XOXO Festival: What It’s All About & Why We Loved It

photo by brookeparrott

by Dan Hon and Renny Gleeson

A week ago, the brand-new XOXO Festival hit Portland, and for the next three days it was like the best bits of the internet–all the earnestness, the niceness, the anyone-can-make-it-if-you-just-try-hard-ness–camped out at the lo-fi YU Contemporary and generally hung out, fertilised, cross-pollinated and exploded into roughly four hundred shards of optimistic potential.

We want to be careful and call XOXO a festival. Not a conference. A conference is something that, at worst, has hundreds of indentikit khakis and polo-shirt drones swarming in on a conference center monstrosity, something built in the 70s with bad signage, flickering fluorescent lighting, amusingly patterned carpet and, well, branded pens. Maybe even a free novelty USB stick.

photo by jessedit

But XOXO wasn’t a conference. It was a festival, one kickstartered by the Two Andys. Andy the first, Andy Baio: he of the events-listing upcoming.org that was sold to Yahoo! and the infinitely more interesting waxy.org linklog, the guy who did things like
Kind of Bloop, the 8-Bit Tribute to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (complete with attractive intellectual property lawsuit) and collector of supercuts. You want a cultural maven of the internet? Someone who’s always pointing out the coolest stuff? (and you do know that playable, shareable text-adventures are cool, right?)

When W+K started PIE several years back, Andy Baio was one of the first folks we invited to join. Sadly he’d accepted the job as CTO of Kickstarter, but we stayed in touch, and when he hatched the notion of a crowd-funded festival of interactive do-ers, makers and culture-hackers, we raised our hand to help.

It was a crazy mix of creativity, idealism and pragmatism–a place you might find yourself standing next to the inventor of 4chan, the CEO of Etsy and one of the brains behind the Makerbot, talking about printable guns. It was a Large Hadron Collider of cultural collision, and W+K was well represented in the crowd. And a side note: W+K busted serious ass and hosted a party for the attendees which will live in infamy on instagram (#xoxofest – look for the burlesque acrobats) and Facebook (check out our photo album here).

photo by wiedenkennedy

Second Andy, Andy McMillan, an Andy many’d admittedly not heard of before but have you seen the conference he organises? Yeah, we’d go to that.

The thing about XOXO was that it wasn’t just about the speakers. The speakers were great. They were new. They were, bluntly, not the kind of people who had given hundreds of talks before, who had worked the conference circuit and had the whole thing down pat. They were new, raw and excited and genuinely willing to share what they had learned.

So whether it was Emily Winfield Martin talking about how she accidentally fell into being a stupendously successful illustrator and writer after having been resigned to becoming really good at making coffee for other people, or Dan Harmon with what has to be one of the most hilarious PowerPoint presentations ever made (never mind that his point about money not having ruined the internet not being exactly correct), or Chad Dickerson talking about what Etsy actually means.

photo by davebug

It was the attendees as well. Someone we know remarked that one of the interesting things about XOXO was that it was worth going to based on the attendee list alone, never mind the speaker list. Compared to something like the current Austin-eating behemoth of SXSW Interactive, the 400-odd attendees of XOXO selected by, well, whoever was quickest off the draw to chip in on the Kickstarter, felt positively refreshing.

The speaker list, combined with the scheduling of just one track of just one set of talks meant that everyone could talk to everyone else and be reasonably sure of having something in common to talk about. No “um, did you see the talk in Hall F, room 16? No? You were in the Keynote? Oh, the other Keynote? There were two Keynotes?”

XOXO was almost fractal in the way that the Andys designed and curated it. The theme that thread through all the speakers was: if there’s one thing you need to be sure of, make sure that you know what you love. And then, if you can, find a way to do that thing. Or multiple things.

photo by santheo

For XOXO, that meant the food carts that the Andys loved. The bars they loved. The stories of people succeeding at doing what they loved. Whether that was a documentary about Indie Games that was one of the first to eschew distributors and instead be available same day and date, worldwide, without DRM–because it was the right thing to do for its audience, or the way Chad persuaded the audience that Etsy isn’t just some way for people to sell shit. It’s about trying to come up with a better way for people to make a living and the way corporations can play a positive role in our lives and communities.

XOXO isn’t the new SXSW. It’s not even the new ETech, for those alpha geeks who are still pining for it. But it was something stupendously unique, another thing on the internet being proud of what it was.

photo by johnbiehler

Final note, Anil Dash did a great job of liveblogging all the talks which you should totally check out before the speaker videos are up.

View the photos from the W+K XOXO party on our Facebook.

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