Here’s the story of how Andy and Andy’s experimental festival came back for its Second Difficult Year.
At this point, there’s a lot that has already been said about XOXO, not least of which Anil Dash’s pointing out the somewhat awkward juxtaposition of group-hug celebration with a still substantial amount of implicit group-think. But then, there were so many moments during the two-and-a-bit days of XOXO that felt wildly different from and positive compared to other conferences (admittedly, only the other ones I’d attended) that if anything, any criticism of XOXO should, I hope, come across as “yes, and” rather than the all-too-usual “yes, but”.
The first XOXO in 2012 was a one-of-a-kind and intensely personal event. For some, it felt like a gigantic Internet Reunion. There were people I hadn’t seen in years — honestly, it felt like the physical instantiation of the early days of the Eatonweb Blog Directory, when one could know by name everyone on the planet who had a blog. For me, it was as much about rekindling those connections (or meeting those people for the first time) and having everyone in one place, face to face, as it was about the talks. And so last year, it’s probably fair to say that I loved last year’s XOXO because of the attendees more than the talks — and the talks were, for the most part, good.
Much was made of the Andys’ decision to gate and curate the attendees themselves. Not everyone who wanted to would be able to come to XOXO. Not everyone would even be awake when tickets went on sale. And also: no-one wanted XOXO to become what SXSW has become, a concentrate of advertising, marketing and buzzword entrepreneurship so supersaturated that seed-funded startups and social media consultants spontaneously precipitate out of the sky, over the throngs in line for the next big Brand Party.Bluntly, no one wanted to let in the dirty advertising hordes.
So, however you think the process was implemented, the question asked of attendees was simple: what have you made? After all, this was a conference for those who make things.
A Raw Human Being
The thing about XOXO 2013 is this: it felt, at times, unapologetically honest, raw and human. In the genre of “tech conference in the post-web2.0 world”, that’s a pretty surprising development. And on the outside, as a transplanted cynical Brit, I can see how the festival appeared to be one giant west-coast group hug.
There was the moment where Jack Conte spoke about what happened after Pamplemoose hit the big time, about how they’d been seduced by the music industry and then fallen into a multiple-year funk because they couldn’t just produce that one hit song that was going to be good enough. All because of pressure induced by someone else who’d come to them proclaiming Music Industry riches.
There was Cabel Sasser’s admission that the pressure of shipping Coda 2 (the Difficult Second Code Editor-cum-File-Transfer-Utility), combined with the realisation that someday Panic might come to an end, culminated in a messy, painful breakdown, one that he ultimated managed to work through.
There was Max Temkin’s admission — the very first talk of XOXO, before any expectations had been set — that he didn’t know what he was doing. Well, that’s fine, you say. None of us know what we’re doing. We all feel like frauds and imposters who are faking it and just making it up as we go along.
No, Max was saying. That’s not the point. It’s absolutely okay to not know what you’re doing. What’s more important is knowing what you believe in.
Because once you know what you believe in — once you know what your values are — you can easily work out what your strategy is. You can easily work out what your red lines are and what you’re happy to do. And when you know what you’re happy to do — because that supports your values — you know what tactics you’re happy with too.
Values, then strategy, then tactics. Never the other way around. The other way around, if you consider yourself a creative person, leads to, ultimately, a feeling of hollowness.
Then Max showed a Cards Against Humanity wedding proposal.
Like most people who actually have a heart, I have a soft spot for genuine emotion. And that’s where the high point of XOXO started — by showing us a great example of the human result of the things we’re capable of creating. There was a bit of crying.
And with that, after Max had shown a video of Aaron Swartz speaking passionately about freedom on the internet, and quoted David Foster Wallace, the elephant in the room became the disconcerting feeling that the two inspiring people in Max’s talk had committed suicide. It would have been easy for mental illness to remain unspoken over the next forty eight hours, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. The subject wasn’t exactly delved into, but it wasn’t hidden. And that was a first.
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.
Admittedly, most of those people on stage (and this may betray my own sensibilities and own frailties) appeared fairly successful. But they also appeared to be saying, in the confines of a 15-20 minute talk to a packed auditorium, that they were pretty much regular people with the same neuroses as anyone else.
With Erika Moen’s talk — which, I have to admit, I found difficult to follow at times — what again felt powerful was her story of figuring out her self and finally coming to terms with and becoming comfortable with it. And yes, some of this does sound (at least, from a reserved, British point of view) like a group therapy session, perhaps it was, in a sense.
What Erika was saying, I think, was:
- Look. Things are difficult.
- They’re also confusing.
- A lot of the time, they don’t make sense.
- But sometimes, they all still work out in the end.
And yes, when you reduce it to bullet points you strip out all of the personal context and the meaning and how she was figuring out her sexuality and living abroad and, basically: the humanity.So: don’t do that.Everything is in the nuance.
What made XOXO different this year was that it wasn’t like a traditional tech/startup conference. Because a traditional tech/startup conference is normally (but not always!) a bit like this:
- RAWR, WE’RE AMAZING
- CHECK OUT OUR CASE STUDY
- HERE’S A HOCKEY STICK
- WE’RE CRUSHING IT AWESOMELY
- BUY OUR STUFF
What You Care About
I had a conversation the day after XOXO with a close friend where we were talking about, inevitably, startups and VCs having both been through the wringer.
You see: VCs and investors? They’re in the business of making money. Let me be clear: it is no more complicated than that. They don’t care how the money is made (to a greater or lesser degree). Their job is to take a $ sign and then find out a way to copy-and-paste the fuck out of it so it looks like $$$$$$$$$$$ stamped onto your face forever, scrolling infinitely.
XOXO, on the other hand, is (again, this may sound idealistic, millennial and trite) populated by people who want to create something meaningful. To accomplish that, they need money. Not because they’re selling out, but because we live in a pre-post-scarcity environment that’s resourced constrained and if you live in a civilized country like America and don’t have a job with health insurance, if you get sick, YOU’LL DIE.
We don’t live in Iain M. Banks’ Culture. We don’t have a hedonistic, utopian world where we can all self-actualise to our heart’s content. We live in a world where we need money to live. Maybe not a lot. But still some.
VCs, you see, don’t care about you making something meaningful. They care about copy-and-pasting $s. They are not helping you to make something meaningful. They are helping you because in you, they see a way to multiply money.
There are certainly people who are interested in and passionate about being an entrepreneur. Of building companies. XOXO was — is — about those individuals and groups of people who are interested in creative acts or the structures that enable creative acts.
At that point, it became abundantly clear, if it hadn’t been already, that XOXO was about celebrating people who were making what they were passionate about. It wasn’t a conference about virality or a/b testing to increase conversion or how to optimise your burn rate so that you get a successful Series B funding round.
It was about celebrating people who are making things they’re passionate about. About the things people care about. (Although, I guess there are people who care a lot about correctly performing a/b testing).
With Jack Cheng’s talking about his experience of kickstarting a book and approaching publishers (one response: “I don’t think we’re right for this book. It’s clean, functional and sincere.”), the tone shifted into what, exactly, it was that one wanted to achieve as a creative individual or as an artist.
Again, money raised its head: to confront the unavoidable truth that you require financial stability to do what you want to do. And that to whine about that being unfair is perhaps childish and irresponsible because if you’re serious about your art, then you should be, well, serious about creating the conditions in which you can create your art.
The second part of Jack’s talk was something that ended up being echoed a lot the next day: that we’re unaware of the ways in which we measure success distort us. That they distort all of us because we’re all quite similar when it comes down to it — at least in some form of architecture.
It’s easy to chase the view, the retweet, the like. They give us instantaneous feedback, they’re the variable interval reinforcement schedules that give us the hit of dopamine. But here was another reminder that they’re hollow, that we end up chasing what just happens to be a quantifiable, abstract metric instead of, well, what makes something good or satisfying or even the reason why something is good or satisfying because it is what we want to make.
I’m Not A Creative Person, But
Two particular talks stood out as being prefaced with “I’m not a creative person, but” — those of Julie Uhrman of Ouya and Christina (“I don’t see myself as a creator, I don’t have fully formed ideas bursting from within and I don’t have inner turmoil”) Xu of Breadpig. Of those two it felt like Uhrman’s was discontinuous with the rest of XOXO because at least part of her spiel around the disruptive game console was that it was going to a) be disruptive, b) take out the middlemen and c) restore the large living room TV to its rightful place at the throne of multi-person shared attention and experience.
Christina Xu’s on the other hand appeared to catch the feeling in the room not least of which because of her numerous and savvy comic book references (“Even Batman has Alfred. You don’t have to do it all.”) and no desire (well, none voiced) other than to help creators who’re doing well, who they admire, and who don’t have the ability to ship 17,000 copies of a hardbound book.
All of which is to say that at a festival celebrating independently produced art and technology, at least two talks were about enabling independently produced art and technology. Which is, I think, encouraging.
Professional Explainer Beats Professional Three-Time Internet Guru
Ev’s talk was ultimately disappointing, and mainly in a “Well, I hope not, because if that’s true, that’s incredibly depressing.” By outlining a Grand Unified Theory To Explain The Internet that boiled down to “Figure out what people have always wanted, then find a way to deliver that desire quicker than ever before,” one was left with the inescapable conclusion that what we’d spent the last twenty years on was going to inevitably turn into a series of tubes terminating in strip malls.
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, there is a theory that states that this may already have happened.
His exhortation that we perhaps fight against the tendency for the internet and its sublime web of connections to result in an incredibly efficient mechanism for delivering pet food or same-day birth control felt somewhat too little, too late, appearing during what felt like the last sixty seconds of his talk.
Much better, though, was Mike Rugnetta’s talk, wherein he explained the internet and simultaneously blew our minds.
In a tour-de-force that demonstrated his PBS Idea Channel videos were not the product of intricate editing, Mike took the audience through a one-take, as-live deconstruction of fandom on the internet, combined with furries, casually dropping the observation that fandom was not necessarily celebration of the thing, but instead celebration near the thing.
Then, having suggested a new way of looking at fandom (and really, you should check out fandom. It’s totally a thing) and that what made fandom strong wasn’t the connection with the source media but instead, the interpersonal connections between members of that fandom, Mike introduced furries and everything went a bit hyper.
You see, we hit a tipping point when “enough” (or, depending on your degree of nuance, “nearly enough” or “enough for privileged white people in the first world” or “enough for priviliged white men in the first world”) people found themselves on the internet. Because the connection between furries and fandom was this: unlike, say, Community fandom or Night Vale fandom or Batman fandom, the thing about furry fandom is that it has no canonical media. There is no ur-text, nor splintering of ur-texts, that can cause furry fandom holy wars.
Because what started happening with furries, at least, was a wonderful way of demonstrating how the internet has changed how people construct themselves or, more accurately, their selves. Without exposure to the full gamut of humanity, it had been easy to edit and reduce the apprehension of the self to what was perceived as acceptable or normal compared to the rest of the visible population.
What Mike put forward was the idea that, less important than what you actually are (if you believe there is one canonical thing that you, well, are), is instead a more pragmatic view — what are you comfortable doing, or being? And how else, what other way to experience and experiment other than with a medium that allowed people to express their real lives? When we hit that tipping point of enough people, enough access, for some people at least, they began living their real lives on the internet, not just an edited version. And that presentation of millions of real lives, easily findable by anyone, is what’s wonderful about the internet.
Not strip malls.
Too Long; Got To The End Anyway
Look, here’s what XOXO 2013 was like.
It was perhaps the most human tech/art/conference/festival I’ve been to in a while. It may well be because I was with “my people”, but in any event, and even though it might not have gone all the way, XOXO 2013 broke a tonne of taboos.
Speakers addressed, out loud, the cost of striving for their art and aiming for the wrong thing. Attendees filled in the gaps, so what was left unsaid on stage I felt was definitely said in breaks.
It was honest. Perhaps not as honest as some might like, but a damn sight more honest than other gatherings. And it publicly, unashamedly set out its stall to be a good festival,whether that meant providing a space safe from harassment, one in which there was equal representation of gender in attendees and speakers, or addressing agendas or ulterior motives, but also saying: we’ve just started, and it’s our goal to get better.
So it was that rare thing: something positive, and a celebration, and not another excuse to kick anyone when they’re down. That’s why it felt like a group hug. Because sometime, it was one.
Header photograph by Duncan Rawlinson.