credibility.  His online presence belied the truth, right up to the end.  In that regard, his strategy was successful.

Imagine how difficult it would be to maintain this persona of success as the gap between online image and personal reality grows from a rip … to a canyon.  I can’t imagine the pressure this dissonance would create.  I don’t think we can dismiss the fact that this unbearable tension probably grew within Trey day by day.

As I reflect on this, I can’t help but see my own failings here.  I remember reading his online messages after his first suicide attempt and thinking, “Wow. He seems to be so positive. Very upbeat. I guess he’s OK.”  In hindsight, My God, what an incredibly stupid thing to think.

I can now see the disparity of the situation and my own intellectual laziness to want to believe what I was reading, despite my instincts that this could not possibly be so.  I fell for the social proof because it was expedient and it told me what I wanted to hear.

I was counting on the convenient drip, drip, drip of public Facebook updates instead of a phone call to monitor the situation.  Facebook isn’t exactly truth, is it?

What can I learn from this?  I’m not sure.  It’s uncomfortable saying that, but I’m still thinking things through.

I would be dishonest if I said that I will do a better job cutting through the noise to find the signals.  Maybe that would last a few days and then I would be back in the daily hurricane where the noise is ever-increasing.

I could say that I am going to do a better job trying to see people in real life but that would be a lie too. I already do make that a priority and do as much as I possibly can.

I might tell you that I am making an effort to depend less on social proof and that would be a lie. With the incredible information density of our world, we will depend on these short-hand assessments more, not less.  Me included.

An obvious lesson is that I need to follow my instincts more and not just offer a hand, but to BE the hand. Am I smart enough to judge when to do that?  Am I aware enough to see the signals or are my relationships being overwhelmed by the daily information tsunami? Time will tell.

Have you reflected on this event and come to any of your own conclusions?  I’ve been sitting here alone all day and hearing what you have to say might help me think this through, too.

All posts

  • Mark, I can feel your pain, frustration, and maybe even guilt.  My daughter attempted suicide several years ago, and I can tell you that we never suspected her trouble even though we lived in the same house with her.  In hindsight, we can see signs we now know were clues, but not being trained to observe these signs, we missed them.  We did know enough to seek professional help for our daughter, and she is now a well-adjusted adult wife and mother.  I think it is one’s natural instinct to mask our troubles, even from those closest to us–parents, family, friends, and especially business contacts.  People naturally want to keep up appearances, but if their behavior doesn’t match their circumstances, real trouble may be brewing underneath it all.  So I think the only thing we all can do, when a friend or loved one attempts suicide, or actually commits suicide, is to learn from the experience and intensify our efforts to get to know people personally and truly observe and listen to them.

  • Curious to read this as I’ve been thinking on the same topic for a while now. I wrote my own thoughts about Trey’s suicide on my blog ( and covered similar material. Social media makes it too easy to put up a surface image and gain popularity based on that image. It also allows for someone to fail in spectacular fashion with the whole world watching. 

  • People can hide in “real life” as easily as they do on social networks, IMO. Someone I saw frequently committed suicide a while back, and this was a person who was intimately plugged in to the community but still apparently felt alone. None of us who knew the person could believe it; it was so contrary to the projected image. 

    Your questioning of “personas” is so apropos. Too many of us are putting on personas like new suits these days instead of inhabiting them as they must be. Still, it’s a long quest in human history to attain the psychic complexity that can use that ability effectively, which I think should give us all some comfort. 

    Go easy on yourself, Mark. As much as anyone I know on the net these days, you’ve been promoting honesty and authenticity.  I’m certainly enriched by your thinking on the subject, since as you know I’ve been harping on the apparent celebritization of our world lately. The social web definitely makes score-keeping easier than it was, but larger cultural issues are driving it, IMO. 

    I have continued to hope that social media can be used precisely to erode the need for false images like these, and in that sense, I sometimes wonder if it is completely counter to business interests, but if it is, I’m finding more and more that I don’t really care–people always come first.

    Kudos for pulling such a thoughtful question from this otherwise horrible situation. When something like this happens, it is certainly a question for the entire community.

  • Mark, the sad truth of this situation is that before social media existed, people have always well hid their intentions. William mentions that it easy to put the suit on the internet, but it is just as easy to do so IRL. I’ve talked several folks down who reached out at the lowest moments and this was BEFORE social media.
    Second guessing yourself is pointless in this situation. People keep saying that tired nugget of “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary situation.” Find me someone in the middle of any level of depression that feels like it is temporary.

  • Anonymous

    As we get connected to more and more people, albeit casually, we will see more and more evidence of mental illness. It is never easy to deal with and few ever find a peace with it. Folks, there are things we cannot prevent; people we can never help.

  • Pingback: The problem with personas | Suicide and depression |

  • Anyone one of us who has lost a friend or family member to suicide can agree, the hole will never be filled, the why will never be answered. We can point to events or money or career or family issues. Plenty of people who are struggling in business and at home don’t kill themselves. It is a much darker issue that we all wish never occurred. 

    I worked alongside a talented man for over a decade. We had an entire day together in the summer of 2005. We had lunch, he talked about his family, he was clean for the first time in as long as I had known him, he was eating right and running again, we laughed, played some new tunes, I drove him around the city to have a look around and we went for lunch. On July 6, 2009 he killed himself. I got the call at 11:17pm from another former colleague. I was shocked and sad and angry but unfortunately not completely surprised. My friend said it well “No one was there to save him this time”. 

    Will Trey’s death teach us this time? Will we finally get it through our thick skulls? Will we say all the right things and mean them but then go back to our routines and perhaps our muted fears? Or will we learn that our fear is real and not to be pushed away because it’s not cool to be afraid or not have the answer? You say yourself, we do care about validation and numbers and comparison and stature.

    It’s not about “the money” per se but anyone in the {grow} community has lived that day when you don’t think the bills will get paid or you need to do that prospect meeting to make ends meet. We carry a brave face online and none of us are allowed to wallow. We can’t sell our wares or share a tough piece of news because no one wants to hear it.  Well I call bullshit. Enough! Let’s get pissed off. Let’s get to work.

    Let’s stop padding ourselves on the back for a blog well done and remember why we’re doing all this and it is our inherent need to belong. I need you, you need me, they need us and we need them. Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” said it best that there is no such thing as a self-made person. How arrogant of any of us to think we can break that streak.

    Mark, you know you can call me anytime, on the actual phone, anytime. And I know many others who read your words everyday feel the same. Let’s prove it with our actions and give Trey Pennington (and sadly, thousands of others each year) the tribute they deserve but simply being better to each other.

  • MARK,

    Greetings from rural Australia.

    Mental illness, depression, bipolar, et al are still in the closet.  Behind being gay, lesbian, transsexual, bisexual, and being a victim of sexual abuse.

    Only celebrities get to admit any of the above and get away with it.

    Business people rarely do.

    Because it affects how people relate to you.

    And can be turned against you by your competition in relation to your clients and prospects. 

    It’s that simple.

    There was a time when telling someone you had cancer was done in hushed, whispered tones.

    It often meant your friends disappeared.  Because they didn’t know what to say to you.  Or how to talk to you.  Or how to help you.

    Now a significant proportion of the population share that disease.  It’s become mainstream.  And we’ve all learned what to say, what to do, and how to help.

    We can relate.

    Once people start discussing mental illness in public, and share this disease with each other, the stigma will lessen.

    I subcontract the sewing of my products to an organisation in my region in rural Australia.  All the men and women who sew my products have a disability.  Some have psychotic illnesses. One young woman in particular sinks into a deep depression within the blink of an eye and starts cutting herself.  And she’s not at all aware of what’s happening to her.

    After meeting her on a regular basis since 1994, she’s no different to me than anyone else.

    I saw her recently in my regional shopping centre.  She showed me her new scars from a recent bout of self harm.  And as I walked away from her, I couldn’t believe that she and I shared a lengthy conversation about her disease, in public, just as if we were talking about a visit to the dentist.

    Familiarity with mental illness breeds a sense of comfortability.  It allows you to relate to that person.  And it removes the stigma of fear of the unknown.

    Successful people like Trey remind me of the small town dilemma of the mayor’s wife who gets beaten every night by her violent husband.  But can tell no one.  Because she/he have an image to maintain.  Which bears no resemblance to their real life.

    You should stop beating yourself up, Mark.  It’s an unusual person who successfully matches their public image to their private persona.  

    Best wishes and take care,


    Carol Jones
    Interface Pty Ltd
    Designers of The Fitz Like A Glove™ Ironing Board Cover

    Ironing Diva’s stories are at

  • Ever watch “The Big Chill?” 25 years or so ago. That is when I first started thinking about this stuff. Make it your top priority to find your purpose. Something that will make you do and feel the same things day after day no matter how much money you have or if your wife leaves you or whatever. Then you are bulletproof and you can just be.
    Finding my passion and purpose took me 8 days of meditating and fasting around 3 years ago. I had become a bit “disorientated” prior to that. No job nor prospects of one, wife had left. After that things became super easy.
    My life became a dance day after day and it just keeps getting better and better.         

  • Have a big, virtual {hug} from me Mark. 

    I’ve nothing to add to the conversation really; your post and the excellent comments so far say it all. I’m an expert in hiding how I really feel, and I don’t need the distance of social media friends to do it. 

    If anything it’s different now; my online friends are the closest I’ve had for many years. I might never meet them, due to physical obstacles to travel, but they are as real as if they lived next door. 

  • I find myself in complete agreement with William. Too many people are putting on “personas like new suits”.  

    Because of this I don’t find it surprising that perhaps more people feel alone in the noise, even if they are interacted with more and more.  There’s nothing new in the idea of being alone in a crowd.

    Who and what exactly are we making weak connections with and why?  If we’re connecting with something that isn’t real to begin with then what is the point?  I see it all the time, I’m constantly managing to connect and interact with a persona when I thought at first I was being communicated with by a person.  There is far too much one way traffic going on, is that the business aspect of social networks? At the end of the day, most folk aren’t interested in other folk, just the next job or their next tweet.

    Perhaps we need to really look at the ‘relationships’ we form on the internet and equate them to real life.  As my brother told me when I was a kid, you’ll have many acquaintances through your life, but in the end if you can count your true friends on one hand you will have done well.  Have we lost the ability to separate true friends from even close acquaintances, let alone loose agenda filled connections on the web? 

    I worry about the ‘outpourings’ of disbelief and grief on the net too, how much of it is sincere how much of it is jumping on bandwagons.  Thankfully I’ve only had one experience of the death of a person I never actually met, but a person who really reached me, without trying to, with no sales pitch.  I was overwhelmed by my feelings, however I couldn’t imagine for one minute joining in the wave of public outpourings.  Are we also losing the ability to feel, grieve, experience privately?

    I read Jay’s blog yesterday, must say, it was one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on the subject.

  • stefankrafft

    Hello There! 

    Greetings from Sweden. It´s rough to read about this tragic event and it is also thought-provoking that it is possible to have that many friends and still there is no one there to see what´s really going on! That´s frightening…

    My first thoughts that comes to my mind is that our online presence is so much easier to keep up than our real life relations. I guess that we all have to consider how our online and offline presence are combined or not combined. Still there´s a side of all of us that are business and there is no space left to be to personal on behalf of your online business face. It´s a really tough question and I am not sure at all if I have come to any conclusion or not, the only conclusion I can see right now is that we all, regardless online or offline, must take care of each other. We must see persons as they are and give them the attention we all need. We have to care, otherwise we´re not humans. 

  • Have you been following Amber Naslund’s series called “What I Wish People Knew?” (   After she wrote her first post on the subject, there was apparently an outpouring of sharing from others who felt that they wanted to be truly “known” on less superficial level.  After reading your latest above, I’m really struck by the fact that everyone is crying out for that same reassurance—even if the public face is confident and popular.

  • What a wonderful comment Kneale. Wonderful.

  • Mark – first of all, please do not blame yourself for not doing more or recognizing what was happening behind Trey’s messages. I don’t know a lot about depression, but I suspect that people who suffer from it become quite good at masking what’s happening on the inside. [email protected]:disqus mentions, this happens “in real life” too. Not just in social media.

    I [email protected]:twitter made some good points in his post. I do think we can be mindful to create more meaningful connections. I think social media is merely the introduction – it’s up to us to take the relationship further. But, as you mention, we only have the bandwidth to do so much. There are only so many people that can truly be in our inner circles. 

    So, do the best you can with the people you can. I think that’s all we can do. Give yourself some grace, Mark. You do a great job of being a friend to so many. You truly do care. That’s what makes you different from a lot of folks out there. And, I’m confident that Trey knew that too. 

  • Billy

    Mark I have something to say, I hope you let me say it all.
    I respect you. I have connected with you and we have talked on the phone.
    I expect to meet you in April.
    I expect to develop this friendship more.
    I’ve thought about this first and now here I go.

    The Web seems to be an aspiritual place. By that I mean that if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, pursue spiritual values and consider your life beyond material things then you have to hid that. Nobody online wants to hear these things about you and your life.
    There is good reason:
    Any real value to be derived from a conversation in this realm has been crushed by the real life Elmer Gantry’s who have prostituted themselves for a buck at the cost of so many people. I hate what they have done, and i hate that people hide behind them as an excuse to avoid these things.

    I entered the social arena with a blog to get my feet wet, comment on blogs like this and learn.
    Some of the things that I have learned over the past 6months reinforce this understanding.
    On my blog I have used it to learn my way online. Learn the social code as it were: what to not say seemed more important than what to say.
    I found Trey Pennington online.
    I read about Trey Pennington, were he got his degree, and wondered if I had actually run into him or someone from his family: parents or relatives in the past. Bob Jones University is a controversial place, and I doubt he would want to make noise about that.
    I have a B.Div., A Th.D., and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Schools. I don’t talk much about them.
    He may even have had much of his faith in God and The Bible destroyed in such a place for most schools of spiritual education are filled to overflowing with intellectual minnows who attack the Bible and the conservative views it teaches.
    I know of many people, and can prove it, who actually have been destroyed by these types.
    I have a lot of experience with this.

    I noticed when a regarded blogger talked about the holocaust that people were mortified that he spoke about religion. It was as if he had crossed some barrier they all agree silently to not cross. It was most interesting from that perspective.

    I want to have a business of my own eventually. But, at what cost?
    Will I be two people, the business man and the spiritual man or just the one I am expected to be?
    Will I avoid the answers that I know I can give and comment within the social frame?
    Will I seek to have a complete voice: physical, soulical, and spiritual or just an online voice?
    Will I aim for a popularity: I understand how to be socially smart. Some people can offend everyone without trying and don’t understand that. They think they are being authentic when they are actually being boors! Being spiritually minded is not being offensive and socially lacking.

    I was a pastor for 25 years. I resigned because I could no longer take the way people wanted to live and be lead. The pressure upon a pastor today is titanic. The same for someone who holds a view of the Bible that is conservative and morally straight.
    The world is more like a transportation terminal with fleeting connections and relationships.
    Taking and making the change from delivering spiritual advice to learning how to understand the needs of people in a business is a big change, but not so different.

    Why have I said all of this?
    I looked at Trey Pennington’s site, I viewed pictures of him around the world, I observed his successes and I wondered. I wondered why something didn’t look right! I could not place this something but it was there.
    A part of me wondered what it was about some people that they seemed to be like a captain America: all American boys and girls. Able to do what other seemed unable to. A part of me observed and wondered at what price this was being won at?
    I cannot be sure of many things in the man’s life. I can be sure of some others. I cannot help him, but I can decide to take my stand for those who may want some help for tomorrow living in this absolutely phoney world.
    I will not hide what I have been.
    I will not shirk from answering questions posted with truth as it is understood by me.
    I will offer help when I see it needed, even if I am rebuffed.
    I will be myself, and that should be enough.

    Sincerely Billy Delaney.

  • Harvey, thanks very much for sharing this painful event.  I’m so sorry for your pain and admirre your courage to share it so that it may connect with others. I will follow your advice.

  • Thanks for writing that post and sharing it with us. 

  • Annette Penney

    Mark, I absolutely have been thinking this through and trying to learn from it. Although I wasn’t a follower of Trey’s, the fact that a human being (in “our” online community no less) lost his life has had a huge impact on me. I admit, I’m a sensitive person – but here’s where that is actually a benefit and not the huge curse I thought it was my entire life: I have very good intuition. I have learned to pay attention to it now whereas before I used to ignore it because it didn’t make “sense.” After all, I had no “evidence” to back up what I was feeling. I was wrong enough times that I finally started paying attention. After reading Jay Baer’s post last night, I laid in bed crying. What you both have said is the most brutal honesty with practical implications I have read in a good long time. Although I don’t know the Bible well, there is a passage that is coming to my mind about “If a man gains the whole world yet loses his soul….” (something of that nature) and it makes me think, “If a man/woman has the highest Klout score yet is lonely, in need, feeling detached…..” (THAT list could go on and on). I hope MANY of us learn *something* from this tragedy whether we knew Trey or not. 

    Tweet with sincerity if you yet do not; post on Facebook something from your heart that is meaningful that could add value to the reader’s day; take your online relationships OFFLINE whenever possible; and if you do business with someone online, make it a personal rule that at the very very least you will have dinner with this individual IN PERSON (sometime). I invite you to read a blog post [email protected]:disqus that I archived on my website about taking online relationships offline (“Your Community is Out There. Where Are You?). This young writer was already onto something: it is important to remember that the people online are REAL people and hey, let’s meet them!

    Make an effort. Take a step, even a small one. Be the change in this world you want to see Ghandi said. 

  • I’m learning that this “other face” is pretty common in these cases of depression. The social web really exacerbates that doesn’t it?  In fact as I think back, Trey was basically telling me this.  I was listening to him on a different level — a professional level — and not connecting the dots with depression.  Will, you are such a gifted writer and thinker.  Thank you for this amazing comment.

  • Thanks for these words of truth Todd. Much appreciated.

  • This has always been a struggle for me. As the oldest of six children myself in a household where the father was gone much of the time, I am a natural “protector,” especially of the young, the under dog, the under-privileged, or people in pain.  In the right amount, that is a good quality, but in an extreme, it is unhealthy. I am self-aware in that area, which is good, but your comment has helped me reflect on this tendency.  Thanks, Kat.

  • A perfect and appropriate sentiment, Kneale. You and I are social media soul mates in this regard. I do want to be a person who can lift people up, a positive influence, a leader.  Thanks for your very kind and compassionate offer.  I’m so glad we’re connected. 

  • First, congratulations on that good work you’re doing in Australia Carol. It has been nice getting to know you through these glimpses in your comments. 

    Thanks for passing on this very relevant and inspirational story.  Society in general has a long way to go before it is matching your openness and compassion.

  • I’m glad you’re centered and on a healthy journey Michael.  Thanks for taking the time to share your experience! 

  • Mark, I appreciate your openness and honesty as your work through this. Your lack of replies to everyone’s comment speaks volumes about how this is hitting you. I believe the heavy blanket of uncertainty at such times as this, presents an opportunity for insight and, yes, growth. We’ve had enough conversation on line and through email that I do consider you to be someone I care for and I wish you well is this moment of deep reflection.

    Although this is a very personal matter, your post suggests that you are probably wrestling with the implications for your business in social media and perhaps even your professional integrity. Huge questions. In that regard I just want to say that social media has presented us with a continuous moment of choice to either reflect or to reply. These are profoundly different responses.


  • Mark, I just want to say that I am truly sorry for the loss of your friend. I also want to echo what @lauraclick:disqus  and @tlyden:disqus said — this does happen in real life. People are good at wearing masks, and certainly social media just makes it easier. Your feelings are natural, especially at such an emotional time, but please, as Laura said, “give yourself some grace.”

    I think you and Jay bring up some very good points about the true nature of online relationships, but for now I just want to say that you are under no obligation to figure any of this out today, or this week, or this month. Sometimes you just have to take time to grieve.

    Again, I am sorry for you loss and wish you all the best.

  • Very true Ryah.  I’ve made more friends — real friends — in the past two years than in the past 20, primarily through the global reach of this blog. The irony is, the more popular something like this gets, the less able I am to connect in meaningful ways. I get multiple requests for help and suport every day, even from people I have never heard from before. If I followed up on every one, I would spend most hours of the day providing free counsel.  So I have to make choices … and inevitably feel a little guilty if I have to let somebody down.  But I have no complaints. Some of my best friends have come off the social web.

  • You make some really interesting points, Cath. After being immersed in the social web for a few years, it’s pretty easy to see the people who are here for “show and shill” and those who show up as real people.  I try to relate to everyone because I recognize that while the show and shill people might not be my cup of tea, they are worthy in their own way.  They may be wodnerful human beings who are just a little clunky at marketing themselves. So I try to be patient and inclusive with my online presence. 

    I also try to relate to people as humans, not avatars, becuase I am so interested in the real people and stories behind these personas.  We all have personas to some degree. I try to be honest with my presence but I don’t feel a need to disclose everything,

    The question of grieving in public or jumping on the bandwagon is also quite interesting.  These posts were difficult.  They were largely born from the fact that I could not concentrate on anything else. As I looked at the posts thatI had orginally scheduled to run, they seemed cheap and insignificant in light of where my heart was.

    Every single time I push the publish button, there is a little voice that says “but what will people think of me?”  Every blog post becomes a potential target for public disapproval and critique. It takes a cetain amount of courage to be an effective blogger. It would be much easier and safer to write about what’s “out there” than what’s inside of me and tearing me apart.

    There is also a therapeutic aspect to this. I have always “written things out” to try to get clear on issues.  I did not orginally intend to go public with this post, but thought that a lot of other people are probably suffering with the same thoughts and that I really needed some input from people much smarter than me to think through the implications of personas, technology and humanity.

    Well, obviously your comment was thought-provoking, Thank you!

  • Very vlaid questions, Stefan. Thanks for taking the time to contribute to the dialogue.

  • Mark, I’ve had strong feelings about Trey making the choice to take his life from the moment this reality came into my life. 

    Making sense of decisions made by others is impossible and tenuous at best.  Questions posed on-line and off-line can only reach answers one is willing to share.  Reaching any persona is at the discretion of each one of us willing to reveal and share what is even available to ourselves. 

    The only thing for sure is behavior and emotions, what motivates behavior and emotions is still somewhat of a mystery to any student of human behavior.   Sure I am able to conjecture and hypothesize; only when the persona is willing to reveal as much as being able to is there any kind of certainty, leaving us with this mystery of life; and coming to terms with this mystery of life is difficult.  

    My heart and prayers go out to you Mark and to all of Trey’s family and friends.

  • There is definitely a self-perpetuating “super hero” mentality on the social web, at least in the space I observe.  Most of the time I see this as harmless until 1) people don’t think critically and start to believe it of 2) the super heros start to believe their own smoke and mirrors. It’s a weird environment to be sure. Thanks for sharing this Rosemary.

  • Very sound advice Laura. Your comment had an impact on me. Thank you.

  • Barry Harvey

    Mark, I am touched by your comments and insight. I did not know or follow Trey. However, it is always sad to hear about someone believing there is no hope: I do not know how else to describe someone who commits suicide. I do know that no-one should ever feel like that, but they do.

    My beautiful wife suffers from depression, so I know a little about the way this can make you feel. I can also see the dissonance between public and private persona. While social media is not responsible for this, it can, perhaps, exacerbate the situation.

    However, our online presence is simply an extension of our life – family, friends, business colleagues and associates, clients, suppliers, contacts, clubs, societies, etc. We project ourselves into all these different spaces and are usually only brutally honest with the very closest of these, sometimes not even then.

    As an individual, you are not responsible for Trey and should not feel guilty. As a community though, each of our actions, to some extent, create the world we live in. We bemoan the behaviour or financial and corporate institutions: yet have we not created them through our greed and need for speed, convenience and cheap wares?

    It shows us, I think, that business is still ‘life’, (I loathe the idea of the work-life balance: surely work is still life). We don’t become non-human when at work. We concentrate on building relationships, precisely because we are human and need stuff from other humans: physical as well as emotional.

    Yes we give a professional facade (similar to the facade we create even for family and friends), but it should always still be us, our ‘selves’, or an aspect thereof. I want my family and friends to be honest, open receptive and supportive, but I want exactly the same from my business network.

    The web has created an amazing forum. But it is still about humans and not technology. Those who misuse it for business gain nothing – they are just spamming and earn no respect. Equally, if you invest too much in it personally, you are probably asking for something that cannot be granted. And asking in the wrong place.

    As usaul, it is about balance. Your writing tells me you have this about as right as any of us, so don’t be hard on yourself.

  • There is so much goodness and wisdom here Billy. Let me address two issues regarding spirituality, the web and Trey.

    First, I do regard the web as a spiritual place. If not for social media, how else would you and I have met, connected and grown to a point of admiration and support?   We are better for it. People from far-off places have told me that I have impacted their lives in a positive way. Isn’t that a wonderful thing?

    When Trey met with me a few weeks ago, much of our conversation was about his relationship with God.  I just can’t get into this. I don’t think it is anybody’s business, but you have correctly identified the issue that weighs so heavily on my heart.  Probably something I will never shake.

  • I think the web is simply a reflection of basic human nature. Much of what we see is fake, self-serving and even wicked.  Yup.

    Is Trey’s death going to change that? No.

    You have correctly stated that all we can change is ourselves and how WE relate to people.  The thing that is challenging is this competitive nature of the web you hint at. You and I are human bweings, but we also run businesses.  There are lots of invitations for us every day to get knocked off center and dive into the muck.  That’s why we have communities like this. To talk about these things, feel supported and perhaps become inspired and renewed.

    Thanks for this wise and heartfelt comment.  I am so glad we’re connceted and look forward to meeting you in October!

  • … and I’ve done both!

    What an amazing and gifted person you are Michael. Every comment you leave is so filled with wisdom and compassion. I appreciate you so much.

  • Thanks Adam.  It will take time.  A lot of strong emotions to process. One of the most vivid of these is the grief for his innocent children, some of whom were apparently in the church when this happened.  I just have all these images in my head. Difficult to stay focused but trying to get into some projects today.

  • Great insight that will help many people dealing with this Dr. Rae. Thank you.

  • You are certainly on the right track here Barry but unfortunately, at least for many, the online life is separate from their offline life … significantly.  The world would be a healthier and better place if everybody took your advice.  Thanks!

  • Kenny Rose


    I sense from this post your pain. I feel you brother. It is so hard to process. From my experience in almost every instance of this type  for the most part they were able to hide their agony and present an image to the world of being positive and successful. It seems to be a common feature. The person I knew who took the same route as Trey was a beautiful human being, fun, happy, awesome a man who just made you smile every time I was in his presence.  I miss him. 

    I know your examining your values and trying to working out where you could have done better and how you can be better.  It is something we all feel and strive to do in an authentic way. Social media is definitely very superficial but we have the opportunity to deepen those relationships and have an impact on the world. You clearly had a strong relationship with Trey. And the fact that you are pouring out you heart in such an open manner is an example of what I expect from you. 

    It is not your fault. You can only do so much brother. You cannot see everything even though I know in this instance you really wish that reality is different. It shows the mark of your humanity that you are prepared to be open to investigating solutions and look for ways to take something positive from this sad experience, grow and help us all become better people in the process. 

    All I can say is “Thank You” Mark you are exceptional individual, a true human being and you lift us all up. 

    Respect. Peace

  • Billy

    Thanks for you reply Mark. The feelings are mutual in every way as you have stated. We are friends and I look forward to meeting you next April.
    I understand and respect your right to privacy in this personally shattering experience. I wish you well. I wish his family peace and hope for tomorrow. They will need it indeed.
    If you want to talk, I am here and you know how to reach me. Billy

  • Al

    Thanks Mark,

    I will preface this with the fact I have no experience with depression myself, but have known several people who took their life, because of it.                      

    Try not to dwell on the sadness of it all.  Focus on gratitude for the time you had with Trey and the interactions you had with him.  I am sure he appreciated you and all you did for him.  I am relatively new to all this on line stuff.  Just a few months.  I have met and been supported by some incredible people already.  And yes, I want to meet them in real life or in person.  The fact is, it’s probably not going to happen.  So I take what I can get and I give as much as I can and hope these on line relationships blossom into true friendships.  It really is all about Gratitude and how I choose to look at it.  Thanks again for this awesome post, Mark.  You are a good man with a Big heart.

  • I only learned this morning and quickly wrote a post, shed tears, and began to ask why. Then disbelief, anger, sorrow for a man I met in your company yet respected for his “persona.”  Reading this doesn’t help. He was brilliant at snowing over his network; astonishingly so.

    Be at peace, Mark. This world we’ve grown in makes these relationships all the more emotional.

  • @twitter-17896684:disqus — thanks, and both — I was reminded here of something I blogged about a while back — “A friend told me that every time they post something that smacks of being “real” in social media–feelings, strong opinions, uncertainties–people are strangely silent. The comments flow on jokes and cat videos, but no one speaks about the most important issues. We’ve been trained to be social media puritans, staunch, stolid netizens busy at “real” labor, resolved to stay closed to anything that would stretch our boundaries.” Cultures change slowly, but you’re both changing culture here.  Mark, your courage shows–the emerging world of business is so different from the traditional world that it can be hard to keep one’s eye on the future while dealing with the pressures of the present. 
    I just finished reading a great little book called “Flying Without a Net,” which talks about a personality type common in business, a person who thrives on measurable “successes.” As a result, people with this personality tend to do only things which they know they will succeed at; they manipulate their environments to produce results; they design out risk. It becomes a closed-loop system. As someone who tends toward this personality type, I know the social net gives you all too much precision sometimes in controlling image and in fact puts more and more of us in the position of even thinking about image, which used to be the purview of only the rich and famous.The author of “Flying” suggests in a management setting various ways that the pros and cons of such a personality can be helped effectively, and he suggests ways for individuals to manage themselves, but on the net, where more and more of us work alone, we lack some of those interpersonal benefits. Perhaps one of the things we can all do for each other here is to keep questioning each other as a matter of culture. I’d venture that just about anyone reading {grow} has already started down that road, which is truly an awesome thing.

    Mark, you truly have a knack for bringing out people’s deeper thoughts. It’s so cool to see a bunch of smart and principled people hashing out something like this. Thank you again.

  • Karen Bice

    Mark, FWIW, I don’t believe that social media is to blame for anything. It’s simply a tool to connect and engage with others and put your brand out in the universe. I didn’t know Trey and wasn’t connected to him although I had seen a lot of positive things written about him via different platforms. The thing about depression is that many people have it but don’t talk about it openly. I mean who wants to be a sounding board for the many depressed? One would have to be incredibly strong to bear this, especially as it’s an ongoing thing. The most important things that the depressed need are the correct meds (which is a trial by error method, frequently taking a long time to find the med(s) that work, sometimes no med works); a good therapist, which is sometimes hard to find; and a support group of others dealing with the same or similar problems. Depression is a heavy load to expect your friends to deal with or even understand. In the end, suicide is a choice with the family and friends left to deal with the aftermath, chaos and cleaning up, and asking Why. In 1981, a brother walked into the emergency room after he had taken an overdose of his AD’s. He had changed his mind. He didn’t walk back out. He went into convulsions and died. My family was never the same after that. We all loved him, but it wasn’t enough. Life is hard. The bottom line is that we all do the best we can at any given moment, and sometimes it isn’t enough. Mark, I think you did the best you could under the circumstances so don’t beat yourself up about it. Hugs!

  • Mark, you are a good person and you bring a lot of light
    into this world. You did not fail Trey. He likely would have taken his own life
    even if you had been right by his side, holding his hand through every dark
    night, because depressed people feel alone, no matter how many supportive
    people surround them.


    Hopefully his loss will be a reminder
    to people that online personas are not always an accurate or true
    representation of a person. All social media is about branding, and all
    branding tends to have a positive sheen to it. Consequently, I’ve come to
    believe that there really is no room for authentic unhappiness in social media.
    (One person pointed out to me that they consider “I’m having a bad day” posts
    to simply be “pity bait”). So there will probably continue to be people like
    Trey who struggle to navigate the disconnect between their offline and online
    worlds. I know I do.


    But on another level, I’m also resigned
    to the fact that most people will likely not change their behavior as a result
    of this loss. Everyone – not just you — will continue to be enveloped in the
    noise, disconnected in real life and dependent on social proof, because that’s
    what we humans feel most comfortable doing.


    Maybe there are no answers to be found
    here — in the case of suicide, there rarely are – only the reminder to live
    the life you’ve got in the best way that you know how.

  • Mark, you are a good person and you bring a lot of light
    into this world. You did not fail Trey. He likely would have taken his own life
    even if you had been right by his side, holding his hand through every dark
    night, because depressed people feel alone, no matter how many supportive
    people surround them.


    Hopefully his loss will be a reminder
    to people that online personas are not always an accurate or true
    representation of a person. All social media is about branding, and all
    branding tends to have a positive sheen to it. Consequently, I’ve come to
    believe that there really is no room for authentic unhappiness in social media.
    (One person pointed out to me that they consider “I’m having a bad day” posts
    to simply be “pity bait”). So there will probably continue to be people like
    Trey who struggle to navigate the disconnect between their offline and online
    worlds. I know I do.


    But on another level, I’m also resigned
    to the fact that most people will likely not change their behavior as a result
    of this loss. Everyone – not just you — will continue to be enveloped in the
    noise, disconnected in real life and dependent on social proof, because that’s
    what we humans feel most comfortable doing.


    Maybe there are no answers to be found
    here — in the case of suicide, there rarely are – only the reminder to live
    the life you’ve got in the best way that you know how.

  • I think it’s human nature to look at yourself and think “what could I have done to prevent this?”. In all honesty, the answer is probably “nothing.” 

    Especially when it comes to online connections (even if you’ve met in person before), it is nearly impossible to know what is really going on. 

    It is the responsibility of the people that are actually around him each day to recognize those cries for help. Especially because it is those people that can actually make the biggest difference by physically being there.

    Hindsight is 20/20 and you may be able to look back and see the signs now, but it’s never as easy in the moment. 

    All this is really adding up to a lot of philosophizing that really means nothing in the end. Because in the end the pain is still there, and trying to think the situation through logically still won’t make the pain go away…that takes time. 

    Really this should have been a one-line comment: I am sorry for the loss of your friend, Mark. And I hope you feel better soon. 

  • I wasn’t meaning your posts Mark, I was speaking in general. I understand that you knew Trey, that is part of the difference I was trying to get at.

  • Coreen

    Mark, First let me say, I’m very sorry about Trey. I only knew him through Twitter, not personally, and I was shocked and saddened by his death too. I know you’re going through a bit of a hell right now, and you express things quite well in your post here. Hindsight is always wiser than present day. That will always be the truth. I wrote my blog post this week to help Trey’s friends and anyone dealing with the suicide of a loved one. I read your blog regularly, so I hope you know I am not trying to do this is a way to drive traffic to my blog. I sincerely wanted to help because I’ve lost friends to suicide too. Here’s the link: I hope it helps.

  • Hi Mark,

    I “stumbled” upon this blog post last night. Honestly, after reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it or even fall asleep until well after 4 AM. In fact, your honesty and vulnerability inspired me to write this piece today. Perhaps it will offer comfort to others in some way who are dealing with a similar situation.
    Take care of yourself,

  • Very true William. I’ve seen people clam up not engage, I’ve even been unfriended in FB for posting about things I really believe in, without any conversation. I’m finding G+ to be more open though, far more open to discussion and debate. Long may that continue.

  • Mark Schaefer

    Yes, i understood that. Thanks for clarifying.

  • Patricia Wilson

    Maybe we should find a day and time where we, as a social media community, lay down our tweets, silence our facebook posts and just simply agree to pick up the phone and call a friend in real life.

    Psychology Today has been writing some very interesting articles about the downside to social media, along the lines you speak of Jay. I see it with my teenager and her friends…everyone gets to see how great lives appear online when in essence, there is little truth to any of it.

    There simply is no reality in 140 characters compared to a long chat face to face with a friend.

  • Mark Schaefer

    I really love the points you bring out here. A valid blog post in its own right Will.  To people who previously didn;t watch HOW they did things, as well as WHAT they accomplished, transparency sucks.

  • Mark Schaefer

    You fit in here just fine. : )

  • Mark Schaefer

    Respect and peace back to you my friend. I can;t wait to meet you some day!

  • Mark Schaefer

    Very kind of you to say Al. Thanks for being supportive and taking the time to care enough to comment.

  • Mark Schaefer

    I wish we could go have a drink.  Is that politcally correct? It’s what comes to mind!  Thanks for sharing Jayme.

  • Mark Schaefer

    I’m at peace that Trey knew I cared and also that i did some things to help him, even financially on several occasions.  I also realize there were things at work here much bigger than me. But it is just part of who I am to try to be introspective and come out of this a better friend to those who are left, especially those who are suffering.  This is an amazing and powerful comment Karen. Thank you.

  • Mark Schaefer

    “there really is no room for authentic unhappiness in social media”

    This statement really stirred me. I don;t think it is completely true. I do know of examples in other businesses — like mommy bloggers and some artists — who throw everything out there, and the community responds too.  However, I do agree in the circles you and I run in there is little tolerance for weakness.  Why is that? Something to think about?  A guest post?

  • Mark Schaefer

    Thanks man. I have been thinking a lot about that.  Was there anybody really paying attention?

    I think Trey and I were alike in some ways. When I was going through a dark time, I got to a point where I just ran out of buddies. It went on for so long that I could not keep going to the well over and over again. Maybe it was more about me, but I think there is some truth in that too. At some point your friends have to live their own lives too.  That leaves your wife (which was not an option recently for Trey) and your online community, which is conditioned for happiness. I don;t know. Makes you wonder though.

  • Mark Schaefer

    You never have to be shy about sharing work you’re proud of. We’re all in it together Coreen. Thanks!

  • Mark Schaefer

    Wow. You are a GREAT writer. I hope everybody reads this and I also hope you’ll become part of the community here Jenny.  Thanks for sharing. 

  • Mark Schaefer

    I explore this topic frequently. One of the most impactful posts was this one:

    I’m thinking you might enjoy this.  Thanks very much Patricia for sharing this.

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you, my friend, for your candid and honesty. Like many, I knew Trey as an online friend. I’m still processing the strangely painful loss of someone I never got to meet in “real life.”

    But I do know one thing that’s true about real friendship — it forgives. I know you’ve already forgiven Trey, so please try to forgive yourself.

    I’m very grateful for our friendship.


  • Coreen

    Thanks, Mark. I went back & forth about writing it and threw away at least three drafts, but then it all came down to one thing–it’s an important topic and people need to talk about it more. I’ve been through this quite a few times, so I was hoping my words could help. I saw your tweet about sitting in the dark listening to the rain and I felt for you and for all of Trey’s friends. I wish you well during the coming days, weeks and months. I know it’s not easy, but I love that so many people have spoken here to give you kind words and good advice. Take care.

  • Susan Lilly

    I’m sorry to hear of this tragedy – sometimes it takes tragedy to awaken us to what’s really important in life, unfortunately.

    I have been writing online as Astros Fan in Exile ( , for many years.  But before blogging and tweeting, I wrote daily during the baseball season, printed it out, and stuck it in a 3 ring binder. So basically, I write because I love to. Eventually though, I found out that I was not alone, that there were other people who read my blog or visited my website. So I suggested that we try to meet up at Astros Spring Training down in Florida, which several of us did. Now I’m much more likely to hear from these folks in email or my personal (not persona) Facebook or on Twitter (during ballgames, when we hang out together online) than in blog comments. The personal dimension has enhanced my enjoyment of writing — and also my enjoyment of the baseball fan hobby behind it. This wouldn’t be very practical for running a business, but it’s made social media much more “social” for me. 

  • You can’t blame yourself Mark. It’s truly a tragic story, but one that you couldn’t control. There are plenty of what if’s in times of death. 

    I think this reminds us all that we must take the time to reflect on our own lives. Life is actually much better than we sometimes think it is. 

    I only hope that those seeking help, actually seek the help. 

  • It’s got me thinking too, as does all of this. Thinking about weakness, I think we tolerate it when it’s been overcome, when we’ve applied those lessons and turned things around to be ‘successful.’ But when you’re in the business of selling success, not sure you can be perceived as a failure. 

  • Mark, my head’s just swimming from all of this. I’ve read and shared a few posts on this already – and I missed the chance to ‘meet’ Trey Pennington online. This is tragic and I feel bad for his family, friends.

    Jennifer and Rosemary mentioned the ‘bad day’ and ‘get to know me’ posts and I have to be honest: some of my offline, non-social friends do consider that navel-gazing pity partying. Until of course, something hits them and they want to talk. In many ways, I’m glad I have this online world to really ‘talk’ as writing posts, sharing them with others, discussing things via comments – that can help, make a difference. 

    IDK It’s past midnight and I keep thinking of personas, the facades, the value of image (esp. for those of us in the ‘image’ business) and what it all means. Seriously, the opening half of this post has me just rocked. I’m tempted to unschedule my post for tomorrow, write something VERY different and yet, don’t want to let emotion and doubt cloud my professional judgement. Even there, I qualified: professional judgement, as we’re talking about something deeply personal to many here. 

    All I can say is I’m so glad we have met in person and my phone, email, Twitter are always open.

  • Thanks Mark 🙂

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  • Let me go out on a limb here and add “especially as a man.”  Think studies around success, business and ego back that up.

  • The feeling is mutual. Thank you!

  • Thanks for passing that along Susan. 

  • In the light of day I am seeing that. In the shock of the moment, my natural reaction was introspection. A lot of additional information has come out which just leads to more sadness and confusion over the tragedy.  Thanks for your very kind words. 

  • Thanks very much for this thought-provoking and introspective comment Davina. It will take me a long time to process it all. 

  • Anonymous

    This is one of the most beautiful posts that I have read on the life and tragic death of Trey Pennington.  I did not know Trey at all but found myself drawn to the story and the tragic ending of what “seemed” on the outside to be a good life.  I think in life, most of us are guilty of hearing what we want to hear…it’s safe and allows us to stay within our comfort zone.  We often don’t know what to do with shared information that scares us or is sad.  This post more than any of the tributes that I have read about Trey, moved me deeply.  You wrote with such raw emotion from a place that was filled with sadness, hurt and confusion….this post spoke on a visceral level about life, relationships, influence, social pressures and….reality.  I can’t offer anything profound or compelling…you have already done that so well.  I just wanted to let you know how wonderful this post was and that I am very sorry for your loss and for the social community’s loss of a man that was well loved. 

  • Thanks very much Claudia. It means a lot that you took the time to comment. 

  • As a woman there are times I feel more prone to be self-conscious, have self-image issues. Think maybe it’s different sides of same coin, just from alternative POV.

  • MARK,

    Greetings again from rural Australia.

    Thank you for your kind words.

    I come from an unusual family.  My sister and I were brought up to accept that death is inevitable.  For whatever reason.  And can happen at any age.  And there are no guarantees that life will be pleasant or easy.  Nor is everything worth fighting for.

    My mother and father decided their two daughters would grow up with the skills to confront everything and be able to make a decision about a course of action without relying on other people.

    From a young age, we were introduced to people who were very different to us because my mother and father said they are an important part of life and we should know how to act with grace and manners in their presence.

    My upbringing is the envy of many of my friends.  And true to most children, I didn’t appreciate the gift my parents gave me until after they were gone.  

    Best wishes and take care,


    Carol Jones
    Interface Pty Ltd
    Designers of The Fitz Like A Glove™ Ironing Board Cover

    Ironing Diva’s stories are at

  • Brilliant post from Ebert today that touches on many of these issues. Ebert’s been a model of bravery in his illness.

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  • Thanks for sharing that Will.

  • Excellent point. It could work both ways though.  I could see where somebody with self-image issues could boost themselves up through the social proof provided by blogging and the other social media platforms?

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  • Agreed, always thought we put our best feet forward out here, most of the time.

  • True. I think maybe I’m speaking at it from a solely business perspective. In business communications through social channels, people want other people (and brands, to some extent) to sound human, but not messy human. Unhappiness and weakness are generally cloaked in wit or positioned with an eventual triumph over the adversity. It creates this very fine line for people walk where they’re trying to maintain calculated transparency — appearing to be an open book, but only the book that everyone wants to read. Anyway, I obviously spend a lot of time thinking about this topic. It’s a doozy 🙂 I’d guest post for you in a heartbeat if you’d think people would be interested.

  • Anonymous

    A very nice post, Mark. And this reminds me to tell you that I’ve been thinking about you a lot this last week, and hoping that you landed the big client/project that you were working on a few weeks ago. And that we really need to make time to jump on the phone and catch up! Soon. I miss you.


  • Means a lot Shelly. Miss you too. Wish we lived closer!

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