Reflecting on the loss of a social media thought leader

By: Hessie Jones

September 13, 2011

By Hessie Jones

I heard some really sad news the other day. Gini Dietrich had posted on Twitter a RIP message about Trey Pennington. Horrified, I immediately went to her post: A Gigantic Hole in the Online World. It spoke about a tragic loss of a man well known and followed by hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. What was more horrific were the details surrounding his death, and the pain he had been suffering for quite some time. I read many of the tributes and came to reflect on how someone– who gave so much to the social media space; who was one of the true instigators and thought leaders that devoted their time and energy in helping shape what we all know as social; whose pervasive presence was undeniable–was able to hide his own demons from the very public that had followed his every word.

Rewind 2006. I had already bought into the idea of Social Media. Trey Pennington was one of the few people I had started following. His blog: sold me the minute I read this quote “I set as a goal the maximum capacity that people have. I settle for no less. I make myself a relentless architect of the possibilities of human beings” ~Benjamin Zander, orchestra conducter.”  From here I set out to launch myself into this crazy world and soak up everything I needed to learn. I saw Trey as a strong resource in my learning…. and the fact that he responded to me directly on a few occasions made me appreciate him all the more. He paved the way for people like me to learn to think differently and see the possibilities of this medium. He validated the path that this journey would take me while I struggled with the reticence and skepticism from friends and family. For that, I am truly grateful.

I didn’t know Trey Pennington personally, not the way others have like Olivier Blanchard or Kris Colvin.  To me, he seemed larger than life and at the same time, accessible. He had this endless passion for the subject matter and could easily articulate it to those of us who were doe-eyed to this new medium. Did I trust him? Yes. Did I know him? No.  “Endless passion”…. yes that was my perception… as someone watching and reading from the online space.  But as Gini responded to me, “It’s so hard; this online world. I know I can be completely grouchy, but you’d never know it by my tweets or Facebook status or any other online interaction. It’s easy to fake it in 140 character bites.”

That is so true. How difficult it was for us to see the real Trey through this anonymous medium….let me rephrase… how easy it was to mask the reality. At the end of the day, he was just a man… who happened to do amazing things and leave an amazing mark on the world. He was a man who had personal demons just like the rest of us. And he had every right not to share it with the world. Online is not a playground to test the receptivity of your content, especially when that content is extremely personal.

One lesson I’ve learned from the many connections I’ve made online:  Until I’ve met you in person, it will be very difficult to establish a true relationship with you. Until I can see the sincerity in your eyes, hear it in your voice and feel it in a handshake, I will reserve true judgement of our relationship. Online relationships are just that. The connections are limited.

I wrote a blog post in 2009: Social Media Case Study: Even those with Integrity Can be Banned. This was my experience as the “bad guy” in a social media relationship. Here the situation was “misconstrued and misinterpreted” and any attempts on my part to rectify the situation were rendered futile.

What I had taken away from that situation and how fittingly it is applied to what has happened to Trey Pennington is extracted from my post: “… a keyboard that unites individuals across the social space cannot and will not ever really be substituted for face-to-face contact. Relationships can begin over the net but ultimately every one is a faceless, nameless entity. Who you are online is ultimately determined by what you type onto your keyboard. We do not have the benefit of looking someone in the eye, or conversing with them face-to-face.” Ultimately no one can ever deny that a true relationship begins face to face. Social will never replace the human connection that we all need and trust.

Trey Pennington had many followers, many fans and was put on a pedestal as strong thought leader. He left an amazing legacy that will benefit future strategists and marketers for many years to come. But he was humbled by his close friends and family. In the end, they were all that mattered. And that is something that can never be replaced.


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