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Death, Social Media, and Remembrance

  |  November 13, 2007   |  Comments

Meaningful insights about social media come from a painful loss.

Sometimes the most meaningful insights come from the most unexpected or painful circumstances. Over the past several weeks, I've connected with the power of CGM (define) and social media at an entirely new level.

Let me start at the beginning.

My father, William Blackshaw, just passed away, and I'm slowly recovering from the shock of this sudden loss. Not a minute goes by when I'm not thinking about him.

At 83, my father had complicated health issues, especially since he had colon surgery five months earlier. After about two weeks of suddenly prescribed hospice care, he died of heart failure. My mother, all seven of his children, and many friends, relatives, and grandchildren spent hours by his side in his final weeks.

My father was my guiding light. Even in the work I pursue today, he served as a wise counselor on so many fronts. He taught me about valuing relationships, nurturing trust and credibility, and using the power of big ideas to win the day with clients and in work settings. He balanced my exuberance over the new with timeless truths. He was a classic ad man of the "Mad Men" era. He started his career at BBDO in the late '50s and later worked at one of the West Coast's most successful independent ad shops, Eisaman, Johns, and Laws, something I captured recently in a series of video interviews with him.

The Notion of Conversation

In recent months, I've been a bit tough on marketers' use of the term "conversation" because I fear our tendency to use, abuse, degrade, and deflate terminology. If anyone embodied the word "conversation" in its truest and authentic sense, it was my father -- and I suppose his discipline in its application codified my righteousness about befouling its essence.

In her eulogy, my sister Annie noted that my father was the all-time great conversationalist. "He could talk to either senator or janitor. He always found a way to connect with someone." Moreover, his maxim was that "to be interesting, you first have to be interested." That means, of course, that you always have to listen first.

But I have to credit today's rapidly expanding notion of "conversation." I witnessed something truly remarkable take place in the wake of his death. In the social media currents, his life, contributions, and brand essence, if you will, were dignified, validated, amplified, and shared among many.

Social Media Connects

Within a few hours of my fathers death, I quickly put together a relatively modest Web site using Typepad's basic blog publishing tools. I posted a small tribute, uploaded photos, and embedded links to videos I had already posted of my dad talking about advertising, World War II, and even cooking. I also created (with input from my siblings) several lists relevant to his life, including places he traveled to and the music and art he loved, such as his Glenn Gould's "Goldberg Variations."

The site also allowed us to string together other content my father had contributed here and there across the Web, including a blog dedicated to war memories, poetry on my brother-in-law's literary blog, even a rap/hip-hop-influenced poem he recorded for his grandchildren (I had no idea!).

Most important, I enabled comments for those wanting to leave testimonials and dedicated the far-right column to the unending stream of comments. What pleasantly surprised me -- and touched everyone in our family -- were the comments' quantity and depth. These comments quickly became the site's heart and soul and a sounding board for multiple references in offline conversation, even during the memorial service. Family members who couldn't be present offered tributes. So too did old friends, ad agency colleagues, and WW II buddies. Some who barely knew him offered thoughts, and a number of my friends (who knew how much he influenced my life) contributed as well.

As I looked at this site, which everyone erroneously assumed took a massive amount of work to pull together, I saw my father's true "brand" emerge. The collective comments were like an "obitupedia" of love and reflection. My family has decided to make the site permanent and keep adding to it. Dad has passed away, but I'm determined to ensure he keeps contributing to our lives through this still-living network of friends.

A Face of Compassion on Facebook

A parallel experience occurred on Facebook. On Facebook, we essentially give permission to others to vicariously share some of our experiences. Over the last months or so, I've very subtly kept my friends in the loop on my father's condition via my profile, and when he died I noted my loss in my Twitter-like update.

I was quite overwhelmed by the quantity and depth of condolence messages I received. Moreover, some of the most meaningful comments came from folks I would term "less familiar" friends. It was almost as though the friends who knew me least were connecting with me on the most significant "I've been there" level.

Also interesting is that it's so easy to meter sincerity. Upon receiving a heartfelt condolence, I found myself clicking the person's profile, often stumbling onto their own photos of their family members. In this context you just don't need to do much guessing about the message's authenticity.

Final Thoughts

Nothing can heal the pain of a loss this great -- and I'm not sure if I've started truly mourning my father yet -- but I have to admit the Facebook messages and blog comments helped me get through the first phase of grief.

I don't want to overhype social networks' role around tragic events, but I do see new promise in what I witnessed over the past few weeks. We're connecting with one another in new and powerful ways. And provided we keep the conversation meaningful, authentic, and credible, we all stand to benefit.

To those of you who wrapped my father's legacy in meaningful, thoughtful, and respectful conversation, you have my deepest gratitude and appreciation.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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