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.

A broken heart for the social media community

My friend Trey Pennington, one of the most popular figures on the social web, committed suicide today.

I have been trying to figure out how to deal with this tragedy.  I’ve been pushing it down, pushing it down.  I want it to go away.  But I decided that not writing something would be cowardly and a disservice to a man who has helped me and so many people around the world.

Trey was one of my first mentors on the social web and I tell part of our story in my book The Tao Of Twitter … I also use his story of generous networking support as a best-practice case study in many of my college classes.

I had the pleasure of meeting him in real life several times over the years and we had some really great times together.  I began to get closer to him as he planned to be a keynote speaker at Social Slam, an event I curated and hosted earlier this year.  I didn’t know Trey as well many of his long-time friends, but he felt comfortable enough with our relationship that he visited me again this summer and confided in me some of the deep troubles that I can only assume led to this tragedy.  I promised him that I would be available to him, whenever he needed me. Based on the outpouring of emotion on his Facebook page, there were a ton of people who had made the same offer.  And you know, we meant it.  In the ensuing months, I called him and sent him emails, letting him know I was still there, I was there, I was there.

A few weeks after we met, Trey tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized. He seemed to come out of it OK and he approached his work with an air of confidence, at least through his public persona.  I tried to stay connected with him and when I heard back from him, he assured me that he was on his way back, although he still had some serious, and growing, problems to overcome.

To view his Facebook and Twitter updates, you would think he was fine. He was proud of his speaking career, appreciative of his friends, seemingly excited about an upcoming trip to Europe.

In recent months, I thought it was a little strange he posted photos of himself so often. In a car. In a bus. At a coffee shop. Hauntingly, in front of the bridge that was the site of his first suicide attempt. He said he was losing weight.  But these photos were sending another message.  In reality, he was telling us that he was literally fading away before our eyes.

Trey was simply one of the nicest and most generous people on the planet.  Even when the chemicals in his brain were relentlessly pushing him into overwhelming depression he was thinking of others. They say that suicide is a selfish decision. It doesn’t make sense.  It’s totally confusing. Trey? Selfish? No.

Some of his last Facebook posts and tweets didn’t make sense either. They were not messages from a man about to kill himself, were they?  An hour before he died, he “liked” Jay Baer’s Facebook update about going to a rock concert.  Why wasn’t he asking somebody for help???

Trey is the second person I have known to end his own life.  In both cases, they were literally the most unlikely people ever to do this. You just shake your head and think … No way. No freaking way.

So many questions that will never be answered. So much pain. I’m angry that the chemicals won. That they wouldn’t let him alone long enough to get one moment of clarity … to be able to see clearly enough to consider the implications for his six children. For his baby grandson. He was so proud of that baby.  For the hundreds of people he touched in his community and the thousands of people around who are in shock and are in mourning today. These are people who sincerely loved him and would have been on his doorstep in a heartbeat.  All he had to do was ask.

Oh Trey.  Why?  You are so loved.

From the Suicide Survivors Support Group:

I don’t know why.
I’ll never know why.
I don’t have to know why.

A road to the heart.

 

Photo and typography by Matthew

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