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Do We Really KNOW Our Social Media Friends?

trey-pennington-photoAs soon as the devastating news of Trey Pennington’s suicide hit the Twitter stream Sunday morning, people began to comment on the authenticity of social media friendships. Do we really know the person behind the persona? Are our online relationships as meaningful — and even as life saving — as offline relationships?

Online friends of Trey Pennington have lamented not “digging deeper,” not pressing to find out how Trey really was coping with his divorce proceedings and his attempted suicide. Indeed, many of his social media contacts were not even aware that Trey was struggling so profoundly.

Jay Baer, an online contact of Trey’s who interacted with him on Twitter and twice in person, wrote in his post, “Social Media, Pretend Friends, and the Lie of False Intimacy:”

I considered Trey Pennington a friend. I suspect many of his 100,000+ Twitter followers considered him a friend. Clearly, most of us were not his friends, as his death came as a complete surprise despite the fact that he had a prior suicide attempt earlier this summer, and had been discussing his problems with confidants.

But if you’d asked me yesterday morning, I would have said Trey was a friend. Social media forces upon us a feeling of intimacy and closeness that doesn’t actually exist.

While I agree that there is definitely an “online” version of ourselves that we put out there on the world wide web, and it is in most cases, a less intimate, vulnerable version than our “offline” selves, it is very similar to the happy face we put on when we pick up our kids at school or the business persona we slip into as we push open the office door.

I myself often joke with my online friends when we are spending time together offline, “Okay — I am off-brand right now!”

Does that mean I am being inauthentic, that my online representation of myself is a lie? Does that mean that people with whom I regularly communicate online and whom I would call “friend” are not really my friends?

NO, I do not think so! It is a normal filtering process based on trust, safety and familiarity.

After every suicide, whether the victim was a social media leader or a typical teenager, friends, family, and acquaintances wrestle with the same questions, “Why didn’t we know it was that bad? Why didn’t I do more to reach out? Could I have saved him?”

The reality online and offline is that there are parts of our lives we only allow a precious few to see. Having an inner circle of confidants is normal and appropriate. We don’t share the gory details of a crumbling marriage or crippling depression with all of our friends and colleagues. (However, because of personal blogging, many of us are able to share our challenges publicly.)

How often do people walk into their office and post a notice on their bulletin board that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts?

Yes, in social media there is a sense that we know people more intimately than perhaps we do. Some people reveal more of their private lives online and some maintain a professional distance and keep themselves, “on brand,” as Trey Pennington did.

But, as Trey’s close online friends have revealed in their posts, Trey had reached out to his social media friends. He had shared his struggles, he had exposed his vulnerabilities with an inner circle of friends.

It is clear that Trey had many REAL friendships from his social media world. He had many people, online and offline, trying to save him up until his death, even the police officers who pleaded with him to put down the gun.

This wasn’t a case of a friendless man whose online world had left him without any “real” relationships. This man was VERY loved and supported.

But mental illness and personal tragedies can often be too overwhelming. Sometimes no one can save a person.

Rather than looking at this tragedy and saying that social media failed Trey, Trey actually showed how meaningful and real social media friendships can be. His last tweet was that very message.

trey-pennington-tweet

Can we learn from Trey’s story to be more authentic and more transparent in our lives?

Of course — online and offline, we can create stronger, healthier relationships by investing time and truth into our friendships. Whether the origin of that friendship is online or offline is irrelevant.

And when it comes to our online personas, should we drop the veil a bit, and show more of the “real stuff” going on behind the scenes?

Yes and no.

For some people and in some businesses, that transparency can be an incredible blessing for everyone involved.

Susan and I decided a few years ago to open up about our depression and anxiety, and two years ago, I finally wrote about the health struggles my children were enduring. Not only was it an incredible relief for Susan and me to share our experiences, but we know that our experiences have resonated with many readers.

For others, they may wish to keep their personal struggles offline and out of their business brand. And that may be appropriate.

We all need to have close, trusted friends. We all must have people we reach out to in the hard times.

For me, many of those friends are people I have met through social media. Although we only see each other in person a few times a year, we share our struggles and prayers over skype, phone calls and emails.

So, please don’t tell me that social media friends are not REAL friends or that social media has created a world of superficial relationships. Sure, our circles of acquaintances have grown exponentially. Many of us have hundreds of more friends because of our lives online.

But, because of my social media world, I also have many close, trusted friends — an inner circle who know my secrets and understand me better than most of my offline friends and family.

In fact, I fear my dark days much less because I know I have this support system.

What about you?

Do you feel like social media has created false intimacy and that you are lonely despite the numbers? Have you been able to form deep friendships from the contacts you have made online?

If you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or having suicidal thoughts PLEASE call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK.

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