XOXO 2013: Wot I wrote to my colleagues

[For anyone who doesn’t know, I help oversee some big tech-related events – Game Developers Conference and Black Hat among them. So it was a joy to visit XOXO in Portland last weekend, not least because I can enjoy it without worrying about also running it! But also because the history of _other_ things I’ve been or am involved with – IGF, IndieRoyale, StoryBundle, BundleDragon – are about helping independent creators get noticed – a big theme of XOXO.

Normally, I send out an email internally within our company (UBM) to discuss a trip I went on, and what I learned. In this case, I realized that what I’d written would be good to share externally as well, because, well – transparency is good (minus one thing about an upcoming event I had to snip, sorry!), and maybe other people would get some useful takeaway from my brief comments. So I’ve shared it below.]


So I just wanted to send some notes out on my Fri-Sun trip to XOXO – http://www.xoxofest.com – which is an ‘independent digital arts’ (including some games!) festival in Portland, Oregon – funded and created by two individuals (Andy Baio, Andy McMillan) who are technologists, but also run an event – a rare skill, given making events is _HARD_, as we know.

Although, if viewed from a high level by a coffee-hating, plaid-detesting cynic (not me!), XOXO is about as hipster as you can get*, there were a lot of amazing takeaways for me from the show about heart, and community and especially curation – something we all help to do.

Some notes (here’s a good pre-show overview of the event from Wired – http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/09/xoxo-2013/ ):

– The organizers went to a LOT of trouble to outfit an art gallery/warehouse for the show, even stringing in power, bringing their own chairs, bathroom trailers, water, food trucks, etc. That was because, as organizer Andy Baio explained in his intro, the ‘sterility’ of convention centers would just sap all the fun and creativity out of the show otherwise. (This is definitely something we’ve found with our mid-sized shows – convention centers can be a dispiriting place to hold an event where you’re trying to get it to take off and also encapsulate community. But it’s a massive amount of work to use non-conventional venues.)

– Another thing that Andy B noted in his intro – and which I wholeheartedly agree with – is that their conference had no panels. (It had a group Q&A with the founders of BoingBoing – http://www.boingboing.net – but that was subtly different.) In any case, his point is well made – panels have little takeaway, you don’t need to prepare for them, and they’re often just excuses for the speakers to get a free pass. Curate exclusive, dedicated talks carefully and your attendees will have a better time.

– There was a LOT of work into associated showcases for video games, board games, films, food, etc, which definitely validated for me some of the work we’re doing on Game Developers Conference and elsewhere in trying to increase the _experience_ for the attendee. It’s not just about the show floor (expo) or the show floor and the conference rooms (expo/conference). It’s about everything that people feel and think as they walk around the venue and interact with people and see and do things that make them happier and feel like they’re part of a whole. XOXO did this very well – partly by being fairly violent about staving off the overt marketing. (Although they did have sponsor ‘supporters’ – carefully curated as well.)

– The theme of the show was very much around anti-corporate creativity – how you can disintermediate and get money directly from your audience WITHOUT anyone in the middle messing things up for you and/or taking a cut. Hilariously, that sometimes leads to people building systems that then intermediate again. But they should then be significantly more artist friendly – eg Jack Conte from Pamplemousse discussing his Patreon – http://www.patreon.com/ – system of artist-funding. (Also presenting was Twitter and Medium co-founder Ev Williams, who talked a lot about how systems are successful when they make doing _things_ easier.)

– But another key theme was simply – how do I feel? Do I feel good about my job and my place in the world and the service I’m providing and how I’m interacting with people who like my creations? Instapaper creator (and early Tumblr employee) Marco Arment had a really interesting take on this, explaining that whenever he created something in a space and it got crowded, he wanted to get out of there and do something else – even if he was still doing well in that market. That’s a problem many of us are dealing with – we can’t retreat, but we have a bunch more competitors than we are used to. Smaller creators can hew their own path, though – and Marco is challenging himself to get into more crowded spaces with a podcast app, because he still feels like he has a unique vision to bring (another good point transferable universally!).


– The most telling talk for me was from Cabel Sasser of Panic (http://www.panic.com) – a very unique Portland software company who are fiercely independent. Someone made a really cute sketch note: https://twitter.com/justsomeguy/status/381949040234987521 about his talk, which was basically about how his company (and a specific project in it) scaled to the point where he didn’t really understand how to be happy any more, and he obsessed about what the ‘end’ of Panic was going to be. His conclusion? Maybe _now_ is the best time of your life, and so you need to fill it with ideas and weirdness, and move away from anxiety and confusion.

This amount of feeling may make XOXO sound a little bit like a bizarre religious cult – and I’m looking forward to seeing the talks from these people and many others posted online, so I can show you them and you can discover that it’s a lot more complex than the ‘shared hallucination’ that some claimed it was last year. 🙂 (Although a large part of events like this are in the people you meet, not JUST what was said.)

But I think there’s something increasingly important about inspirational people talking about how they feel, and how it’s OK to feel other than perfect. If you do this, you can end up owning the machine/process, as opposed to having the machine/process own you. And I think that can be true whether you’re just yourself, or part of a much larger organization.

The event also informed some of my opinions about our [REDACTED] that we’re planning in [REDACTED]. I think increasingly nowadays, you can’t launch something that looks corporate or soulless and try to build buzz for it – buzz is based around authenticity, and authenticity is based around joy for your subject matter. And, guess what? Joy is not engineerable or algorithmic or procedural. It’s natural.

(*Ah yes, hipsters. Indeed, there was a swish reception for the show at Wieden+Kennedy, the high-end ad agency who work for Nike and have the ‘nest’ meeting room featured in Portlandia – http://www.adweek.com/news/television/wieden-kennedys-goofy-portlandia-cameo-125829http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cfl-XGbd2KU . Also there were baby urban goats next to the warehouse that was the center for the event, lots of food carts, etc… you get the idea!)

[Pics of XOXO 2013 CC-licensed, courtesy John Biehler.]

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