The narrative lottery at XOXO
Glenn Fleishman reports from Portland's beloved arts and technology festival, where a darker sense of mission and meaning took hold in the event's third year.
Photo: Sam Beebe (cc)
At the end of XOXO 2014, an arts-meets-tech festival in Portland that just completed its third iteration, each attendee sitting in the swelter of an unexpectedly warm September day wrote a name on a piece of paper and handed it to one of the many friendly volunteers, all of whom were indistinguishable in pursuits and motivations from the 1,000-odd paying participants. The results were tallied absurdly fast, and shortly the name was announced.
We all rose from our seats when the name was called, applauding madly, whooping and hollering, as the lucky vote winner ascended to the stage and lay down. We filed past the front of the dais, pulling all of the money out of our pockets and bags and flinging it at the winner, balling up dollars into wads and hurling coins. The pile grew until that fortunate party was buried in money — until not even the head showed.
It's a terrible fate and somewhat arbitrary, but they deserved it, and all of us had been dreaming of suffocating in that pile for the previous year, sometimes waking in a cold sweat, sometimes imagining its sweet, overpowering weight pressing us down, drowning us in our desire for attention and success.
Then we walked out of the converted machine-parts building lost in our thoughts, consigning our sacrificial pick to browser history, and resumed our lives of creation and curation sure in the knowledge that we, too, will one day die.
A opera about the tragedy of success
In truth, XOXO isn't a Shirley Jackson short story nor a long, dark afternoon of the soul. But this year's outing was darker in its narrative arc than the previous two. The festival spans as many as three venues, with numerous satellite open houses and other special locations across three days and four nights. Featuring videogames, art, film, music, and storytelling, it began as–and remain–an experiment. A two-day conference, slightly more traditional in form, is nestled in the daylight hours.
It celebrates the act of independent creation, in whatever medium, that finds a passionate audience. In previous years, the organizers note that invited speakers and performers were those who had found success; this time, it focused more heavily on challenges in turning "success" into sustainability.
Hours after the event's closing party concluded, Microsoft's purchase of Minecraft was announced, and its creator, Markus "Notch" Persson, explained he was leaving because the cost of staying was too high. Billions of dollars doesn't buy happiness.
The festival is organized by Andy Baio, creator of everything on the Internet that's cool that you like (except things made by Dean Putney), and Andy McMillan, a Portlander-by-way-of-Ireland who created the Build conference and The Manual.
XOXO has a narrative because the Andys (collective noun, "an enthusiasm of Andys," coined this year) shape the festival into a kind of multi-part participatory opera, in which the audience and performers forget the part they came to play, while Greek choruses of Portlanders, crazy game-industry conspiracists, remote Twitter hashtag followers, and food-truck artists chime in. I had as an intense a conversation with a MySQL programmer about his desire to do good in the world, straining to hear him over the din at the closing night party, as I had with the woman making pizza at the Ash food-stand in the event's corral who asked what we were talking about inside, and who shared her own hard-won reflections on the topics at hand. There are plenty of laughs, but intensity and attention are the watchwords.
In 2012, XOXO was a smaller event across time and space, with 400 tickets sold and some others invited. It was intimate and crazy. A flower bud formed on arrival on Friday and went into full berserk bloom by Sunday night. I returned home, my head ablaze, full of the potential that hearing from so many independent creators gave me, and mingling with hundreds of other folks all ready to jump on a rocket. My wife said I seemed like I was high for weeks afterwards. Within a few weeks, I'd profoundly changed my professional life, and for the better.
The 2013 version was bigger, and instead of unbridled enthusiasm, there was more tempering with concern about outcomes; more hedging about paths that, when followed, would lead to solid rock faces or off cliffs. But it was a still a joy, and it built on the strength of the previous year, even with roughly 500 conference participants, and a few hundred festival-goers who could be part of everything but listening to speakers in the main hall on Saturday and Sunday. It was also remarkable; I made new friends, rethought plans, left with a determination to make even more cool stuff and keep at things that I was flagging on.
(Disclosure: I paid for attendance in advance for both 2013 and 2014, but was asked after registering to participate on stage, and given a complimentary pass and my fees refunded. I interviewed Boing Boing's four lead editors in 2013, and recorded an episode of my podcast, The New Disruptors — about to go on hiatus — this year. Disclosure: I consider both Andys friends. Disclosure: The show sells out every year, so it's immune to promotion.)
I had trepidations about the third year. Capturing electricity in a bottle is a dangerous and impossible thing. Having experienced two iterations that felt as life-changing as a new romantic relationship, I worried about being jaded and numb: was it worth the time, money, and effort to open myself up? I heard similar concerns from some attendees of one or both of the previous festivals, but most of us went, anyway.
XOXO was bigger in 2014. The organizers sold roughly 750 conference passes and 250 festival tickets. It was less intimate in some ways, but not in others. The Andys filter attendees, not by how important they are in some indefinable way — it's not a tech event, but a lot of tech-connected folk come — but by whether they come to talk with or talk at. The application form for the conference asked about what we make, not what we do or think. This weeds out a personality type that comes to events solely to network, and it shows. I meet more introverts at XOXO than anywhere else.
The Andys say, and I believe, that what you do isn't important at all; it's the attitude towards creating things that smells one way or the other, and is an effective way to remove those who treat other attendees as a resource to be exploited. Those who survived that mild winnow were put into a lottery and then offered tickets. (Folks associated with the event as previous speakers or in other capacities in this or previous years were also offered or given passes.)
This filter lets you put your guard down in a way I've rarely experienced outside of a trusted friend's living room late at night. And after three years, I've made a few XOXO friends. One attendee worked up a Twitter-based tool that let us map our following/followers against the XOXO list. Of 1,000 people, I follow about 90 and 110 were following me.
The size of this year's audience pushed back at my feelings a bit, though. I have had a rough 2014, despite outward trappings of what other people might think is "success," and am charting my path forward professionally even as I write this.
And it was hard to feel the same sense of intimacy in the crush of a crowd. Nearly every event felt packed and the conference space — a very interesting semi-converted building — was extremely long and narrow, rows of seats stretching back nearly a city block from the stage. It was still possible, as I experienced, to have small tete-a-tetes and be part of little clusters, like playing a game of Werewolf during the Tabletop night on Saturday. And I found my crowd and became part of some new crowds. (There were also people I know well and others I was dying to meet — and a couple I was slightly avoiding — who I never saw across the event's duration.)
But often, I waited to join something, craned my neck, or felt a bit off to the side if I hadn't gotten there early. Last year, I played Johann Sebastian Joust, but found that some of the most successful players were aggressive, even hostile. This year I avoided it. I tried a few times to get in on a game of the 10-person, two-team giant console Killer Queen, but those playing were so absorbed, one turn faded into the next, and no one gave up their slots. I didn't feel like challenging them.
And people tend more naturally to form into cliques, however inclusive they remain, when more people they know are at an event and the audience is large. I'm sure there were times when a group of five or seven I was in conversation with seemed like a battlement to others, as welcoming as we tried to be.
This is always a tension with a successful event, balancing making something cool and amazing and producing enough of a return to motivate the group or company behind it to keep on. A 750-person XOXO 2013 is probably not that profitable based on the sheer quantity of invited people and production costs, from my experience in the conference business; a 1,000-person XOXO 2014 is much more likely to turn a buck. Franchising isn't in the Andys' line of interest (as opposed to TED's TEDx), and Portland is their home, but it lacks in correctly sized non-sterile venues.
At least on the issue of underrepresentation, the Andys made some progress by asking on the festival questionnaire, "Do you identify with a group that's been underrepresented at XOXO?" That question and this post seemed to help, along with allowing a week to submit a request to attend rather than going to first-come, first-serve as in the first two years. The number of people who identify as women went from 22% (based on T-shirt requests) in 2013 to 40% in 2014. Those who describe themselves as people of color remains quite low relative to the proportion in the intersection of arts and technology that XOXO represents, and the Andys freely acknowledge room to improve there, as well.
I tell these details because XOXO is part of the narrative of XOXO. Two independent creators with no outside funding trying to sustain a yearly event business that seems to crash them against the rocks each year, and yet produces such joy and change in those who are part of it. XOXO's success is all our success; if it can't thrive, can we?
The razor wire surrounding the Redd, the primary conference venue, serves neither as metaphor nor was it added for the event: it was a remnant from the decades in which this part of Portland was left for dead as companies that made things left urban areas, and the site was protected against squatters and vandals. There was nothing of value left behind. Now, Ecotrust buys buildings like this to prevent neighborhoods from becoming cookie-cutter condo communities.
The core of the event is the set of 16 talks, eight per day, with breaks and meals. The keynotes, perverse as it is, come at the end of each day. These are not TED talks, impeccably timed and prepared to within an inch of their life to maximize and reinforce a familiar pattern and produce a set of often oversimplified truths that poke the right neurochemical buttons.
The talks are always interesting, but there's a yield factor. Some have no real impact, emotional, factual, or logical. The least-successful talks at XOXO are better than the average talk at any other tech conference, however, and the best, of which there were several again this year, are off the charts. The Andys tend to treat speakers as they do all the musicians, tabletop creators, videogame makers, spoken-word performers, and filmmakers — as artists who come with a vision that the conference doesn't shape.
Gina Trapani explained how working near the World Trade Center site on 9/11 led directly to her cultivating a world around lifehacking, to accomplish every task efficiently. Justin Hall, already known for pouring out his life online, spoke with unexpected and determined self-evaluation about his radically transparent existence, its cost, and his multiple reinventions.
Rachel Binx lulled us initially with a reasonably conventional tale of hitting upon interesting things that led to more and allowed her a measure of independence — before nicely gut punching us with the revelation of living out of a suitcase, not being paid for months and then receiving massive checks, and the emotional toll of allegedly not being dependent on a boss.
Speakers explored themes of loneliness, the peril of success without revenue, the contrasting difficulty of success with too-fast growth, and the sheer random, inexplicable results of doing the same thing over and over and only hitting a nerve with a large audience on some of them. Darius Kazemi and Jonathan Mann had complementary expositions on this topic.
The fact is, independent doesn't mean not dependent. We are dependent on technology resources, services (like Facebook), clients, and an audience willing to act on our impulses or directly support us. More accurately, independent in this context is that no one can direct us what to create or on what to spend our time.
Then there were a pair of speakers with a strong valence for simply appearing. The razor wire around the Redd's city block suddenly seemed necessary when Anita Sarkeesian took the stage. The creator of Feminist Frequency, an academic dissection of cultural touchpoints now focused on common tropes in videogames, Sarkeesian's presence was as important as the talk.
The event always has security for checking badges and to help attendees who experience problems; this year, it was bulked up, and I was glad for it. The next day, a gentleman (or possibly two) felt motivated to stand on the public sidewalk near the event and hand out crazypants 1/4-sheet literature about Sarkeesian's alleged crimes against gaming, her agenda, and a larger attempt to destroy men in particular and freedom in general.
(When I and others tweeted about this, the remaining GamerGate hashtag enthusiasts–their numbers depleted by the well-documented revelation of 4chan users' manipulative involvement–demanded "proof." This despite hundreds of people seeing him, posting pictures of him, and the literature, the person in question publicly posting his plans on Reddit and sharing the Google document he printed out.)
In another context, without weeks of extreme threats and harassment against her and many women in gaming — more extreme than in the years she has already endured — her talk would have had some interest for those who study the culture of angry men, typically young and undersocialized, who have difficulty with any pushback or dissection of their areas of interest. After this summer, with her release of "Women as Background Decoration, Part 2" in the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series, a segment of the internet went apeshit, as documented here and all over. She explained, mostly drily but with some dark humor mixed in, the extent and variety of attacks against her. The talk lacked a 10,000-foot view, but it didn't really need context: the cost of independently raising funds and distributing videos without intermediaries can be absurdly high.
Sarkeesian received a standing ovation on taking the stage for her talk on the first day, and attended the second, where a stream of people often shyly found her to thank her, talk about her work, or share their stories.
Leigh Alexander, an esssayist who writes about videogames, digital play, and interactive entertainment, is another frequent target of online harassment for her seemingly benign enthusiasm for a broader scope of play and examination of what stories games tell to culture. She spoke largely about her work and her own journey.
The event isn't immune to the forces that attack these two individuals and many others. XOXO has a code of conduct adopted from many models, and enforces it. Last year, an attendee was booted for sexual harassment. This year, one moron decided during rounds of the Werewolf card game to play the "village rapist" as a character — not during one round, and not reportedly even twice, but three times after being asked to stop and told it made people uncomfortable. His ticket was pulled Saturday night by the Andys, and he was escorted out of the Yale Union. The Andys announced this the next morning, to be sure those at the event knew the outcome and reinforce their willingness to execute on their principles.
More difficult to untangle was the exclusion of Max Temkin, a friend and mentor, and the most public voice among the creators of Cards Against Humanity. The details are too complicated to summarize, but Max was uninvited (with apparently his consent) after two years as an attendee, speaker, and partial organizer of the Tabletop night, after some attendees objected to his presence. I'm still working through my feelings about that exclusion, even as I understand why his being there would have had repercussions.
The conference closed, before adjourning to a nearby club for libations and even more conversation, with Paul Ford, known as a mordantly funny man on Twitter, and the creator of thoughtful things and ridiculously good parody.
He took all our breath away, by admitting his ongoing battle with depression; his one-time desire to jump in front of a train; his long battle with managing food consumption; and his uncertainty about meaning in his life.
I did not expect it. I welcomed it. And we embraced him, figuratively and in person. I left the Redd into a 90°F afternoon, boiled and feverish, with a crazy plan on how to spend much of 2015, a deep appreciation of other humans attending, and the most profound empathy yet for the cost creation imposes on us. But we keep on making, because making is what we do.
Videos of the talks from XOXO 2014 will be posted in the coming weeks and months, as in previous years. The one you will all talk about is Darius Kazemi's, and it will rack up millions of views, because he takes the piss out of the event — and others, like TED — in the nicest way.
Other folks have written some wonderful, difficult and celebratory takes on this year's event.
Tim Maly is devastating in his exegesis of the talks, "What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Making," in teasing out which people are important and not. Read his essay for more on the issue of "making stuff alone"; his introduction pushed my fictional opening to this article into my head fully fleshed out.
Equally thoughtful is the deep dive by Taylor Hatmaker at the Daily Dot into technology and death, the relationship between them and the former's utility to try to reject the latter. I disagree only with her use of the term "important people" — most attendees, like myself, are self-employed or working stiffs who are little known outside our circles, but love what we do — but the essay otherwise resonates deeply.
My dear friend, three-time attendee Jenni Leder — our friendship formed at the start of last year's XOXO — tells the story of this year mostly in pictures.
The Verge's Casey Newton captured the scope without falling prey to the tech-news industry blinders.
Michael Keshen of Hover, one of a handful of lightly mentioned patrons (not sponsors) of the event, blogged about being a company representative where he and his colleagues weren't there to sell their firm's products, but immerse themselves in the milieu.
These amazing plywood art pieces are created in a small work area by Gabriel Schama and his laser cutter Elsie. His work really took off after a successful Kickstarter a few years ago.
Romanian artisan Andreea Strete creates these delightful TinyRobots, charming anthropomorphic creatures made of recycled electronic components.
Seattle-based artist Brittany Cox creates “dreamboxes,” gorgeous hand-cut layers of paper framed and backlit. Most have fantasy or literary themes.
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