Socializing for the Freelancer
As a freelancer, especially working from home as I do, you might find yourself a little detached from the world. If not for my wife and kids, it might be entirely possible to go days without ever leaving the house and experiencing any in-person social interaction. However, even with family forcing me out into sunlight on a daily basis, I still find myself separated from a larger community.
Here are a few ways that I — and you — can keep in touch with the community.
Your wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, or life partner can be a great way to get some socialization. Sure, it's only one person but it's somebody you see every day (or close to). Having somebody you can share your thoughts with on projects, finances, and decisions can be comforting. It's a great feeling to know that you're not going at it alone. My wife has been a great support system for me and has pushed me when I've felt like getting out of the game.
While I love my wife dearly, she's no geek. Sure, she follows a bunch of forums, loves IM, and is as addicted to checking email as I am — but when I say, "sudo get me a sandwich" the joke is sadly lost. Essays on LOLcats and South Park videos on internet memes are equally lost on her. Pointing out these things to her has, in fact, only sparked questions about whether I actually get any work done during the day.
Sometimes you just need to get out of the house and many coffee shops cater to the independent worker with free WiFi and supplying quick access to some much-needed caffiene.
I've always felt a little uncomfortable in the local coffee establishment. I feel like I'm loitering, taking up space that could be used by paying customers. And ultimately, connecting with other people doesn't happen unless you are brave enough to strike up a conversation with the person next to you — something I'm not always comfortable with.
A phenomenon that seems to be gaining traction these days is the concept of sharing a single office space amongst a collection of freelancers or small companies. Many of the co-working spaces I've seen popping up these days have been marketed to designers and developers, with plenty of open space, offering up the potential to chat with all the other folks hanging out.
Some co-working spaces have tried to mimic the coffee shop feel or have even been created by those who frequent coffee shops as a working environment. From what I've heard, it's a great way to stay connected and still have that "office" feel that one might miss by working from home.
When I first went freelance, I rented a desk in a design firm and the social interaction was nice but I constantly found myself separated from my infrastructure (all my dev servers are at home) and the drive to the office was simply too far. I wasted too much time getting in and back every day. That's time that could be spent watching the latest YouTube videos, donchyaknow.
I've been reconsidering the idea of using an official co-working space but for the time being, they're still too far from my humble abode.
Although not as frequent, Barcamps have been a great way to stay connected with others in my community — both those who are developers and those who are located in my region.
Alas, being local, it's easy to brush it off due to the demands of family life. I've only gone to half the events that have been hosted here but the ones I've been able to attend have been fun and it's always great to say Hi to colleagues.
I've also found the mix of attendees to be less than ideal. Here in Ottawa, many of the attendees come from a more varied mix of backgrounds (work-wise) that tend to fall more outside my personal interests. For example, it's not uncommon to see a session on intellectual property or government-specific issues. These just aren't topics that I'm as interested in right now.
I get stoked about conferences because they've been the best way for me to chat face-to-face with those whose work most closely resembles the work I do. These are web developers and designers who are running into similar technical issues, similar client issues, and even similar life issues like freelance development.
SXSW is probably the ultimate conference. In fact, it's not even a conference...it's a festival. And it's the one I look forward to attending each year, no matter how big it gets. The people there are just awesome (attendees and residents alike).
Finally, Twitter. Many people deride it, considering it useless or a waste of time but not so for me. It's been my primary form of interaction during the day. It has let me connect with my Tribe in a meaningful way. It's been a place to vent, a place to learn, and a place to share. It contains all the social elements that I need from day to day. Sure, it can be distracting and I need to shut it off to focus on being productive but it's been a great resource for me.
When I was at SXSW this year, I actually said that I felt like I didn't meet as many new people this year as in previous years. However, I think Twitter is to blame for that. Many of the people that I met in person for the first time had been people I've chatted with and follow on Twitter. I felt like I already knew these people, even just a little bit. It wasn't as random as it might've been. And I think I like that.
Of course, everybody has their own way of staying connected. Be sure to share how you stay connected in the comments. I'd be interested to learn of new ways I can continue to be involved, to learn, and to connect with others.