A little over a week ago, I posted a picture to my LinkedIn profile, which has since received over 60,000 views. And while there are mathematical calculations to officially determine when a post has gone viral, the fact that it has been viewed (and commented on) more widely than anything I have ever previously published is very humbling, especially considering the nature of the photo (i.e., a fallen U.S. service member) is far outside of what I typically write about (i.e., the biopharmaceutical industry). As chief editor for Life Science Leader, I've learned a few things about social media, but I never expected a post made through tears while still sitting in my car at the Buffalo airport to have such a profound impact on so many. Thousand have taken the time to comment, and in return, I have tried to respectfully reply to nearly all. So what have I learned from this experience. Plenty.
#1 Having A Post Go Viral Has Its Responsibilities
First, it is somewhat surreal to know that you started something that stirred the emotions in so many. And with that (I believe) comes responsibility. This is why I tried to “Like” or respectfully “Reply” to so many who took the time to share their experiences. I wanted everyone to know that I bore witness to their words. There were many people who commented that my post brought them to tears. To this I often replied with an apology or “me too,” for when I posted the picture that was certainly not my intent. Rather, the posting of the picture (of what I would later learn was the Dignified Transfer of Staff SGT Thomas P. Seiler) to LinkedIn, Facebook (FB), and Twitter was almost as if I had to offload the feelings somewhere for fear of them being lost. I really can’t explain it. I had just witnessed something so moving, that posting while still being able to hear the rumble of motorcycle engines and the shrill of police sirens escorting Seiler off in the distance almost felt therapeutic. I had a long drive ahead of me, and pausing to rid myself of these emotions seemed like a good idea at the time. That might be one reason why the image went viral, as it was uncensored, unscripted, unplanned, and genuine.
#2 LinkedIn Members Have Strong Patriotic Opinions
Second, I learned that many members of LinkedIn (which we can all probably agree is a place where most people conduct business) have strong patriotic opinions. While I didn’t make the post as a means of making a patriotic statement, my choice of words “soldier” “fallen hero” and the flag draped casket in the picture, made it so, and thus, how it was received. In addition, I learned that many members on LinkedIn have a direct connection with someone in the military serving, having served, or they themselves served. Perhaps this is why so many felt compelled to share their own personal stories of bearing witness to a military service member returning home. I can only recall one negative comment where someone stated that people on one flight ignored the request by the pilot to please remain in their seats while family members and the fallen soldier disembarked. Most others shared how, when observing from the airline, that there was “not a dry on the plane.” Others shared how they gave up their first-class seat for a military escort or members of the family. Still, I recall one person commenting how the most difficult experience she ever had was to stand on the tarmac while her husband’s body was offloaded from a plane in a flag covered casket. Another father shared his experience of having to receive his son the same way. I — was — stunned. How do I reply? The same way I did with so many others. I told them that I couldn’t possibly understand how difficult that must have been, how grateful I was for their family member’s service, and how sorry I was for their loss. Such powerful stories, freely shared, caused my eyes to well up nearly every time I checked my phone, which was notifying me so often I opted to turn the alert off. But as I felt responsible to reply to so many, I found I was checking my phone much more often than normal. This is because I never wanted to let the number of responses get to the point where I felt I might not be able to read the comment completely and respond appropriately. See lesson learned #1.
#3 LinkedIn Was In Need Of Such A Post
Third, I learned that though LinkedIn might be considered a place of business, there seemed to be a need for this type of post at this particular time. For why else did the picture and words only go viral on this particular platform? Almost the exact same words and the exact same image were posted to FB and Twitter. And while I admit that I have fewer connections on FB, I have five times the number of followers on Twitter than connections on LinkedIn. And though one person commented, “I see a post meant for FB found itself on LinkedIn again,” (which I interpreted negatively), I would disagree. For the fact that thousands commented on the power of the image, or wrote RIP, or shared about their service, LinkedIn must have been just the ticket. As to why I posted it on LinkedIn? Well I often post stuff about my travel experiences on LinkedIn, as the majority of my travel is for business. So when I speak with a biopharmaceutical executive at a conference, if a picture of the encounter captures the moment, it is always posted on LinkedIn, and rarely on FB. But this experience was a bit of my personal and business world colliding, and so it seemed appropriate to post to all three of the social media platforms that I tend to use.
#4 Posting On Social Media Has Its Consequences
Fourth, while the Internet can be a wonderful place (as evidenced by the overwhelmingly positive response received by this post), I was reminded that even among professionals, there can be a dark side, and those that aren’t happy unless they are trying to make others miserable. For though the majority of comments were positive and in respect of the soldier and their family, a few saw it as an opportunity to spout their political views, pitch their products, or try to bring others down with comments of “Great, I am going to be delayed thanks to a warmonger.” While these people were in the minority, the one thing they should know (a lesson I have learned the hard way), is that there are do’s and don’ts of social media for FB and LinkedIn, and actions have consequences. While many used it as an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with NFL QB Colin Kaepernick’s choice of protest (kneeling during the National Anthem), others, some noting their veteran status, said they fought for Kaepernick’s right to express himself in just such a fashion. And though they might admit not necessarily being fan of this form, they would not deny him of the right to do so in this fashion. That being said, customers of the NFL who disagree with this form of protest can also express their views by not tuning into games and not purchasing merchandise. My point is this: those members of LinkedIn, who have businesses, clients, and others who might see what you wrote, don’t be surprised if there are some who choose to express their disagreement with the particular point of view that you expressed in responding to my post, with their checkbooks, and deciding not doing business with or hire you. I did see one person note that they decided to retract their previous statement. However, I opted not delete any statements, for to me the post is a living document that continues to grow.
#5 Despite Best Intentions, You Won’t Please All Of The People All Of The Time
Not long after the picture went up, I wrote a recap of the event I had attended the day before. This is something I usually do, and basically explains why I had come to be at the airport in the first place. I also posted the blog on LinkedIn as an update to my profile, and included the link to the photo, and noted in the title of the post, “How The Biopharmaceutical Industry Provides A Sparkle Of Hope – The Story Behind The Photo.” Perhaps I was naïve, but my thinking was for those curious to know more about me, what I do, and why I had come to be at the airport in the first place, here it is. It took over 50,000 views of the original post (not the subsequent blog) before one person, very respectfully, stated, “I question as to why you posted such a somber, semi-private and emotional moment.” This veteran went on to state, “I hope you aren’t using the sacrifices of my fellow veterans to garner “likes” and emotional leverage…” While I can assure you this was not my intent, I must appreciate this point of view. The lesson here is that no matter how sincere your intentions, you should not be surprised to be confronted by those skeptical of your motives. With that, I decided to remove the photo and additional note in the title of this published update, which has been viewed 248 times.
#6 You Don’t Have To Have Great Equipment To Capture A “Great Picture”
Remember, this picture was taken on an iPhone 6S Plus, not a professional camera. And while I did have a photography class many years ago back in undergrad, I have forgotten more about the art form than I care to know. That is why I found one comment on my post so particularly interesting, and worth sharing in its entirety. “Being a photographer, I love your picture! I love the mess, the stuff in the foreground, half a plane and a folded up ramp all shot through a plate glass window. Then very small, to the right of the photograph you see the flag-draped casket which SPEAKS VOLUMES and becomes the biggest thing in the picture, eliminating everything else except those who stand at attention, saluting this fallen hero. It can bring you to your knees when you consider the magnitude of what you’re seeing.” In a subsequent post she recommends I take the time to Google the credits of the movie, Rain Man, as Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond, was taking pictures throughout the movie and they are all shown at the end. Like my picture, she points out that those images are, by all accounts, wrong, out of focus, blurry, terrible framing, etc., and that is why she loves them. She continues about my photo, “But when you see it, and by “it,” I mean that ROARING TIGER, IN YOUR FACE, THIS IS WHAT HAS BEEN DONE FOR US BY THIS YOUNG MAN OR WOMAN… A SON, A DAUGHTER, A FATHER, A MOTHER, A FRIEND…FOR THIS COUNTY, OUR FREEDOM, A SACRIFICE NEITHER YOU NOR I ARE WORTHY OF…it makes ya stop and think. And that’s what great pictures do.”
While I am sure what she describes is partly why the picture went viral (as this is the opinion of photography expert), I would like to believe that we (i.e., U.S. citizens working in the business world) were in need of a little pick-me-up. Because though Thomas Seiler’s death (or any service member) is a tragedy, there was a lot of positive in the realization that he mattered, and that total strangers stopped to bear witness and mourn his loss.
This post on LinkedIn is somewhat bittersweet, because it has by far had the broadest reach of anything I have ever written, yet involved someone that I never knew who was willing to lay down his life to protect us and our way of life. And for that, I must conclude with what I have replied to so many — I am thankful for your service.