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?”
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.