Obligatory XOXO retrospective
This morning, as I was having an amazing dream, I woke up to the cold reality of my small dog jumping on my bladder because it’s 6am and she needs to go outside for a walk.
This pretty much sums up what it’s like to go from being at XOXO — where everyone you talk to is doing something interesting, folks are wearing interesting t-shirts or clothing, and fear of missing out is real — back to the daily grind of post-capitalism. It’s a bit of a shock and I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one.
I backed the original XOXO Kickstarter, but not at the level where I could get a ticket — at the time I felt it was weird to spend a lot on a Kickstarter.(Looking at my backing list now, I wish I still kept that feeling. Never look at your backing list.) Since then, I’ve been to every conference in at least a Festival Pass capacity, which is a tremendous privilege that I must acknowledge and be grateful for. Certainly it helps that I am local to Portland, a cishet white dude with a job in tech. Having gone to college before the inflation of student debts has also helped quite a bit as well. In any case, the fact I got to go at all is one thing, that I have made it to as many as I have feel a bit like I’ve used up my luck with random number generators for a while.
In order to talk about this XOXO, first I have to talk about the previous ones.
The first conference I attended (the second XOXO, in 2013) felt very much about process. There was a commerce section in the first floor, where Cards Against Humanity put up a table, asking people to pay what they wanted on the honor system. By the end of the weekend, they had hundreds of dollars in cash sitting on the table. Etsy had a booth there, a beer-making robot was announced on Kickstarter, people played video games and the socialization was pretty fun.
There were talks about supporting yourself, building infrastructure to empower other artists (Breadpig and Patreon), and the process of creation (Erica Moen, Molly Crabapple, Johnathan Coulton).
So many white cis-het dudes there that year. Though I think this was the first year anybody brought a child as I remember Andy McMillan wondering how best to help them.
Yet even there, there was more emotion than any previous conference I’d ever been to. Watching Cabel Sasser give an honest and open talk about his life was eye-opening. I’ve always been a huge fan of Panic, even going back to the Audion days, so it made quite an impression. The afterparty was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and I still see the people I met at that first conference. At the time, I was working for a very large, soulless company, and the idea of continuing to do that was a little odd. I know I wasn’t the only person with that thought, some of the people I’d meet over the years would quit their job after XOXO and never look back.
Oh, and there were goats next door. Everyone loved the goats. Like ridiculous numbers of tweets about the goats.
2014: Goats and other animals
XOXO was growing, so they moved out of the Yale Union and into the Redd, a temporary use of the structure as it transitioned from being abandoned to its new career as an office/manufacturing center. This was the first year I had a Festival pass, but they’d also expanded the offerings for that group. Story was new that year, with the mind-blowing premiere of Bee & Puppycat episodes, a blistering live performance from John Roderick, and a truly magnificent Arcade offering. (I must have pestered poor Brendon Chung for a half hour about Quadrilateral Cowboy. And the very first time I saw Killer Queen, it was the game I wanted to play but never knew existed.)
The talks were mostly overshadowed by people who were mad that women existed, and so this year felt darker, more urgent. This wasn’t so much about infrastructure as we attempted to fix the car that was the internet while other folks were shoving spikes into the wheels. The conference felt more diverse, as the Andys really started to work on representation. This was the first year with beefy security in response to the idiots on the internet, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
The Redd still has the XOXO mural on the walls, though I suppose it will be removed any day now.
2015: What was the wizard’s name again?
I wrote a bit about this last year, though that was more of a checklist for what to do than a real examination of what it was like. What is oddly missing from that checklist is any mention of the XOXO Slack, which started before the conference.
For me, the Slack instance marks the turning point from XOXO being primarily a conference about makers and into a social movement / mutual support system. The seeds had already been laid after the reactions to the shenanigans of the previous year, and now we really had the tools to come together. Many of the Slack channels did their own programming on the first day, giving structure to meeting people.
Pre-conference events popped up in Portland, which was also new to me — I don’t think there were meetups in previous years but I distinctly remember meeting many people weeks before the conference even started.
XOXO moved again this year, this time settling on Revolution Hall, a much improved venue from previous years. The crowd was much more representative of the world’s population. Gender mix was getting better, the Andys started subsidized passes for some people and everyone won.
There were more things to do for those of us with Festival passes than in the previous year. Story grew even stronger, with a reunion of Suck.com founders, the first Fray on XOXO’s stage, a live recording of Hello From the Magic Tavern.
Film and Animation were also quite good, with a new Every Frame A Painting, the introduction to many of Baman Piderman (even over FaceTime, the creators were hilarious), Rick and Morty, and Computer Show. There were some powerful talks from Amit Gupta, Eric Meyer, Zoe Quinn, Mallory Ortberg, and Lisa Hanawalt.
The Slack channel stayed incredibly busy throughout the year, I sometimes wonder if we’re a testbed for them since it’s incredibly busy all the time.
2016: Demand Croissants
It’s always a given that there will be tears at the end of an XOXO conference, if only because saying goodbye is hard. However, this year was even more emotional — the speakers bared their souls about what it means to create, how we survive on what we create, and working with the community more than ever before.
Part of that community involved working with a local charity to help combat the staggering homelessness problem in Portland. The original Tilt XOXO/JOIN fundraising target was $5,000. We raised $50,722.67.
Another community-building exercise took the form of pins this year. People traded them, brought their own, gave them away. I went from not really needing a pin on my badge to desiring mightily the NeXT-themed XOXO badge.
Film and Animation was the strongest non-conference track this year. Tony and Taylor discussing the new Every Frame A Painting was absolutely delightful. The Small-Buteras returned with a new Baman Piderman and their immense personal charisma, everyone fell in love with them. Though for me, the highlight was the incredible get of the Brothers Chaps talking about Homestar Runner. They brought both Homestar and Strong Bad in puppet form, the latter did a live reading of the SBmail about Trogdor the Burninator. You really had to be there.
We also saw the world premiere of the new Feminist Frequency videos for Ordinary Women — the first that is out now is about Emma Goldman. (The Planned Parenthood clinic in my college town was named after her, but I don’t think I knew much more before that evening.)
Some of the talks that I loved this year:
Sammus talked about tears, and then demonstrated her mastery of emotion by bringing the house down through her music.
I remember joking with Lucy Bellwood just prior to her talk that a bunch of bandits were going to come and kidnap her so she wouldn’t have to go onstage, but I’m so glad she did. Absolutely stunning. We love you, Lucy! Buy her books!
Jenn Schiffer talked about California Style Sheets (which are awesome even if they should be deprecated by switching to JS) and idiots harassing her (which is not awesome at all). She also raised the issue that we must never stop talking about how Peter Thiel wants to steal young people’s blood. Also, if you asked her nicely, you could get a sticker. I did ask her for a sticker, I was actually too nervous to tell her how much I’ve enjoyed her work for reasons that remain unclear to me. Jenn is great.
She was followed by David Rees, whose Get Your War On was the only thing that made sense to me during the Bush administration. I’m also a tremendous fan of Going Deep With David Rees, the reason television was invented. His talk was open about money, since we as a culture do not like to talk about it.
Heben Nigatu, of the Another Round podcast, gave the most-quoted talk that I saw on social media, and where I borrowed the title from this section. Absolutely hilarious chat about ways to keep it real, lift others up, Heben gave words of advice from both Kanye and Toni Morrison about the impact of racism on the workplace and life.
I knew something was going to be different when the conference notes said that no recordings or pictures would be allowed during her talk, and Esra’a Al-Shafei’s surpassed everything by her overview of her work with Mideast Tunes and CrowdVoice. She and her team are kicking ass and taking names.
The closing party this year was bittersweet. It was absolutely wonderful to talk to everyone, but I am reminded there were still people I meant to meet up with that I didn’t get a chance. I also did not get to ride Cliff, the karaoke bus, which was clearly something special.
The future, where we will spend the rest of our lives
Andy Baio, Andy McMillan, and their amazing team put on quite a show, with an unsurpassed level of detail and quality. We cried with them as they talked about the show, those who helped, and those we’ve lost. We even received a fantastic speech from Andy McMillan’s mother, which he discovered as he read it for the first time, aloud.
People are winging back to their hometowns, trying to readjust, making lists, making plans, catching up on sleep.
I have been exceedingly lucky to be a part of the XOXO community for all of these years, and will be part of it for many more. To quote Bilbo Baggins:
“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
I think he meant that well. I know I do. Keep in touch.