Trey Pennington, Social Media And Real Life
Monday September 05th 2011, 8:06 pm
Filed under: stephanie fierman

This past weekend, a leader in the marketing and social media community, Trey Pennington, committed suicide. He went to a church parking lot in Greenville, SC, refused to heed police and shot himself.

Trey left behind a wife, six children and a grandchild.

Since then, Twitter and Facebook have both lit up like Christmas trees on crack.

What I find remarkable is how surprised some are because Trey was so active, positive and popular on the social networking sites. But he had over 111,000 followers on Twitter and an unbelievable number of Facebook friends!  He was on the Web almost right up to the end, sending someone a tweet saying that he’d see the person in the UK in just a few days!  He was all over the place, encouraging and applauding others for their work and ideas!

This has caused many to write that he “seemed fine,” and still others to beat their chests and howl, “If only he’d reached out to me…” (though it turns out that he was actively leaning on a few of his friends in the last couple weeks).

My goodness: when did people begin to think that all their online “friends” are actually real friends? That connecting to someone online and reading whatever they choose to show you means you actually know something about them – that you know what they are thinking and feeling?

Or perhaps that, somehow, the Web allows us to skip any communication altogether but still somehow be connected?  One woman wrote “I didn’t know  you, but I care about you…” on Facebook.

All this strikes me as not only arrogant, but also just plain weird.  And deluded.

I love social media – I am very active online and it’s helped me both personally and professionally. It’s brought some wonderful people into my life whom I otherwise would not have met.  But I have no illusions about what the macro phenomenon is and isn’t.  When I see people congratulate themselves for, say, reaching the 5,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 follower mark on Twitter, I wonder if they think that actually means something in the real world: how great they are, or how wonderful it is that they know so many people and so many know them.

The only thing it means on its face is that 5 or 10 or 20,000 folks want somehow to be aligned with you, or are interested in whatever you are willing to say publicly on a social networking site.  And if you follow one another, you have entered into a pact to read each other’s pre-packaged messages and spread them to others who might want to hear your pre-packaged messages, too.  Your deepest feelings, emotions, problems, worries? Seriously? Not applicable for 99% of the players involved.

Trey Pennington himself wrote on Facebook that “one of the worst things about social media is we can be surrounded by so many and still feel completely alone.”

Now, do stay on social media – I highly recommend it.  But if you care about someone and want him to know you care, don’t write dumb tweets like [quote]  “if you’re sad and think you’re alone, please reach out to someone, and know you’re not alone.”

Newsflash: such a tweet absolves you of nothing. The depressed person is alone if he feels alone, and may not run to the phone to tell someone about it.

Instead, it’s up to you to be a friend in the real world – through thick and thin.  Write him (a real card or letter). Call him. Make arrangements to get together.  Build actual friendships. Don’t spend all your time listening to yourself talk (or tweet).

In Trey’s case, some of his friends apparently understood this and were trying to help. I am so glad. They knew there is no substitute for human connection.  Never excuse or pacify yourself into thinking there is.

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