It seems like everybody that went to XOXO wrote about it except for me. I’ve started and stopped this blog post several times over the past six weeks. Why is it so hard for me to spit something out about it?
Partly, I think, because it takes about that long for me to fully recover from it. I put a lot of myself into it, maybe too much, leaving me pretty creatively spent for a good chunk of time.
But the main reason, I think, is that it’s hard for me to capture in words alone. It’s the physical manifestation of so many things I care about, with so many people I love and admire interacting in so many different ways, that it’s hard to summarize cleanly. I keep flitting from memory to memory, trying to sum up six months of non-stop work culminating in a four-day bender.
Fortunately, we get great people to document a lot of it so I don’t have to. Like last year, we asked Maxine Denver to capture the feeling of XOXO on film, distilled into this two-minute video.
Like last year, we hired Brytcast to record and release every talk on YouTube. We asked them for a number of changes this year, and Mike and his team knocked it out of the park. The difference in quality between the two years is stark, and I’m thrilled with the results.
I know I’m totally biased, but the talks this year were kind of ridiculously great. Several rank among the best talks I’ve ever seen, and we want as many people to see them as possible. We know that not everybody can go to XOXO, so we put every talk online as soon as we can.
All 19 speakers from this year are on our YouTube channel, uploaded more or less in the order that they happened.
Each speaker brought something unique to the event, and I think every single one is worth watching. But three in particular moved me deeply, and I’ve watched each of these several times.
Cabel Sasser, cofounder of Portland’s own Panic, gave a very personal talk about coping with the stress that comes from staying independent. This had me, and most of the audience, in tears.
Jack Conte, one-half of the band Pomplamoose, talked about fear, performance anxiety, and his descent into robot-making madness, and how it inspired him to build Patreon. “I’m going to try to give you the story we don’t usually give people, because I think that’s right for this space.”
Pinboard’s Maciej Cegłowski strip-mined Walden for Tim Ferriss-style lifehacks in his funny, thoughtful talk about “living a life outside the margins of the ordinary.” Eat the donuts.
That’s a great start, but it’s really just scratching the surface.
Cards Against Humanity’s Max Temkin introduced a recurring theme of impostor syndrome, capped by a surprise performance by the Doubleclicks. Chris Anderson talked about how weaponizing Lego led to running a drone factory in Tijuana, before walking attendees outside and flying one over the urban goat field across the street (yes, really). Vi Hart spontaneously performed a fractal song on-stage with a human capo pulled from the audience, and Adrian Holovaty played the song that built his YouTube career. So good.
Back to back, in one block, we had Ill Doctrine’s Jay Smooth sharing stories of how inclusivity pays long-term dividends, Breadpig’s Christina Xu talking about building support structures for indies, and a whirlwind animated GIF-filled talk from Idea Channel’s Mike Rugnetta about how online communities form self-identity that connected furries to Nightvale. Yep.
We brought together all four founding editors of Boing Boing for the first time ever on a single stage. Molly Crabapple gave a starkly cautionary talk about how the network and platforms we rely on can oppress us, contrasted immediately afterwards with a talk by the creator of several of those platforms, Evan Williams, who gave his first solo talk in years, telling his own origin story and where he thinks the Internet is going. Marco Arment used XOXO as a therapy session, talked about his fears, and revealed his newest project. Ouya’s Julie Uhrman gave an emotional talk about making mistakes and moving on.
We had pioneers in their respective genres talking about how they stayed independent—Tim Schafer on videogames, Erika Moen on comics, Jonathan Coulton on music, Jack Cheng on self-publishing his first novel.
So, yeah. I thought the talks last year were great, but this was just another level. Something about the environment and the crowd caused speakers to open themselves up a bit more than usual, talk about their own personal struggles, make themselves vulnerable. It all just worked.
Several attendees artfully captured their own moments from the festival:
Instagram designer Maykel Loomans shot gorgeous portraits of XOXO attendees using a Hasselblad 503CX.
I don’t normally love sketchnotes, but Jason Alderman’s illustrations are some of the best I’ve seen, capturing every speaker from XOXO with concise notes and clean lines.
Eddie Codel shot incredible footage around the festival and high above Portland with a GoPro Hero3 camera hanging from his DJI Phantom quadcopter drone.
One of my favorite projects to come out of XOXO was led by the Kickstarter team, who ran a lab in the garage of the YU with workshops and talks over the three days. They launched a project to design, print, bind, and distribute a book in three days, compiled entirely from attendee contributions. Each backer designed a single page in the book, and received a finished copy at the closing party. The result was a wonderful memento of the festival, including a letter from Andy McMillan’s mom that I read on-stage during the closing. You can read the PDF here.
There were so many great moments, and reading the reactions, it seems like everybody had their own favorites. I’d love to hear yours, and always, what we can do better.
For an event of our size, it feels like XOXO generates a disproportionate amount of coverage. We only had 700 attendees, including all speakers and volunteers, but it feels like everyone has something to add to the event.
Of course, there’s a ton of real-time activity on Twitter and Instagram during the festival. (Seen.co did a great job of capturing most of it.) But the best part, for me, was reading everyone long-form reactions on podcasts and blog posts that came afterwards, as people digested what they experienced.
Here are some of my favorites.
Frank Chimero, “The Inferno of Independence”
“Once the work is done, it’s not yours anymore. You draw the comic, write the book, make the app, and then it makes its way out into the world. And it starts to talk back to you. It’s the weirdest thing—if the thing you make goes anywhere, it’s because other people carried it. Your thing becomes our thing. This is deeply unsettling, but it is also a beautiful situation that binds us to one another. So much for independence. It’s a false dream. What we really have is co-dependence, and what we desire when we speak of independence is equity and autonomy. Those are our goals.”
Glenn Fleishman, “In a Time of Hugs and Kisses”
“XOXO is a way to take our heart out of our body for a few days, share it, and know it will be cared for before we return it to its cage.”
David Wertheimer, “Xoxo, XOXO”
“Few events provide so many diverse activities in one location, from morning past midnight. And fewer still create an environment of friendship and openness like XOXO. Everything was participatory,from sitting in a random seat for the talks to pulling up a chair for a game or a meal. Strangers—many of them introverts—readily introduced themselves to one another.Old relationships were rekindled, new friendships were made. Impromptu invitations to meals and drinks abounded, both in person and on Twitter. XOXO’s openness made it hard to feel left out, and harder still to not have fun.”
Nick Sweeney, “The Making of Makers”
“It celebrated the creativity and dedication of its speakers, and served as a glorious advertisement for Portland’s idiosyncratic urban vision. It connected and reconnected me with people who have been touchstones throughout my (long) time messing around with the web, educated me with every impromptu conversation, and mainlined hope and wonder and energy and engagement. A glow emanated across the web from everyone who attended, and the after-party discussions focused around two questions: ‘what’s next?’ and ‘how can I contribute to it?’ — not because there’s a pot of gold to be found, but because those contributions will build better things for everyone.”
Gordon Luk, “Thoughts about XOXO Fest”
XOXO Fest is perhaps a slow and fragile antidote to the damage that subordinating creativity to commercialism has wreaked on the people who make stuff. The worst damage isn’t the stuff you can see – the giant corporate-sponsored party tents and club rentals, the talks full of startup product pitches, the constant Q&A sessions full of self-promotional grandstanding. It’s the prejudices built up against introducing ourselves to strangers, as we’ve gotten into a default mode that we can’t trust anyone that we meet at these gatherings to actually be kindred spirits.
Jon Bell, “XOXO is Reproducible”
“XOXO without creative people boldly talking to each other about their passion would be Just Another Industry Conference. The fact that it wasn’t can be traced largely to Andy’s pep talk, and to each and everyone, myself included, that found the nerve to talk to their fellow attendees.”
Dan Hon, “Hugs and Kisses”
“Outside the context of the conference, it feels a bit trite or, well, Californian-west-coast-Group-Hug-let’s-all-cry-it-out, but what started to emerge was the recognition that it’s not easy to stand up for what you believe in. And that it’s OK to not be strong enough, certainly not all the time. Which is why, I think, what felt powerful about XOXO was a whole bunch of people, whether they were speakers or attendees who could look at each other and say: I’ve been through something like that.”
Many more: Jacob Kaplan-Moss, Simon Carless, Ben Werdmuller, Jon Hrach, Chase Reeves, Ariel Meadow-Stallings, Alli Dryer, Simon Batistoni, Winston Hearn, Kristin Wille, David Stewart, Patrick Berry, Whit Scott, David McCreath, Rob Pegoraro, Jon Lax, Rachael Schafer, John Biehler, Cooper McHatton, David Wheeler, Dan Bruno, Lance Arthur, Craig Winslow, Liza Daly.
Thanks to all of you, we loved reading every one of these. Let me know if there were any I missed in the comments.
I’m not a fan of cynicism, snark, or knee-jerk contrarianism, and I think XOXO is proving to be a safe haven away from that. But thoughtful criticism is vitally important and always, always welcome, so I was happy to see several in-depth pieces that talked at length about ways XOXO could be better.
Leah Reich, “The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness”
“The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness is a place in between blindly shoring each other up and tearing each other down. This is the place where you give yourself the chance to be weirdly human and you try, with all your might, to give that chance to someone else. You will fail, on both an individual level and in big groups, and so will everyone else, but you will try again.”
Anil Dash, “XOXO and Reckoning with Nice”
“XOXO matters, for being a place that can bring such great minds together. Now it needs to open up, to a more truly diverse (not just race and class and gender, but self-criticism) audience, in order to achieve the truly profound and great social goals that it could enable. It’s the highest praise I can offer that I think XOXO may be able to do so.”
Greg Knauss, “Talking About Failure”
“We cannot be whole unless we acknowledge, discuss and internalize the sometimes shattering consequences of taking a leap and plummeting straight into the ground. We’ve got the conversation about success down pretty well — probably too well, in fact, to where the topic almost automatically evokes the standard storyline of passion, struggle, victory. But until we can talk just as freely about failure, the story of indie culture remains a Disneyfied fairy tale — based on reality, but without the occasionally ugly ending.”
No matter how well you prepare, things will go wrong. On Saturday, the wind and rain flares up, whipping tarps off the windows, spilling raindrops onto attendees, and knocking a window out inches from an attendee below. An attendee loses balance playing JS Joust and shatters a window. A homeless dude is creeping out attendees while they eat lunch at the carts.
Those are easy problems. Climb up on the roof and tear the tarps down. Clean up the glass and replace the windows. Buy the guy lunch, walk him down the street.
And then there are hard problems.
On Friday afternoon, at a party downtown, one of our volunteers was sexually harassed by a drunken attendee. He made deeply offensive comments to her, in front of others, and she was shaken.
Andy and I had talked about this possibility, and what we might do if it ever happened. I’m glad we did.
As soon as we heard about it, we asked our volunteer for full details in a private place. We immediately contacted the attendee, confronted him privately, and immediately took his badge when he confirmed the details. We told our volunteer what happened, and thanked her for bringing it to us.
The next morning, we talked on-stage about what happened and reiterated again how important it was to us that XOXO remains a safe and comfortable environment.
To us, this felt as natural as fixing a broken window. There was a clear, obvious problem with only one reasonable solution. Was it fun? No, it sucked. But it’s amazing how many events seem to get this very simple thing wrong, and it gave us a good opportunity to show how we’re different.
The volunteer that was harassed, Kelly Kend, wrote about her experience in detail. I’m more proud of this post-XOXO writeup than any other.
“I have heard many of attendees of XOXO talk about how thankful they were to be there, and I am too. I never thought I would be the asshole who walks away from being sexually harassed thinking it was a net positive, but experiencing that resolution was an amazing gift for my creativity. The Andys didn’t just send me the message that it’s ok for me to be at their event, they sent the message that it’s ok for me to be on the internet. As I keep talking and making, I’m sure to find people who are going to want to tear me down, but now I also have that moment of glorious confusion when I realized that without knowing anything about me, these two guys had my back. It was perhaps a dark serendipity that brought me to that place, but a profound one nonetheless. I can’t really explain it, but am extremely grateful for it. Hugs and kisses.”
Before you ask—we don’t know if there will be another XOXO. Andy is finishing the fifth and final Build in Belfast as I write this, and when things have settled, we’ll talk.
Like we said at the closing, it all hinges on whether we can keep things interesting, and if it’s actually making an impact. If it led you to make new things, build new friendships, and do something you love independently, awesome. Tell us about it and maybe we’ll do it again.
Thanks to the speakers and musicians and game designers and filmmakers who made it interesting, the patrons who helped make it happen, and to every one of you who showed up, wrote, wondered, played, laughed, cried, kept us guessing, and made us proud.
Photo by @mayli