XOXO: A Few Meaningful Experiences

I had walked all over Southeast Portland, and my lower back ached. Yet there I was, heading towards Ground Kontrol, a heaven of arcade games (Think Super Mario, Double Dragon, Street Fighter, and a hot mess of pinball variations), where I would be on my feet for the next few hours. Adults indulged their inner seven-year-olds, mashing buttons, joysticks, and trading nostalgia over particular titles.

After playing a few games, including three versions of pinball (Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars), I finally settled with a friend on the old X-Men arcade game. You get to play as one of six mutants— five other people can play with you— as bad guy after bad guy pops out trying to punch you out. As my friend and I played (I was Wolverine, he was Colossus) a skinny, blonde-haired guy hung out in the background observing. I invited him over to play.

“Okay,” he said. “but I suck at games.”

“So do I.”

A few minutes into our game, the blonde guy started talking about the screen in front of us. He explained it was two old CRTs, stitched together to create the game’s widescreen effect. He even pointed out the seam in the middle, which became quite obvious once you looked at it. After a few more minutes of chaos, the blonde guy— who was Chris Poole, aka moot, the founder of 4chan— grew tired and walked away. We did the same shortly after.

XOXO, which took place in Portland September 13th through 16th of this year, was filled with experiences like the one above. Intimate moments with amazing people. And it was purposely designed this way. As a festival “celebrating disruptive creativity”, the weekend brought “independent artists who use the Internet to make a living doing what they love together with the technologists building the tools that make it possible.” It was an inspiring couple of days, a culmination of months-worth of anticipation that started on May 22, 2012 with the launch of a Kickstarter campaign.

Andy Baio writes about culture for waxy.org, he’s the former CTO of Kickstarter and something of a steward to the internet as we know it. He has been on the forefront of memes, and on the receiving end of copyright lawsuits regarding digital art he has made. Saying he knows his shit would be an understatement. Armed with his years of experience and vast network, Baio decided to work with another Andy (Andy McMillan, organiser of the Build Conference in Ireland) to launch XOXO. Of course, they decided to use Kickstarter as their ticket-selling platform. Here’s their video:

After the video came out, I was on my couch with my friend Maggie and wondering if I should buy a ticket.

“Well, why do you want to go?” she said.

“Because I think I’ll regret it forever if I don’t.”

We both bought tickets right after this exchange, and the event sold out a few minutes later, less than 48 hours from the launch of the video. It was by far the most I’d ever spent through Kickstarter and I was unemployed at the time, yet I took a leap of faith. As a small festival with only four-hundred tickets available, I was allowed the opportunity to have substantial conversations with other attendees and the speakers themselves. This was a special collection of people, as if the Power Rangers of the DIY Internet scene came together to hang out for a few days and drink beer.

A lot of people initally referred to XOXO as “the new SXSW”, but that comparison is a mistake and a diservice. XOXO has an entirely different tone, and has much more meaning behind it than SXSW. There are no crazy raucous parties with insane lines, no loud-mouth hustlers competing for attention, although there were some non-attendees wearing orange jumpsuits that desperately tried to drum up interest in their app by waving car-wash signs at us from across the street. And at XOXO you can actually breathe, charge your iPhone, and not feel like a sheep. Even the name of the event purposely harkens back to hugs and kisses, encouraging those attending to always pursue love within their creations or technologies.

For me, the happiest part of the festival was the cloud of respect that hung in the air. Respect for the organizers, the city of Portland, the volunteers, the speakers, the attendees, the food carts, and the market place sellers. Respect flowed in every direction, as if this was a crowd that truly realized and appreciated the lives they lead and the industry they work in. There was a fascination to find out what motivated everyone there, what they made, and why they believed in it. Philosophical conversations came up more often than buzzwords. About an hour after the first talk the following dawned on me: “These people are happy.” They make money, and they’re happy doing what they do. What a fantastic thing to celebrate.

It’s hard to talk about this festival generally, because it’s still just starting. And as I’m a fan of details, here are some of my favorite quotes and moments from the event:

  • From the guys behind Studio Neat: “Jump off the cliff and build the plane on the way down” … “Work on something you’re passionate about, because if you’re successful you’ll get to do it all the time.”
  • Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, an adorable couple from Winnipeg, are the filmmakers behind Indie Game: The Movie. They gave a great interview about the struggles they faced in creating their own distribution, a model others will undoubtedly follow. Then I saw the film, which friends have been telling me about for months, and it’s incredibly well made. Everything from the camera work to the artistic editing and the gorgeous soundtrack. It was all completely pro-style. I found the documentary so earnest and touching that when I came across Lisanne the next day as she was waiting in line for the bathroom at a restaurant, I couldn’t help but lavish praise upon her. My friends and I ended up having a conversation with her and James that lasted half an hour and touched on everything from favorite films to healthcare and politics. They are such a sweet team and you should support them now by buying their film (it’s only five bucks and a throughly enjoyable story, you won’t regret it).
  • Ron Carmel, an independent game developer, touched on many subjects including the importance of maintaining composure when another company or person rips off your idea (which Zynga did to one of his games). He also spoke about Indie Fund, a collection of game developers and designers, that want to spread the love and create an alternative funding process for cool games. Hearing about things like this left me all warm and fuzzy inside.
  • Bre Pettis of MakerBot summed up XOXO pretty succinctly when he said of the people in the room, “we are finding ways to make a living on the cutting edge of what’s next, and we are sharing.” He also pointed out that starting with a project is great, but there’s a process to growing up. “How does a project become a business… how does a business become sustainable”. This is not an easy thing to do, much less while fighting around patent battles as MakerBot has had to do.
  • And Dan Harmon’s keynote (he’s the former show-runner for NBC’s Community) was incredible for many reasons. There was the beginning which was very performance-arty and meta on the subject of keynotes. Then he moved onto discussing technology and how it’s essentially a “people connector.” He placed emphasis on how we “can’t worship the technology more than the people you’re connecting with.”

    Dan Harmon.

    Harmon then got personal, talking about his deep depression after his first pilot, Heat Vision and Jack, wasn’t picked up. His distaste for corporate greed is refreshing and his stance on money (“money will ruin everything good in your life”) came off strong and perhaps, a little naively. But I got a chance to speak to him after and he’s not anti-money. He even suggested there’s a place for advertising, but only if creativity can come first and foremost. He’s just a guy that really wants you to “follow your bliss” because it’s possible now more than ever to “keep doing what you love until the people who love it find you.” It was a little rambly and crazy and I loved what he meant. For what it’s worth, I took the most notes during his talk.

  • Yancey Strickler of Kickstarter started off the second day. He was very cordial and thankful about the role Kickstarter played in the story of XOXO. Kickstarter has helped so many of the speakers, and the event was the largest collection of project backers under one roof. I also found it fascinating how Kickstarter project creators are stealing video ideas from each other and without even realizing it, creating memes (Yancey has some pretty amazing video evidence). He also touched on the narrative of Kickstarter the company, and how they’re trying to be something akin to SportsCenter: highly entertaining and engaged with their fans.
  • Chad Dickerson discussed the growing “sharing economy” and how he wanted Etsy to be a socially-responsible company in a measurable way. He then proceeded to introduce the concept of B Corporations (which I had never heard of), which is a standard many companies are adopting in order to be transparent about how they benefit society. It’s the kind of standard I wished the US could adopt, perhaps even states could incentivize it through some kind of tax break for corporations of a certain B-score and higher. Sadly, this probably makes to much sense to happen.
  • For moot’s talk, his maturity was on full display. While he is young, he’s been running 4chan for almost ten years, which pretty much makes him the Internet’s Rip Van Winkle. He talked about resisting a data-driven “design-by-spreadsheet” approach and the importance of having holistic metrics like “can I laugh?” (which he uses for Canv.as as a gut-check). He said this how you can define success on the web: “When your users self-organize without your help… [and] when you create more value than you capture.” He also pointed out some of his own mistakes which included not always understanding the context of his community, failing to over-communicate, and not building out a team. Then he went on to describe media streams: how he prefers the imperfection and uniqueness of 4chan and drive-in movie theaters to the over-engineered and structure from Facebook and IMAX. And he said all of this poetically— no easy feat.

About thirty minutes after the last talk, I was standing outside looking at the YU Contemporary (the venue for the event) in the sunlight. An attendee that I had met earlier walked over with moot. They stopped nearby and I joined their small circle. I can’t say I remember the topics of the conversation, but at one point Matt Haughey, founder of MetaFilter, walked over to say hi to moot. They had never met before and both of them marveled at that. Then they complemented each other on their work, the talks they gave, and the communities they had built. This meeting of the minds almost blew my own wide open, as both moot and Matt are the founders of forums I have used and visited throughout my internet-using life. You could use a number of epithets to describe these guys and the XOXO speaker line-up: geek royalty, web mafia, DIYers, etc. But the truth is they’re all just human and they recognize how lucky they are.

That’s the best part of XOXO, how it’s so grounded and real and humble and hopeful. For the Andy’s to keep this up, they’ll need to evolve and also, in my opinion, embrace the imperfections. The small distractions, like audio-visual failures, the slips of the tongue, they served as a lovely reminder that this is a DIY festival. The only thing I really hope they improve on are the seats, which quickly became uncomfortable after the third talk. Otherwise, I like the slight chaos of it all, it reminds of the web and of life. It’s reality, and reality isn’t always polished.

I can already see how the tech and media industries will want to take over the narrative of this event. They’ll see it as an opportunity to tap into a lot of creative individuals. What’s clear from these four days in Portland though, is that this community is too passionate to let this happen. They will fight to keep the web a democratized platform, to keep it weird, to keep it ours. A Greek chorus might have summed up the festival with something like “we’ve grown up with the Internet, so we will continue to shape it, for it is our responsibility.” It all definitely feels like a movement, one that’s been brewing for a while, and it is so much fun to be a part of. Bonus: it’s free to join too, the only requirement is passion.