Thoughts About XOXO Fest

Yesterday was the last day of XOXO Fest 2013, a gathering of people who independently make stuff. I arrived in Portland to find that I was a bit early through an accident of planning. It was a great day, though — with a tour of Portland by foot, by bike, and by cab around a city I had only visited previously with a rental car.

Seeing a city by foot gives you much more time to get to know its nooks and crannies. I poked my head down dusty streets, rows of bars, and fancy and blithely hip new restaurants and breweries. The act of walking implies the flexibility to change course and adapt to interesting new routes that might pop up in front of you. It wasn’t an association that was lost on me as I walked into XOXO’s opening night last Thursday

The conference’s most notable feature was its attendees. The two Andy’s (Baio and McMillan) who ran the conference limited the attendees to creators of things by going through a controversial filtering process to whittle down the application list before granting passes on a first-come, first-serve basis. The move caught many used to the status quo by surprise, but the effect it had (at least, on me) was to bring into focus the shift in meaning and purpose that has accompanied the movement of vast sums of money into the growth of the Internet.

XOXO Fest is perhaps a slow and fragile antidote to the damage that subordinating creativity to commercialism has wreaked on the people who make stuff. The worst damage isn’t the stuff you can see – the giant corporate-sponsored party tents and club rentals, the talks full of startup product pitches, the constant Q&A sessions full of self-promotional grandstanding. It’s the prejudices built up against introducing ourselves to strangers, as we’ve gotten into a default mode that we can’t trust anyone that we meet at these gatherings to actually be kindred spirits.

The hardest thing about XOXO was realizing how tiring it was to overcome my habit of not talking to anyone other than the folks I already know. The potential for making interesting connections and conversations was really there, and I forced myself to follow Andy Baio’s advice to just talk to people.

Beyond just being introverted, in 2013 it’s extremely unnatural to go into a chat with a random stranger at a conference and expect any kind of fruitful experience, and that’s a damn shame.

Still, XOXO has given me hope that making a safe environment for people who do stuff is not only possible, it is also awesome. It’s just going to require that we follow through and take advantage of this gift that Andy and Andy gave us, help each other out, impress the hell out of them, and then convince them that this is an idea worth fighting for for at least another year.

So, to everyone I met: keep in touch and make cool stuff! To everyone else: let’s make cool stuff so that we might have the luck, courage, and space to meet each other next year.