Today there is much chatter on Twitter about Brittany Tarvin’s A Letter to the Developer Community. In a nutshell: Brittany attended MacTech last week, and was offended by the unprofessional vibe in a few instances, but in particular, with regard to sexual jokes that comprised the content of one. It reads to me less like she was less personally offended than surprised and disappointed by the behavior of her peers. My takeaway after reading her piece is that she feels juvenile humor simply does not have a place at a professional conference.
Judging by the massive response on Twitter in support of her opinion, I think that most people tend to agree. However, I think that the vagueness of her description of the incident leaves much to the imagination, and is causing people to leap to condemnation of the talk, the conference, and the industry. I am not saying the condemnation is unwarranted, but my feelings about this particular event are complicated, and I think yours might be too, if you knew more of the details.
In 2003, I came up with “The Top Ten Cocoa Words That Sound Dirty But Aren’t.” By finding APIs via this arbitrary way, we talk a random stroll through Cocoa, which can stimulate curiosity and lead to new discoveries and new questions. What would you guess NSInsertionPosition is for? (I incorrectly guessed text editing.) It can also be worthwhile reviewing familiar ground. We all autorelease — some of us every day — but it may still be possible to learn a thing or two about it. I will talk about the proper use of each word in the list.
To give you a more specific idea of the offensiveness of the API method names that Andy discussed, take a look at his blog post listing the API methods under discussion. [Update: MacTech has just posted slides from the talk.]
The genius of this talk is it takes a running gag in the Cocoa community, that occasional API names here and there were unfortunately named, and runs with that gag as a scaffolding for exploring the specific APIs in more detail. As for the sexual jokes, I think they basically write themselves in the individual minds of the audience. As anybody who has sat through an all-too-dry conference talk about the specific technical blah, blah, blah of any subject can attest, it is generally a good idea to inject some humor into a talk’s structure.
So was the humor in this case too much, or too vulgar? I’m sure that Brittany was not the only person in the room who was offended by the talk. On the other hand, as the one “comic relief” talk in a 3 day schedule that contained more than its fair share of professionalism, I think it’s probably fair to say that some members of the audience were relieved to have a chance to laugh about something.
Injecting humor into any talk is dangerous. Especially with a diverse crowd, you are liable to offend somebody. Jokes of a sexual nature are even more dangerous. Even if the joke is not sexist, per se, there is a strong possibility that members of the audience will take offense because of sexual taboos in society. I also imagine the discussion of sex in a strongly gender-imbalanced setting will make members of the minority gender more uncomfortable than the rest of the room.
But neglecting to inject humor is also dangerous. The Mac and iOS communities have a strong tradition of humor in our conferences. Many of us feel annoyed and cheated by a conference if there isn’t a bit of liveliness. So, it goes both ways. It’s important to process this incident carefully to understand how it went wrong. Was the problem that there was a session with a noticeably lower level of “seriousness” than the other sessions? Was it that the session’s jokes were of a sexual nature? Or was it that the sexual nature of the talk’s jokes were not made clear enough to the audience before it took place?
I think what is happening on the web now is many people are seizing onto the angle of Brittany’s complaint that most resonates with their own frustrations about the conduct of our community. This is a valuable reaction and a good opening for further exploration. But what isn’t useful is the large number of people who are condemning the conference and the speaker without significant information about the context of what happened. I hope that I have at least helped to clarify that to some extent. If you still feel that blanket condemnation is the appropriate response, then I’m happier with your opinion now that you’ve read mine.