The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness
Love, Hugs, and the Value of Criticism
“When I saw you were here I was afraid you were going to hate it. You hate it already don’t you. Do you hate it? Oh god you hate it. Do you hate it already? You’re going to hate it.”
“Ryan, it only just started. I’ve only seen the opening remarks.”
“Do you hate it?”
“No. I don’t hate it.”
“But I have some thoughts.”
XOXO is a festival/conference hybrid in Portland, Oregon run by Andy Baio and Andy McMillan. It started last year on a lark, as a Kickstarter, and sold out within days. It’s for people who create and who want to get what they make out into the world without having to go through the traditional gatekeepers, like the record industry or publishing houses or television networks.
This being their second year, and with the success of the first, Baio and McMillan found themselves in the odd position of actually having to be gatekeepers. In order to go to XOXO, you couldn’t just send money, like to any old conference, you had to fill out a questionnaire and wait to see if you were worthy (like the old days, when you had to audition to comment on Gawker).
It turned out they had a reason for this, and while that’s worth talking about in a constructive fashion, I don’t want to do it here. Because right now I want to talk about how, in creating a wonderful positive place away from the snark, there was something important and necessary missing: criticism.
I went to XOXO because in whatever mental model I’ve formed of myself at this point in my life, XOXO is something I would never go to. As far as I could tell from the press and the hashtag conversations and the photo captions that swooned, “YOU GUYS, LOOK AT US!!!,” XOXO represented positivity and earnestness at levels that made my eyes roll involuntarily. I also saw hints of an inclusivity and buy-in of a self-congratulatory, elitist ideology toward which I have long cast serious side-eye.
But maybe I was just being a terrible person, and judgmental, and also rude. And maybe it’s good to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and also out of your living room where no one can actually see you rolling your eyes. So when the 2013 XOXO website launched with its opaque application process, I secretly threw my hat in the ring. “I’ll tell no one, because that way no one can make fun of me for wanting to go to something so earnest and so tech industry. Also this way no one can make fun of me when I don’t get in.”
Then I did. Which surprised the hell out of me. They picked me! What do I even do that’s worthwhile? I’ll admit it: I felt special.
So I wanted to push myself. I wanted to prove myself wrong. I wanted to be included and I wanted to find the good not just in the assumptions I had made but also in the assumptions many of us make about the tech and maker industries more broadly. When I learned friends I’d long wanted to see in person were going, I decided to do it.
I started doing photography around 2007/2008. I posted photos on Flickr, like countless others, and I found myself in the familiar, supportive waters of internet community and fandom. “This picture is AMAZING.” “THIS IS THE BEST PHOTO I HAVE EVER SEEN.” “Congrats on explore!!!” [sparkle gif]. It was fantastic for a while. Then one day, someone came in and told me my photo wasn’t very good. They weren’t particularly nice about it, and it stung. I let the comment sit there, and someone else – friends with the first person – said something similar, but in a more specific way. Then a third person, someone I admired so deeply it still makes my guts ache, told me what I was doing was okay but that it was about time I pushed myself. And I realized something crucial:
They knew I could be better. They believed in me. They wanted to see me get there.
That ache in my gut is going to be familiar to all of you. It’s not the ache that’s desperate for likes or hearts or little stars. It’s the ache that wants someone to help you and to approve of what you’ve done because their work and their approval mean something to you. Because a “yeah, that’s it, that’s pretty good, that’s the right direction” or even a “this is getting there, but think about why your composition isn’t working over here” feels like it’s been earned.
Let me be very clear: XOXO was great. It was very clearly a labor of love by two guys who figured out a way to bring together a lot of amazing people – some of whom they know and many of whom they don’t – in a way that could be interesting and informative and also very, very fun.
Was it perfect? No, but I don’t want to talk about how to run a conference or what to do with attendee selections or how you should do ticket types, because, unlike many people, I don’t feel confident swanning about an opinion when I’ve never spent a year organizing something so massive and thus don’t have the knowledge to back it up.
(That being said, I do want to start doing research on women and conferences, and I think there’s a lot we can do here, so if you’re interested in that, get in touch.)
XOXO was many things I expected it to be and many things I didn’t. As my friend Lisa says, conferences are The Anxiety Olympics. This is even more the case if you get The Internet into a room, because you’ve got every variety of introvert known to man (all of whom have probably written Medium posts or listicles about introversion already), with a few extraverts thrown in to spice it up. Plus also: goats.
So let me say a few important things about XOXO: I am deeply grateful I was able to go and see so many incredible people in one place at one time. There were people I never imagined meeting, in part because I’d never heard of them and stumbled upon them like the treasures they are, or in part because they live in far off places I might never have the opportunity to visit. There were so many people I didn’t get the chance to even say hello to, or to talk to at length, or to have that goddamn cup of coffee with because things were so crazy and I was busy spilling the one I already had.
I’m particularly grateful for Cabel’s talk. Please, more people have the bravery to get up in front of literally everyone you know and say, “Hey, so here’s what happens when you make an amazing success and then still get to a terrifying place where you think you might lose it all. It’s fixable. We can make it better. I did. We can help each other.” More people need to talk about those experiences and make them real to others, because too many of us have had them and been alone in the dark. Thank you, Cabel. Truly.
I am also grateful I came away with the urge to do more stuff. You did it, Andy Baio. You got me riled up and ready to do. Here I am, writing this thing, and talking and engaging and making and thinking. Mission fully accomplished, and I can’t thank you enough.
XOXO was great fun, and I didn’t hate it. Not even close! I liked it a lot. But what XOXO gave me – through talks that worked, through talks that didn’t work so well, and through the incredible conversations I had about what we liked and what made us dubious – is the knowledge that I want something more than just the space to be hugged, to be excited, and to get a prize for showing up.
Between The Awl’s “The ‘Culture of Positivity’ is a Bummer” and XOXO’s (at times policed by those in attendance) positivity and earnestness lies – as my friend Silvia and I decided when I got back from Portland – “The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness”.
I have always been a fan of earnestness, but I could never put my finger on exactly what that meant. As Ryan rightly pointed out, I am cynical and sometimes (ahem) snarky, but I don’t live to tear things down. At a sad and dark point a few years ago, I briefly befriended an angry group whose goal, it seemed, was to target and destroy. While I am ashamed that I was associated with anyone who would want to be horrible for the sake of being horrible, I now understand better the desire to constantly demolish without building up a single new thing in its place. It’s not healthy and it’s not good, but I get it.
But even when those targets are things that should be torn down or altered, like gatekeepers or social institutions, you need to offer something concrete in its place when you talk about what doesn’t work or what hasn’t worked or what isn’t working. Lofty ideals or miserable barbs or snide asides will win you fans but will, ultimately, leave them hanging. Perhaps on your every word, sure. But then what?
I mean, many people go to conferences solely to find their people, to go to “nerd camp” or to be among furries or other dragons or gamers, to not feel alone for a few days, and that is deeply valid and real. Some of us want to connect and to meet, yes, but also to use the opportunity to learn how to do what we’re doing better, whether in an audience or in a conversation. That’s why some of us go to these types of festival-y conferences, to talks, to school. Hell, even to the internet. As Silvia said to me this morning, “Isn’t Twitter basically an ongoing JokeCon accidentally stuffed into the same ballroom as NewsCon?”
We go out in the world not simply to meet the amazing people we want in our lives as friends, but to find the people who will say, “Ok, this is pretty good. But you can do better. I’m going to push on those spots.” For guidance and, if we get lucky, for mentorship.
So as it turns out, The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness is where people can be excited about stuff. And here’s a secret: Sometimes being excited about something means not always being positive.
Criticism is a tricky thing. It is tricky both to give and to receive. While I was at XOXO, I heard and read opinions that weren’t always positive. Once, on twitter, I watched someone’s negative opinion get policed about the big XOXO arcade, which was full of people playing videogames on big screens and a game of Johann Sebastian Joust. An attendee said on Twitter that it was “his worst nightmare” and was subsequently shamed, also on Twitter, into deleting the tweet by another attendee who told him there was no place for hating at XOXO. Well, you could argue there’s no place for shaming, either.
More to the point, there is a place for opinions. Maybe it was his worst nightmare. Or maybe, like I heard plenty of other people say about plenty of other things they saw, he thought it was terrible – and thinking something is a nightmare or is terrible is a valid opinion and worth stating. Although, perhaps, maybe amongst friends. Or maybe then following it up with more information. Why it’s so terrible. Or how it could be better. Or something that’s more worth your time.
Because the problem with saying something is terrible and leaving it at that is it’s not always the most valuable thing you can do. It’s your opinion, but how do I take that? Especially if I’m the creator? Do I take it personally? Can I make the thing better? Do I think you’re a jerk? Do I ask you to be more specific? And if I’m someone who takes all criticism negatively, as pure rejection or an immediate tearing down, then I will never be able to hear anything valuable in your feedback, or in any feedback, especially if all you’ve said is “nightmare” and “terrible” and then wandered away to get a drink.
Over a drink, I talked about Ev’s talk, which I wanted more out of. I wanted him to tie his loftier ideas to a narrative, a hook. If you needed someone to communicate with, if people feel lost, haven’t you helped them do that, and haven’t you run into some interesting challenges on the way? Aren’t you going to continue to find some bumps in that road? Someone policed me, and said, “Well, at least he’s talking about making and not consuming, like at so many other conferences.”
No. Criticism is not negativity. Criticism is not saying you’re bad. Criticism is – it should be – a way of saying: I think you’re good. I know you can do better. I think you can figure out a way how.
I only saw about a third of the talks, but of those I did see, no one spoke of the value of criticism and iteration. It was beyond amazing to see people being honest and open about self-understanding and failure and feelings. Those of you who went there, and who I saw: Thank you.
But what about moving beyond that darkness and asking outside yourself for help? The hardest thing for me in all my darkest times has been knowing I am not alone, that people want to help me, that I am not a solitary soldier in a landscape of shit who will have to do it herself, over and over again, and the only way to celebrate this victory is to wait until I’m secure and have made it so I can reveal terrifying things for which I can finally be called a hero.
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.
That space is where we teach each other, help one another to succeed, show each other where we’re failing and how we can do better — what we’re doing wrong and what the weak spots are — and turn amateurs into professionals and show professionals where they’ve let their fundamentals go weak.
This is where we let people be enthusiastic without just letting that enthusiasm become meaningless. This is where criticism has meaning and is not just cruelty. I can learn to critique something and not be pushy; be hard, be serious, but not be a total asshole about it. Just as importantly, I can learn to listen to tough, serious criticism and not let it tear me down. I don’t have to love something simply because it is not something negative, and no one has to love me.
After all of this, we can go have a drink and talk about the stuff we thought was great. I can celebrate the things we’ve created, and love them, and they can still be flawed. There is this place out there in which we can be human, in which we can be civil and happy and earnest and weird, without negativity policed out. Maybe that’s what XOXO really has the potential to be, as Cabel and a few others taught us. Or maybe that’s what we’re going to make next.