The talks at this year’s XOXO were really, really good. It’s hard for me to stop myself from writing about every one as they’re released.
But there were two in particular that I wanted to mention, from two of my favorite people in the world.
The first is from Jenn Schiffer—the coder/artist behind Make 8-Bit Art, Vart Institute, and other internet weirdness. At XOXO, I asked her to talk about her hilarious tech satire on Medium and the reaction to it.
It’s very funny, but also an insightful case study of the humorlessness and self-seriousness of the tech industry, and how many men react when trolled by a woman online.
The second is from cartoonist Lucy Bellwood, in a brave and vulnerable discussion of money and the costs of perceived success online. This talk left many in the audience in tears, earning her a standing ovation.
If you enjoy these talks, pass them on! We don’t make money from any of these videos, and because the festival is perpetually sold out, they have little marketing value for us. They take a lot of time and money for us to produce, edit, and caption, but we think they’re all worth preserving.
Inspired by National Novel Writing Month, Darius Kazemi started National Novel Generation Month in 2013, with the goal of writing code each November to generate a novel of at least 50,000 words. The entries are often surreal and playful, and occasionally profound. (See this year’s entries so far, 2015, 2014, and 2013.)
In 2014, Liza’s entry was Seraphs, a procedurally-generated codex inspired by the Voynich Manuscript, using a randomized corpus from Voynich, a Voynich-like typeface, the Flickr API, and the Internet Archive’s collection of 18th century illustrations.
Last year, she created SAGA III, a reimagining of a 1961 MIT computer program that generated scripts for TV westerns, which were then filmed by CBS.
This year, she’s submitted two entries so far.
Her first was Trapped in the Q, an infinitely long story styled after the scene in every James Bond movie where Q shows off a series of new inventions and weapons, complete with bad procedural wordplay. (Eventually, Bond dies of thirst while an oblivious Q keeps introducing new gadgets.)
Very clever, but Liza’s second entry absolutely blew me away.
Using Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as its source, the Blackout code generated The Days Left Foreboding and Water, a 45 page book of blackout poetry. The results are pretty amazing.
You can download the full PDF here (145 MB). Or, for the committed, the full NaNoGenMo entry—a 9.3GB PDF that’s nearly 10,000 pages long. As Liza says, “You almost certainly do not want to download it.”
One side note: Austin Kleon first started making newspaper blackout poems in 2005, originally inspired by redacted FBI files, but once he started putting them online, he started getting emails and comments arguing that his work was completely unoriginal.
In his TEDx talk from 2012, Austin traced the 250-year-old history of people finding poetry in newspapers. In the 1760s, Caleb Whitefoord started reading across newspaper columns instead of downwards, joining fragment sentences from two different stories into something new. He published the results:
The comet is now on it’s return to the sun—pursuant to a decree of the high court of chancery.
At the meeting at Newcastle, Sir B. F. D. was in the chair—and appeared like a dull, faint nebulous star.
Yesterday there were violent disputes in the common-council—For some time past the volcano has been extremely turbulent.
Which, bringing it full circle, reminds me of Darius Kazemi’s @TwoHeadlines Twitter bot, but made with 1760s newspapers instead of Google News.
There’s still a week left in November. It may not be enough time to write a novel, but plenty of time to generate one. Good luck!
A few weeks ago, I was rummaging through the Internet Archive’s computer magazine collection and stumbled on these cover illustrations from the Midnite Software Gazette, a Commodore user newsletter that ran from 1980 to 1987.
Now, I think about them every time I’m up too late, like tonight, working on my computer well into the night.
We’re almost done releasing the talk videos from the first day of XOXO 2016—including Mystery Show’s Starlee Kine, rapper/producer Sammus, Yelp whistleblower Talia Jane, and the brilliant Neil Cicierega. They’re all great. You should watch them.
Roderick talks about a trap I see creative people fall into often, which he calls “the myth of no effort”—the damaging lie that creative work should feel easy if you were any good, while simultaneously feeling that anything that feels easy and natural to you is, by nature, worthless.
When making anything feels challenging, you feel inadequate. But when it feels easy, you feel like a fraud and the work is illegitimate.
This talk was a little polarizing. While I heard many attendees say this was one of their favorite talks, I saw some people who really didn’t like it. As far as I can tell, they thought Roderick was saying that only hard things are worth doing.
But I think it’s pretty clear he’s trying to debunk that idea. Some things will feel easy for you and some will take incredible effort, but you shouldn’t let that reflect on you or the quality, value, or significance of what you’ve made.
Making Roderick on the Line is, as he said, the thing he’s most proud of that he’s ever done. But it felt illegitimate because it was so easy to do. Writing music is incredibly hard for him, but it’s also meaningful and important to him, and something he’s returning to—fighting the feeling that just because it takes effort doesn’t mean you’re not meant to do it.
This year’s Interactive Fiction Competition is over, and for the first time in its 22-year history, the winner can be played without a keyboard.
IFComp is run by and for the interactive fiction community, a group of hobbyist writers and programmers making experimental art with prose and code. It’s free to enter, and anyone can judge it.
It’s an oasis of joy and experimentation and creativity right now, for me and others.
For most of its history, IFComp was dominated by parser-based interactive fiction: games navigated with keyboard commands like “NORTH,” “READ BOOK,” “TAKE BUCKET,” “UNLOCK DOOR WITH BRASS KEY” and so on.
But the last few years have seen a dramatic shift towards other experimental forms that don’t require a keyboard: choice-based and hypertext games, played with a mouse, mostly by clicking on links in a browser.
Tools like Twine, Texture, and Inklewriter made it possible for many, many more people to make interactive fiction without learning to code. These stories were also more accessible for players, played entirely with a mouse and without learning the conventions and syntax of parser-based games.
This year, more than two-thirds of the 58 entries are non-parser games played without a keyboard, most made with Twine. (This led to some predictable hand-wringing from some corners of the interactive fiction community, but it seems to have been embraced by most.)
On Thursday, the IFComp 2016 winners were announced.
For the first time ever, the winner isn’t a parser-based game.
The third-place winner, Cactus Blue Motel, is a Twine game by Astrid Dalmady, telling the story of three friends on a road trip through the American Southwest, stopping off at a roadside motel with a unique past.
I’ve loved interactive fiction for years—I even made a community for people to write their own. To me, it represents a beautiful fusion of art and technology, and it’s achievable by a single person. Seeing people push the genre forward with new tools and platforms is a bright spot in an otherwise-dreary year.
In February 1949, the U.S. Army published Personal Conduct for the Soldier, a pamphlet of etiquette and good behavior for its soldiers, a “code of personal good conduct” for daily life.
Nearly every page includes a cartoon illustration, covering subjects like loyalty, respect, self-control, and respect for women and minorities.
Someone please give a copy to the President-Elect.
“In the past, some wars have been started by ill-mannered tyrants who believe their countries and their people superior to all other countries and all other people. They didn’t believe in consideration for others. It was much too late when they learned that lack of respect for others doesn’t pay.”
“Americans, however, who live among people from all parts of the world, have no excuse for being ignorant, intolerant, or prejudiced against any class of people. Each has a right to choose his friends and is entitled to civil respect from all others.”
“When you lose your temper, you do and say things you regret—that you may regret till the end of your days.”
“Beware of the man who speaks disrespectfully of women… Ladies do not like the whistling and catcalls and the personal remarks that ‘drug-store cowboys’ hurl in their direction.”
The pamphlet is part of the Internet Archive’s Manual Library, a collection of nearly 75,000 scanned technical and instructional manuals—a treasure trove of archival materials.
Thanks to Jason Scott for his effort in collecting these manuals, and pointing me to this particular one on Twitter.
After nearly a decade, invite-only music tracker What.cd closed today and deleted all its data after a raid by French authorities—a sad end to what was likely the largest, most active private torrent tracker ever.
Founded the day Oink’s Pink Palace closed in 2007, What.cd managed to survive for nearly a decade, including several crippling DDOS attacks.
It may have flaunted copyright law, but collectively, What.cd’s dedicated group of fans worked together to create the most comprehensive, organized, and metadata-rich collection of music online.
All site and user data has been destroyed. So long, and thanks for all the fish. <3 2/2
— What.CD (@whatcd) November 17, 2016
What.cd, like most private trackers, operated on a ratio system—you could only download if you were actively uploading, donating, or otherwise making the site better.
While most of its members were invited by someone in the community, What.cd provided the unusual option of an open interview process. Applicants were expected to study preparation materials on site rules and encoding guidelines, conduct a speed test, and interview with a volunteer moderator in IRC. (Don’t expect to ace the interview, either.)
Their focus on quality and comprehensiveness was relentless. They encouraged original encodings at high-quality, with automated tools to check logs, verifying encoding, and culling out low-quality rips.
The ultimate goal was perfection. Every release should have a perfect lossless rip and the “perfect 3” MP3s—V0, V2, and 320 MP3 encodings—along with all accompanying metadata, consistent file names, folders, tags, and album art. What.cd provided tools for finding releases that could use improvement, giving everyone an easy chance to improve their ratio.
In addition to organizing music into discographies and collages, users could make requests for specific releases, spending their ratio to drive up the demand for rare releases. As a result, out-of-print and unreleased material often found its way to What.cd, occasionally putting it in the headlines.
The result was likely the most comprehensive and well-organized music archive ever—over a million unique releases—assembled entirely by passionate music fans operating outside of copyright law.
what.cd was the largest and most meticulous library of recorded music ever assembled, as far as I can tell. Sad it had to end this way.
— Parker Higgins (@xor) November 17, 2016
It will be missed.
Last month, we decided to wait to release the XOXO talk videos until after the election—when the stress and anxiety of this political train wreck would finally be over.
It’s hard not to feel a bit hopeless right now. Many of the things I’ve focused on in the last few years now feel trivial, or badly broken, in the wake of last week’s election.
Last February, we opened the XOXO Outpost, a shared workspace for independent artists and creators working online. Today, 85 people work in the space across all disciplines and backgrounds. It’s pretty great.
Every Friday afternoon, everyone gathers together for Show & Tell, a chance to show off what they’re all working on. Hearing all the incredible things people are making is the highlight of my week—sneak peeks into work-in-progress videos, comics, videogames, journalism, photography, experimental art and code.
Last week’s Show & Tell was different. It wasn’t a productive week, and there wasn’t much to show. Instead, we gathered in a circle and just talked and cried and comforted each other. Everyone told stories of an uncertain future.
One of our members designs critically-acclaimed interactive art, and lives with HIV. He’s afraid of losing his health insurance, which allows him to afford the medication that keeps him alive.
Another’s a young black man who writes about videogames. During the election, he faced racist comments on his commute. As protests spread across Portland last week, he remembered getting hit with tear gas as he marched at Ferguson. He hurried home when he heard the sounds of riot police moving across downtown Portland. He didn’t feel safe.
Our newest member is a Muslim podcaster and writer, now facing a future where he has to register in a federal database.
Several of our members haven’t come in since the election. Afraid, demoralized, struggling with depression or apathy. Other members have visited them at home, keeping them company.
Half of our members are women. 20% of our members are people of color. Several members are queer and/or trans. All of them now face the grim prospects of living in a country actively working to roll back their personal rights and freedoms.
I’ve spent the last few years evangelizing the importance of owning your own work, ways of funding independent art and code, and promoting the work of independent artists and creators.
But it’s hard to survive, independently or not, if you lose your health insurance because of a pre-existing condition, or are facing daily abuse and harassment from people in the real world, or facing both cultural and legislative discrimination based on your gender, race, or religion. (Or if your city’s destroyed from climate change inaction.)
It’s a dark time for indie artists online, especially the historically-marginalized and disenfranchised people in our community.
Like so many others, I’m legitimately afraid for the future. I worry about our community, my friends, and my family. I worry about my son.
The night after the election, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up late, exploring dark corners of the web I’d avoided for months, seeing what they had to say about it all.
I retreated to the XOXO Slack, our private chat room for XOXO attendees, frustrated and sad.
At 3am, I wrote, “Yeah, good thing we decided to wait until the week after the election to release the XOXO talk videos… Now that all the stress and anxiety are over.”
Lucy Bellwood, an independent cartoonist and speaker at this year’s festival, replied, “The work you and Andy McMillan did bringing people together for the conference is at the heart of what can change things. It is an exceptional time to be reminded of kindness and community and empathy.”
I hope Lucy’s right. I’m not sure if these videos will help anyone right now. There are so many bigger problems to tackle and it feels like it will be a long time before things can start to heal. But I don’t think it will hurt.
So, with that in mind, we’re releasing the XOXO talks starting today—one per weekday, in speaker order, for the next three weeks.
This year, Gaby Dunn opened up the conference portion of XOXO with a powerful talk about how media companies like BuzzFeed exploit marginalized creators, and the importance of owning your own work.
I’ve been a fan of Just Between Us, her comedy web series with co-creator Allison Raskin, since it launched in 2014. In just over two years, they’ve passed 700,000 subscribers on YouTube.
In August, she launched her new podcast, Bad With Money, covering financial anxiety with personal stories and interviews. Highly recommended.
I hope you like it.
XOXO is hard for me to write about. Too much of myself is wrapped up in it — it’s easily the most exhausting, challenging, and meaningful thing I’ve worked on.
In September, we held XOXO for the fifth year. Like past years, we made a short video to remember XOXO 2016 by. If you’ve never been, it does a pretty great job of capturing what it’s all about. Thanks to Searle Video for their hard work on it, and the incredibly talented Jim Guthrie for the soundtrack. I hope you like it.
Every year, we’ve said we don’t know if we’ll do XOXO again. This isn’t some bullshit marketing tactic: we take it one year at a time, and each might be the last. But this year, we knew we needed a break to work on other projects and rethink where we want it to go.
So XOXO won’t happen in 2017, and we haven’t decided beyond that. It might return in 2018. Or it might not. And that’s okay! It makes it feel a bit more special that way, and I’m so proud of what we’ve done in five years and the incredible community that’s coalesced around it.
We’ll start releasing the talk videos right after the election—if Trump loses. Stay tuned.
“Redesigning your blog” in 2016 is an anachronism. Like tweaking your Gopher presence or upgrading your ham radio, even talking about blogging feels like a throwback — an exercise in nostalgia for an independent web whose time has passed.
The death of blogging was foretold almost every year since its inception. Greg Knauss was ahead of the curve, arguing blogging would be a short-lived fad three months after Blogger launched in 1999.
But I think Jason Kottke nailed it back in 2013.
Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice. Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.
If you have any doubt that blogs are dead, here’s a fun thought experiment: name a notable independent, single-author blog that launched in the last two or three years. I can’t think of one. Can you?
There are undoubtedly new blogs starting, and many more happily spinning along in various niches, but they’re not really part of the cultural conversation anymore.
This is blogging in 2016.
— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) September 20, 2016
I’m not a big fan of nostalgia. There’s stuff I love about the past, but I generally think things are more interesting now than ever.
More people than ever before are able to express themselves on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Medium, YouTube, Pinterest, and countless other social platforms. All of that is great.
But there a few reasons why I’m sad about the decline of independent blogging, and why I think they’re still worth fighting for.
Ultimately, it comes down to two things: ownership and control.
Last week, Twitter announced they’re shutting down Vine. Twitter, itself, may be acquired and changed in some terrible way. It’s not hard to imagine a post-Verizon Yahoo selling off Tumblr. Medium keeps pivoting, trying to find a successful revenue model. There’s no guarantee any of these platforms will be around in their current state in a year, let alone ten years from now.
Here, I control my words. Nobody can shut this site down, run annoying ads on it, or sell it to a phone company. Nobody can tell me what I can or can’t say, and I have complete control over the way it’s displayed. Nobody except me can change the URL structure, breaking 14 years of links to content on the web.
But the ecosystem for independent publications is fundamentally broken. Getting discovered, building a readership, and profiting from your work as an independent writer are all much, much harder than they used to be.
Needless to say, I have thoughts about all of these things.
It feels dire, but there are bright lights out there—writers trying new things and finding an audience on their own terms—and new experiments worth trying. More about that soon.
So I redesigned my blog. I’ve written before about how blogging changed my life, and I still feel like there’s interesting potential in this medium.
It’s given me exposure, a place to share my projects and crazy experimentation with technology. It’s created new opportunities for me, directly or indirectly responsible for every major project I’ve gotten involved in. It’s a place to play and experiment with ideas, some of which led to big breakthroughs and passions. And it connected me to people who cared about the things I did, many of whom became lifelong friends.
After 14 years of blogging, I switched from MovableType to WordPress. The design is finally responsive, though pretty minimalist for now with lots of rough edges. It took some effort, but I preserved the links to everything I’ve ever written—472 posts and 15,891 links.
The RSS feeds should redirect appropriately, though inevitably marking everything as new because I couldn’t migrate GUIDs. (Just mark everything as read if you’re using a feedreader. Sorry about that.) Hopefully, I’m not interrupting the various network of Twitter bots, feedreaders, and IFTTT rules that rely on it.
Some stuff is broken, and there’s a long laundry list of stuff I want to fix and add.
It’s under construction, a work in progress — like me and the rest of the web. Thanks for sticking around.