We should treat people like friends more often.
This past weekend, I attended and spoke at my last conference of the year: CocoaLove. It's the fifth year in a row I've been to conferences on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend—the first four years found me at friend-of-iMore Guy English's fantastic Montreal conference Çingleton. I've essentially been going to these intimate, wonderful three-day experiences since I first started working in the tech sphere, and attending always feels like an anniversary of sorts: A reminder why I love this community as much as I do.
As with Çingleton, CocoaLove's theme focused more around the people who make these products and services than the code behind them: Jaimee Newberry spoke about the struggles of changing careers and just [bleep]ing doing something new instead of hedging; Allen Pike talked about the value of side projects; Jean MacDonald used her dissertation training to give a fictional account of Apple 100 years in the future and explain why conferences like CocoaLove matter so much; Anthony Colangelo gave a great lightning talk about the power of intelligence over raw knowledge; Janie Clayton put her heart on the stage while talking about the trials, tribulations, glory, and pain of having a brilliant mentor; and Daniel Steinberg taught us the value of teaching code from a human angle.
Each of these people come from different backgrounds in this community, with wildly different life experiences and paths that got them to this point. But the truth behind their stories is universal. I love the kinds of conferences where I can walk away from every talk and apply something from it to my own life. "Am I making myself happy doing this? Is this the right curve I should be following? Should I just shut up about wanting to write another book and ****ing JUST DO IT ALREADY?!" I applaud the bravery of the speakers for pulling out snippets of their lives and putting them on display in an effort to help other members of the audience.
And that's the real heart and soul of CocoaLove, and other small conferences like that: its audience. The conference's mantra is "treat everyone like a friend," and both the on-stage talks and interactions with attendees embodied this spirit. "Treat everyone like a friend" doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with their every point or telling them about your breakup, but being open to new conversations, and listening—truly listening—to people you might not have ever otherwise interacted with. This was compounded with, in my opinion, one of the best little conversation-starters of the conference: tiny cat pins.
On night one, bowls of these tiny pins sat on the hall tables, with three types of cartoon cats: a cat hiding behind a wall, that hiding cat saying "hi!", and big boisterous "HI!" cat that took up most of the frame. You used these cats to signal your ability to actively interact with fellow attendees—hiding cats may not be so great at starting conversation, but there were plenty of boisterous cats willing to come up to them and introduce themselves. It might sound silly, but I saw more people at CocoaLove interacting with folks beyond their three- or four-person circle than I've ever seen at conferences prior. And moreover, they sparked great conversations—about work, life, the conference talks, Philly, the Apple community...
This is the kind of community I'm proud to represent, and the kind of community I want to be a part of. And because of that, at CocoaLove I decided to speak about what happens when we're not all in the same room. The days when our community turns in on itself, and places like Twitter become a nasty, violent place—more focused on whining, complaining, and attacking others than building camaraderie and helping our fellow developers, writers, and designers. Sometimes I think we could learn a lot from applying "treat everyone like a friend" to those conversations.
This was the theme of the talk I gave at CocoaLove last weekend: Titled "Give me the answer in 140 characters or less" (a true demand from a Twitter follower about some problem they were having with their iPhone), I walked folks through my own tumultuous Twitter experiences. Loving Twitter. Hating Twitter. Complaining non-stop on Twitter. I almost quit the service, retreating instead to smaller, less upsetting places. (No one swears about their terrible day on Instagram.)
But I came back, because at my core, I love what Twitter represents: the potential of a vast online community of fascinating people with interesting stories and interactions. In some ways, it's the virtual version of a conference at CocoaLove. And in the end, I said, it's up to us, not Twitter or our friends: We're the ones who have to build and maintain our online community. We have to be the ones to put our foot down and say "My behavior isn't what I want to read from my friends, so why should I be doing it?"
By cutting down on the whining and being willing to reach out to those you don't know, to have conversations you might not otherwise have, we can expand our community for the better. But we also have to recognize that "treat everyone like a friend" doesn't mean "be a walking doormat." I wouldn't let my real-life friends curse me out for giving my opinion or insulting my business model, so why would I put up with nameless accounts in my online world doing the same? On Twitter, I'll engage with just about anyone to have meaningful discourse, even if I highly disagree with their opinion on the topic. You can learn a lot from listening to your adversaries—your opinions can shift, or you can understand the world in a less black-and-white way.
But personal insults have no place in debate. And I learned after almost seven years, I'm not going to engage with someone on Twitter who doesn't understand that concept—nor do I think anyone else should. Haters are going to hate, and trolls are going to troll—trying to converse with someone who only wants to argue is exhausting, and it makes you less likely to log on in the future. Social media's block and mute buttons are there for a reason: If you're following someone (or someone is @replying you) that makes you want to throw things and reply with your own malice, maybe it's time that person doesn't get access to your personal community anymore.
I've tried to follow those rules a lot in the past year, and it's made my social networks (and commenting spheres) a much better place. If you're tempted to give up on Twitter, I might recommend trying the same.
Because conferences like CocoaLove show us what an engaged, excited, and diverse community actually looks like in action. After an incredibly fun weekend, I can't help but want that all the time for my online adventures.
If you want to see my full CocoaLove talk on Twitter and being a better member of your sphere (along with some of Serenity's Early Embarrassing Tweets™), it should be posted on the cocoalove.org sometime soon. And check out CocoaLove, Release Notes, Yosemite, or any of the other awesome small conferences out there if you're interested in a real life taste of what's fabulous about the Apple community.