Mistaking "Social" for "Personal"

With the sudden passing of Trey Pennington this weekend, much of the social mediasphere took to Twitter. They grieved the passing of a prominent figure in their industry. They told stories of his kindness and passion for his work. They stressed the importance of dealing with depression. And - perhaps not surprisingly - they exclaimed, over and over, their surprise.

Mr. Pennington fought depression. And his life came to a tragic end as a result. In the online world, people did not see it coming. They were caught off guard by his suicide. I received a direct message from a professional acquaintance who worked alongside Mr. Pennington, informing me of the news, and his own pain clearly showed in less than 140 characters.

I did not know Trey Pennington, but I followed him. I saw his avatar pop up frequently on my dashboard and I came to recognize his account as one I should always go back and read. I clicked on the links he posted, read his content and retweeted his posts. He was a fixture in my stream. As soon as I read of his passing, I pictured his avatar. I knew exactly who he was. Like others out there, I felt like the social mediasphere had lost someone special. A great contributor. I did not feel like tweeting.

My reaction struck me. So did the reactions of other people who, like me, were not acquaintances of Mr. Pennington's but who expressed their shock. That his tweets seemed so upbeat, his attitude positive, etc. And I realized that we all sounded as though we were family or close friends. But not all of us had that pleasure. Most of us commenting online were mere followers. Not friends. Not real friends.

And that's where social and personal are clearly separate. Following someone, consuming their content, commenting on their opinions, even sharing stories; all of that is social. The social can be comforting, can be supportive and can be thrilling to engage. Knowing the person behind the avatar. Understanding the pain or joy behind the persona; that is personal. Your "friends" count might be high but how many of them would you call during a dark moment, when you need support? Social is not personal by default.

I'm not discounting the importance of support groups (online and off). I'm not saying going offline will cure depression. And I know we can't bring back the bright lights that are lost to suicide. But I do believe that it's situations like these that tragically serve as a reminder that we need to do more than "engage". We need to talk and hug and cry and yell and laugh alongside other people. More than "connect", we need to depend on and be depended on by our family and friends. More than "Klout", we need love and friendship. More than the weak bonds most often formed through technology, we need real relationships.

Mr. Pennington's final tweet brings the point home:

@TreyPennington: Sure am thankful for online friends who are real friends offline, too. Love you.

The more time we spend being social, the less time we have to spend being personal, paying attention to those nearest and dear to us. No one wants to feel like they missed a sign, like they could have done more. Those of us followng Mr. Pennington in the social mediasphere may not have known him well enough to see his pain and help. But in our own personal relationships, we have a good chance of helping those close to us (or reaching out to get help if we need it).

So, the question is: are you spending more of your time on your social or personal relationships?

World Suicide Prevention Day

World Suicide Prevention Day is this coming Saturday - Sept. 10. To find out more, visit the official WSPD website.

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