I have fallen in love with a building, hundreds of people, a MakerBot, a portable toilet trailer, food trucks, and two men each named Andy. Is it possible to fall in love with a conference? If so, I have. The organizers named the conference XOXO for hugs and kisses. This was presented without hipster irony or marketing-speak. They meant it. They delivered.
The ostensible purpose of XOXO was to connect people who make things (art, words, industrial design, crafts, and much more) with the new technological platforms for distributing stuff, whether as atoms or bits or both (Etsy, VHX, and others), or facilitating projects coming to life (like MakerBot and Kickstarter). Andy Baio and Andy McMillan had separately conceived of such an event, and after meeting several months ago realized that they should join forces. Both Andys are connectors in nearly every project they've done: they bring interesting people and sometimes programming code together to create communities and have focused exchanges of ideas. (I won't recite their bios, but the variety of what each Andy has done is delightful.)
I'm going to expend a lot of words to tell you why the event was unique, and why I want more events to be like this one before actually explaining what occurred there. I'll be otiose because nearly every other attendee had the same shock of loving this event so much as I did, and it's worth explaining why.
Photo: Glenn F.
Baio was the early CTO of Kickstarter, and has run projects successfully through the crowdfunding site. The Andys opted to sell tickets for this new kind of event as a Kickstarter project. At XOXO, they described how long it took for them to click the button to make it live. How much they thought they'd have to hustle to sell enough of the 400 conference passes (at $400 a pop) to make it work. Instead, after announcing it just on Twitter, the conference sold out in under 50 hours. (With post-show video access at $25 and a "care package" of crafts plus the video at $100, the total take was about $175,000 before fees.)
That act of selling out through quick word of mouth presaged what the event was like. I can summarize XOXO in two words: good will. Everyone who bought (or wanted to buy) a ticket, everyone I met who attended, everyone who was on stage speaking, everyone in the marketplace and maker area, everyone I chatted with in line for the gorgeous portable toilets was full of bonhomie, collegiality, and positive energy. (Seriously, the toilets were great. They looked like this.)
That extended to the joy of being in the YU Contemporary building in Portland, Oregon, a new art and performance space being converted from the Yale Union Laundry Building. No inside bathrooms. No running water. Hot as hell in the top floor during unseasonable 80°F days. The floors shook as people walked by. And we loved the hell out of it.
I have attended many, many, too many technology conferences and trade shows. They take place in typically sterile hotels and convention centers. You spend most of your time indoors in chilly, air-conditioned rooms or halls with no windows. Often, you're far from the life of a city; nothing's walkable or interesting. People talk at you all the time. They are there to market ideas and stuff to you, and often have no interest in whether you're listening, because that is neither their job nor their personality type. Sex is used to shill, whether it's the brushed aluminum finish of a device or the tightly clad bosom of a model hired to increase pheromonal response at a booth.
Most of what you hear at a tech event you cannot take at face value, because the tech industry is built on the conceits, first, that we always need to replace the past with something better (better being defined typically as faster, smoother, or longer lasting; again with the sex), and, second, that no product has enough value in and of itself to be presented on its honest merits, because those merits are usually so slight or have such little bearing on quality of life to evaporate when presented frankly.
Despite the involvement of technology in XOXO, it suffered from none of the faults of a technology event. I spent two days among people and experienced no ennui, cynicism, snarkiness, or irony whether from fellow attendees, visitors (everything but the conference part was open to the public), and speakers. Things were said that were, by and large, free of bullshit. Someone marketed-at me just once. (It was just this one guy, according to fellow conference goers who were also his victims. That guy. Sheesh.)
This event was one of the few I've attended in which most speakers also sat in the audience to listen to most other speakers. At many events I'm at, speakers drop in for their session and depart, which reduces the utility. Having the conference over the weekend helped us tune out from email and other obligations. The Andys were also in most sessions (running around at times to handle other matters), and the conference space (a gorgeous hall) remained mostly full most of the time. (Cripes, even I was there for 95% of the talks, and I'm terrible about staying in my seat if I'm bored. I wasn't bored.) The Andys had even worked out with some of Portland's best food trucks, of which there are over 600, to set up out front for meals and snacks on the street in front of the YU, which they'd had blocked off for the event.
Something else was unusual. People mostly paid attention, at least for a tech-focused audience. At a type conference two years ago, I remember being struck by an audience full of designers, none of whom were messing with hardware (except me, taking notes, and filing a BoingBoing report). At XOXO, people took notes on iPads, pictures with smartphones, and occasionally pulled out a laptop, but most of the time the speakers were to the fore or communications were in personal, not via digital means. Some artists in the audience even sketched the event.
What magic did the Andys capture in a bottle? It was partly about the self-selected audience. I went through the list of attendees before writing this account, and came up with a surprising realization that wasn't apparent while there. A substantial majority of attendees were tech or business writers, Web designers, user-interaction (UI) specialists, and programmers. A decent subset were exclusively or also photographers, cartoonists, and illustrators. A small number engaged in the third dimension: making crafts, like clothing, sculpture, and stained glass. Plenty of attendees crossed disciplines, or were serious artists alongside serious programmers. Sui generis? My pal Duncan Davidson, a core member of the original Java team and now a world-trekking photographer who also (with Greg Koenig, who stopped by) a photo-strap maker at Luma Labs. (We wrote about Luma's issue with a patent.)
So how was this a conference about making connections if most people were not the sort of makers on which it focused? The answer is that we were largely connectors looking to understand how to better connect people—not middlemen, but facilitators. A UI designer connects a user to a programmer. A writer like myself, on typically informative topics, breaks down ideas to connect people who don't understand a topic or enough of it with the information, skills, or people necessary to achieve knowledge. One can easily argue that a programmer connects a set of behaviors with a person's ability to carry them out.
Those roles are discrete from, say, an artist who creates work that is a reflection of their interests (a painter in a studio) or tailored to their audience (a bespoke craftsperson selling on Etsy), or from distributors who provide access and gatekeeping functions to a sales channel (like retail stores) without offering any value beyond that.
The attendee breakdown makes some sense: all of us who put out $400 for an event that hadn't yet been staged, with most of us never having met Andy or Andy, for a topic that was blissfully broad in some ways (although a list of speakers was provided) had to have both the resources and the motivation to do so. I went because I wanted to connect with people connecting with other people both for my own projects (including an on-hiatus effort to write a crowdfunding book funded via Kickstarter) and to come back with stories to share with others, like this one. I picked the right crowd: at least 30 people I regularly talk with on Twitter but had never met in person were at XOXO, including one of BoingBoing's in-house gingers, Managing Editor Rob Beschizza.
I haven't gotten to the actual conference yet, have I?
The festival part of the event opened Friday with a video-game arcade featuring experimental games all but one of which you can't get your hands on except when the designers are around. Friday night also offered up a pile of appropriate musicians: Julia Nunes, the YouTube ukelele star; nerdcore founder MC Frontalot; the mashup artists The Kleptones; and The Limousines, who just funded an album via Kickstarter.
Saturday featured a remarkable film festival (and the only night I was able to attend): scenes from works in progress of two films about the making of Minecraft ("The Story of Mojang") and behind the scenes of Double Fine Adventure's work on the videogame it's making as a result of its massive crowdfunding success. The makers of Indie Game: The Movie were interviewed earlier in the day by Jason Scott on stage, and then screened their film with a Q&A afterwards. Dan Harmon, the maker of Community and the end of Saturday keynoter, showed us the pilot of the best television show ever made, "Heat Vision and Jack," which you have to go watch to understand. I mean, really. Right now. Go. Go. Go. The night concluded (without me) with the remarkable Star Wars Uncut, followed by a Q&A. It went until the wee hours.
The festival part and the downstairs marketplace and maker area of the show were open to the public, although conference badgeholders had priority if room was tight (which it wasn't at the film festival, at least).
Instead of running through each conference speaker and what he, she, or they said, I'll point instead to Anil Dash's retro/futuristic live blog of the event. Anil took one for the team, and made thoughtful notes about each session, while also putting this up on Google Docs to allow others to fill in missing pieces. You can read his and the group-improved notes either on his Web site or at Google Docs.
But I'll summarize the themes. On Saturday, makers and artists told us how they had broken loose of conventional restrictions imposed by previous marketplaces to achieve measures of success across industrial design, cartooning, film, illustration and craft, video games, 3D printing, music, and communities built around content. Sunday brought us platform builders for funding (Kickstarter), enhanced books (The Atavist), streaming video (VHX), art (20x200), commerce (Simple), crafts and goods (Etsy), music (CASH Music), and unbridled creativity (Canvas/4chan). Saturday closed with a Dan Harmon keynote that was incredibly hilarious on the perils of money and joy of people; Sunday with Mythbusters' and Tested.com's Adam Savage, with a sophisticated multi-stranded exegesis on why we make stuff and should keep on doing it. (A video of Savage's talk is already available at Tested.com.)
A consistent theme of the show could be mistaken as disintermediation. I would argue that's not accurate. At one point, I met Eric Prentice, the CEO of Dr. Bott, a distributor of Mac-related products that sells those items from a Web site and into retail stores, handles direct marketing, and goes to trade shows, like Macworld | iWorld, for the firms it represents. He felt a bit assailed as a distributor, even though he shouldn't be. (Prentice's firm, Dr. Bott, curates and cultivates product makers and directly markets stuff, which isn't the same as distributors who take a high percentage just to move things along a physical or digital pipe.)
Rather than disintermediation, the conference speakers (whether creators or facilitators) argued for disruption of current channels, thinking, and exclusivity in order to rebuild into methods that favor (and provide a greater percentage of money to) the maker side of the equation. The new distributors still make money, but they also make the pie larger and reduce costs. The efficiency and greater volume allow them to take a slice instead of most of the pie.
For instance, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, the filmmakers behind "Indie Game," took their movie to film festivals, and won an award at Sundance. They were offered a distribution deal, but opted not to take it, partly because it would take several months to get into U.S. theatres, and partly because it couldn't then be viewed worldwide as distributors in each country would cut separate deals and needed exclusivity. Instead, they booked their own theatre tour, along the lines of "Helvetica" filmmaker Gary Hustwit (who provided some advice), and released as a DRM-free direct download from their own site, streaming via VHX, and even as a movie app within Steam. It's also sold via iTunes.
A second theme was "money is a bad thing." That's oversimplifying it, although I heard it stated many times in somewhat that format. Dan Harmon encouraged the audience to not let money infect the Internet, ignoring perhaps that Kickstarter has collected over $300 million for projects since 2009 and Etsy looks on target for $700 million gross sales for its craftspeople. (Both Kickstarter and Etsy retain relative slivers: 5% for Kickstarter plus 3–5% in transaction fees; 20¢ per listing for Etsy plus 3.5% of any sale plus 25¢ plus 3% if Etsy handles payment.)
I'd recast that. I don't believe any speaker thought money should be removed from the process. Rather, all of them stressed that focusing on the money portion of a project or career would likely keep a creator from trying these new modalities. Budgets are necessary and bills must be paid. Plans should be practical to ensure that costs are covered and a living can be made. But putting money in the primary position (or expecting a blockbuster Kickstarter) shortcircuits the sort of new possibilities that require a long-term commitment to build an audience that sticks with you and grows project over project.
Photo: Susan Jean Robertson
I must not have liked something about this event, I hear you ask. The folding chairs were a bit uncomfortable for long stretches, and perhaps the budget will include an upgrade next time around. The afternoon heat and glare was fierce, so curtains could be a nice addition.
What I'd primarily suggest to the Andys is that knowing now that the event can sell out, they may want to curate and underwrite participation in a different way without turning it into an invitation-only event. If they were to send out email giving this year's participants a chance to buy one or two tickets to the next event, I'm afraid they might sell out or nearly so, which would be good for me but bad for providing new insight at the event.
I've talked to many artists (both in the marketplace at YU and on Twitter since), and the $400 price tag was too high for many in lots of different media, who struggle to make ends meet as it is. For a technology event, $400 for two days is cheap (even without included meals). Composer Kevin Clark told me over Twitter that the price is a high bar. An event he's helped put together in New York for September 29, Ruckus NYC, costs $75 for a concert and day-long conference in which artists will share skills and insight into how they run their careers. (Incidentally, tickets are still available, and they need to reach their Kickstarter goal.)
I'd hate to suggest they split people into tech, art, platform, and other, as many of us cross disciplines, and it would be silly to try to cubbyhole people. But offering conference passes in waves to different groups would help bypass the early-adopter leap.
Also, the skew of men to women was much more like a tech audience (perhaps 6 or 7 men for each woman), which I had interesting discussions there as to why. It may stem from Andy and Andy announcing over Twitter, as both are allied with technology crowds. Update: I have to revise my ratio. Andy Baio says it was more like 65% male to female, and after perusing the attendee list and looking at pictures, I have to agree. That may explain the low amount of talking-at instead of talking-with that occurred.
Several people suggested a fund to subsidize working artists' attending, perhaps even set up as a separate Kickstarter campaign. I'd contribute to that, as it would produce a richer mix. The Andys also offered passes in exchange for volunteering. They had nearly 40 volunteers assist across the event, who were uniformly cheerful and awesome.
So what will come of this? Do we all magically return home and create new things and send them forth in the world, and a million ideas blossom, and all traditional distribution methods die, and we bring back Firefly as a new series and everyone is like a character from Portlandia? (Note: Portland's mayor gave a kick-ass, hilarious welcome without seeming very Portlandia-like at all.)
Not so much. But I would suggest we had ideas that we came with made bigger and broader by finding a large community of people with good will interested in fostering new ways, not to the exclusion of every old way, of connecting art and creation with communities that want it.
I laughed, I cried, we gave the Andys a standing ovation at the end. When did you attend a conference in which the organizers received standing ovations?
Several other attendees have also written blessedly shorter takes on XOXO. Jason Kottke notes of the mood, "It would be easy to mistake it for wide-eyed and naive idealism but that optimism is hard-won and tempered by experience." Jon Lax wrote, "...the tension that exists between the Techcrunch Internet and the XOXO Internet. The tension between passion and greed." Ruth Brown of Willamette Week notes, "Even at its smallest, I doubt SXSW ever had such a singular, socially-minded ethos, or had any particular commitment to independence or art, or was celebrating such a specific vision for the future of commerce and the Internet." Duncan Davidson, with an illustrated essay, explains, "Every single interaction I had was significant, even if it wasn’t long enough." Ryan Tate says at Wired, "The talk at XOXO was about DIY creations, cultural mashups, fun hacks, and off-the-wall experiments."
The New York Times's Jenna Wortham and David Gallagher had a particularly apt summary of the ethos of the new economy being described: "It defies tradition and prizes creativity, seeks direct contact with customers and an audience, and formalizes that process and scales it, so that instead of asking your relatives to finance your next film, people can make use of the network effect and generate support, social and financial, from a large network of people online."
There are and will be many other accounts (add to the comments, please?). As Andy Baio tweeted, "I wish everyone that came to #xoxofest would write about their experience. The few that have are really fun to read."
Main Photo: Zack Sheppard