I learned something in the last few days. I learned that there are two kinds of people in the so-called “social media space.” To my left, say hello to the kind, caring, compassionate, I would say normal human beings – you know, those actually capable of empathy. To my right, say hello to the sociopaths, the hypocrites, the soulless assholes more concerned with themselves, with their own little worlds of personal gain and opinions, than of other people’s privacy, well-being and even grief.
I learned this through the painful process of reading through many of the blog posts written about Trey Pennington’s untimely passing, and even more of the comments left behind by other readers. What I found was a distinct split between the two groups, a line, as it were, drawn in the proverbial sand. What is most remarkable to me is the rare absence of a gray area here. I found no compassionate hypocrites in my reading, no caring sociopaths, no empathetic assholes. If you wrote anything about Trey Pennington in the last few days, either on your own blog or someone else’s, you belong to either one camp or the other, and your soul, your heart, your nature have been revealed in this circumstance.
While some of us felt compelled to honor the man and to share our grief with one another, others simply jumped on the opportunity to become part of a news story, to place themselves at the forefront of it, as “experts” and “gurus” once again.
I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but here is my painful story of depression.
I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but here are my insights on why he died.
I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but here are top 5 ways of deepening relationships online.
I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but here are my thoughts on the dangers of chasing the wrong thing.
If you didn’t know Trey Pennington, why are you writing a 2,000 word post about the lessons his death taught you in all of twenty minutes it took you to realize that was the trending topic of the day? Why are you using his death as a platform to push your dime-store insights about depression or the digital world or the meaning of the term “friendship?” Why couldn’t you just reach out to his family and friends and just say something kind instead? Was the opportunity to exploit his death really too hard to resist? Are you really that focused on your little race to the top of social media blog rankings?
Shame on you, those of you who went there, those of you who didn’t listen to that little voice inside your head telling you you were exploiting a man’s tragic end for personal gain. You know who you are and you know what you did. Shame on you.
I hope your blogs got a lot of hits. I hope a ton of people clicked on your affiliate links. I hope that Trey Pennington’s death generated at least a 15% boost in ad revenue for you this week. I hope it made you feel important to have something clever to say about it, to impart your wisdom of all things social media, to have your followers tell you how clever and wise you are, how smart. I hope you enjoyed stealing the spotlight, no matter how briefly, from a man whose suffering you never stopped to give two shits about before you saw a way to turn it to your advantage.
Here’s what you did, in a nutshell: You turned a man’s death into content.
And it doesn’t stop there. Some of you also took it upon yourselves to pass judgment on a man you didn’t know, to project onto him whatever preconceived notions you had about “guys like him” and the artificial nature of social media “friendships.” Not only did you put yourselves in the forefront of the story now as the professor of the moment, but also as a man’s judge and jury, even though you never knew the guy, even though you don’t know the first thing about him or his circumstances or the fact that “social media” had nothing to do with why Trey Pennington took his own life.
Here’s one of my favorites:
The lesson from Trey Pennington is simple – stop assuming that because someone created a web presence and says things that are attractive to you and seemingly can make your life better, that any of it is true.
It’s usually not. None of it.
I extend my condolences to the family and friends of Trey Pennington, and hope that at least one of you reading this will realize that your shock is only due to your inability to face reality.
Thank you Brian, for that wonderful lesson. God bless you for setting us all straight. I’m sure we all feel better now, and wiser too.
Since those of you in that lesson-giving category don’t want to make this about Trey, since you want to make this about you, let’s go there. Let’s make it about you. We won’t talk about how the fact that Trey was one of the rare individuals in the Social Media world who actually used the space to connect people in the real world, by the thousands. Let’s not dwell on the fact that Trey (whom I met online long before I met him in real life) introduced me to dozens of people whom I now count among my dearest friends – people I would have never met had it not been for him. Let’s not talk about the real work Trey did online and offline, his passion for bringing people together and making their lives better. Let’s not talk about how perhaps for a man as tortured as Trey Pennington, social media was, at least for a while, a life-saving balm, a mode of therapy, a refuge for his tortured heart, even one of the few things that kept him going and brought joy to his life. Let’s not talk about any of that. Let’s talk instead about your world view and your cynical clichés and your infinite wisdom about a guy you didn’t know. Let’s use his death to illustrate your little bullet points on life and social media, or better yet, attract traffic to your blog.
To understand what this looks like, I want you to imagine a funeral for a moment, a memorial service. Trey Pennington’s family is there, occupying the front rows grieving, crying, trying to hold it together. Behind and around them are huddled hundreds of friends and colleagues, all heartbroken, some utterly shattered by the sudden death of their friend. This is the image I want you to create in your mind. Now I want you to pan back. On the outskirts of this scene is an array of soap boxes, and on these soap boxes are people preaching to passers-by about the “lessons” of Trey Pennington’s death. They stand there, their backs to the grieving, their voices booming outward, gesticulating in their best social media guru T-shirts, using the tragedy to attract attention to themselves – all this within sight and earshot of the grieving.
“I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but why didn’t he just ask one of his 100,000 friends for help?”
“I won my struggle with depression. Too bad he couldn’t be as strong and wise as me!”
“The demands of being a social media rock star are difficult on me as well. I even had to turn off my phone yesterday!”
“Here’s what I heard about what really happened!”
Pan back a little more, and you will see “reporters” (and I use the term loosely) updating their barely-researched 300-word pieces on the the death of a man whose life they didn’t bother to look into with an archive photo or a screen shot of a tweet, or a change of nomenclature in the title, just to keep traffic rolling in.
Pan back further, and you will see a long procession of people come from all over the world to pay their respects. The vast majority of them are setting down flowers and candles and cards on a mound of such offerings meant to honor and remember the man. They shuffle by, looking beyond the soapbox preachers at the grieving, wishing they could somehow soothe their pain. But among them are people who just came out for the show, for the spectacle of it, for the opportunity to say their piece and feel important. And so here they are, leaving angry notes to the family or yelling at them outright things like:
“Take a lesson from Charles Dickens’ portrayal of Ebinizer Scrooge, a man who was successful in business and a failure in personal relationships.”
“Not all suicide is due to depression only but can be done as a protest and just plain selfishness and hate. Going to a church with a gun makes me wonder if he had something else in mind more than depression.”
“I don’t know the guy. I’m just saying that killing yourself doesn’t make you a saint.”
“This wasn’t a simple suicide, it was a public act of terror.”
“The depression/suicide paradigm is simply the wrong paradigm to apply to Trey Pennington’s situation. That paradigm may have been proper to Trey in previous instances, but Sunday’s outburst was an undiluted narcissistic fit of rage. He was angry and homicidal. he intended to make a congregation full of children watch him off himself, and probably at least one other person as well. Sympathy for Trey Pennington is misplaced.”
These are all real comments from real people.
I thank these wonderful human beings for their precious opinions, for their empathy, for their timing, for their respect. It is wonderful to know that we are at all times surrounded by people so self-absorbed that they will jump, no leap, at the opportunity to barge in on people’s grief with their precious “two cents.”
That scene I just made you visualize has been the state of the social media world these last few days: A genuine sense of loss and sorrow by a small community of friends and relatives almost eclipsed by a circus of opportunistic bloggers hijacking Trey Pennington’s death for traffic and attention, media outlets getting into cat-fights over who covered the story faster or the motives behind their coverage, commenters speculating about a man they didn’t know, an event they weren’t there to witness, and a tragedy they know nothing about.
Fortunately, some blog posts were respectful and eloquent and genuine. To those of you who wrote these heartfelt pieces, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You’re good people. Among you: Geoff Livingston, Jeffrey Jacobs, Kristi Colvin, J.P. De Clerck, Scott Gould, Rhonda Snowden Norsby, and many others. There’s a reason I count you among my friends.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far to find the ugly side of “social media.” You don’t have to go digging at its extreme slimy edges, where predatory $13,000 certification courses and webinar scams tend to live, to find it. It’s sitting in the cubicle next to you, standing next to you in church, waiting in line behind you at the grocery store, following you on Twitter, writing the blog posts that appear as if by magic in your RSS feed every morning. The ugly side of social media has nothing to do with the medium at all. Selfishness doesn’t need Twitter or blogs to thrive. Some people are just ugly inside. It’s as simple as that. They don’t care who they have to rip off to make a buck, who they need to smear to get themselves off the hook, who they have to hurt to get ahead. They simply don’t care. Someone dying is just another opportunity to get a little more exposure, that’s all.
With all the talk this week of façades and online personas and artificial identities, the reality of the social web is that it doesn’t hide people’s true nature behind avatars and “personal brands.” For those with their eyes open, it reveals people’s true nature, big as a billboard for all the world to see. In spite of every artifice in the web marketer’s playbook, we’re all as transparent as jellyfish. Hypocrisy is the dumbest of all our flaws, the one that, ironically, makes us least aware of how obvious our real intentions are to those watching with purpose.
So yes, there are two types of people in social media, in the world, and this week I have come face to face with both. To those standing on my left, thank you. Thank you for being human, for being kind, for being at the very least respectful during a difficult time. To those standing on my right, I have nothing else to say. You know what you did. I know who you are. I see you all. Shame on you.