The 2016 XOXO Festival just wrapped, and I’m still processing it all. This post may be a bit long, fair warning.
A Living Event: Some Background
I’ve been involved or aware of XOXO since it started as a Kickstarter project back in 2012, and have managed to make it three out of the five times it’s happened (first as a volunteer, then twice as an attendee). I feel incredibly privileged to have made it to so many, in part for the experience itself, but also because it’s allowed me to see how the festival has grown and evolved over time.
Some context: this is the original campaign video from the Kickstarter campaign (you can also see it on the campaign page, along with plans for the event). You’ll see it was pitched as a “celebration of disruptive creativity” originally, which wasn’t wrong, and still is a core aspect of the event. But it’s come to encompass more than that. It evolved.
It turned out that the talks that most resonated with others were the ones not about their successes, but about their failures, their struggles. That may sound cynical at first blush, but realize for a moment that the attendees are also creators, and to have those struggles shared, to realize that even the most successful people face the same challenges, is humanizing and cathartic for everyone involved.
This sort of transparency and emotional rawness spread throughout the event: it encouraged everyone to also share, to connect with each other as human beings. Coupled with explicit inclusiveness (the opening comments each year encourage everyone to not be afraid to talk to everyone else). Topics of talks started to include discussion of the challenges of imposter syndrome, and the loneliness of being an independent creator, and real talk about the financial reality of being a creator.
In short, it adapted and never stopped adapting. Even the nitty-gritty details of running an event evolved and became more refined and polished. Based on suggestions and feedback (and the organizers’ own experiences), the scheduling changed, expanding the “Fringe” portion of the event into multiple distinct sub-events (Film, Story, Arcade, Table Top, Music), and not being afraid to cut things that weren’t working (for instance, 2016 had no dedicated Music event, as they realized it had too much competing with it, resulting in low attendance that was unfair to the performers). The Andys brought in additional production help (Rachel), their relationships with vendors and sponsors solidified, and always with an eye on doing what was best for everyone.
Something that got added last year and has continued into this year’s event is that there’s a private Slack channel for XOXO attendees (this was donated by Slack, who has been one of the sponsors for the last three years). Having this sort of persistent back channel has been a huge boon to the event, allowing XOXOers to keep in touch and keep the dialogue and support going throughout the year. I realize not every event can afford a Slack channel (nor can Slack donate one to every event), but if it’s possible, I can’t recommend it enough.
You can read my write-up of the first time I attended here, if you like. Right now, I want to talk about this year’s event.
Crippling Imposter Syndrome Conference 2016
For some context on the title of this section: it’s an event full of creators and makers (whether as speakers or attendees), many of whom you may have already been a fan of for years. It’s really easy to end up getting down on yourself and wondering how you got in at all, and that everyone else is infinitely cooler and more talented than you. You feel like an imposter. It’s utterly untrue, of course, but it’s an incredibly common feeling at this sort of event. “Crippling Imposter Syndrome Conference” came from a Slack message, and got called out during the opening remarks as part of the annual reminder that no, you do in fact belong here, so don’t be afraid to talk to anyone and everyone. (I sincerely love that this is explicitly stated each year: it sets the tone for the event, and I wish more conferences would do something like it, especially in fields like art and technology that tend to attract introverts.)
This was the smoothest, most operationally polished event I’ve been to yet. Registration, swag, information guides, attendee space, it was all looking great from the very start, and continued to run smoothly all weekend. (I’m sure there were the occasional fires to put out, as there always are, but I definitely wasn’t aware of any, which is about as good as anyone can really expect.)
One of the new changes this year was that they simulcast the talks into the venue’s bar space, allowing festival-only pass holders to also watch the talks. This was great not just because we now got to watch the talks, but because it kept the festival-only folks more directly engaged with the event: in past years, there was always a little bit of a disconnect when the talks would start and most of the attendees would funnel in, leaving you with nothing to do (nothing is scheduled opposite the talks), followed by feeling lost during lunch when everyone was talking about talks you hadn’t seen. Does it devalue the extra cost of the conference pass? Maybe a little, but in terms of keeping the entire event engaged and connected, worth it.
I’m not going to dive too much into the specifics of each speaker — rest assured, they’ll be posted online in the next few weeks, so you can go watch for yourselves. I will say, I felt like the recurring theme of this year’s speakers was dealing with the financial realities of the independent creator. This ranged from discussing valuing ourselves and our work, to sharing breakdowns of actual personal finances year over year as a creator (surprise, even people you’d consider famous or successful online probably aren’t making as much as you think they are). There are a lot of unique challenges to the shifting economy, and a persistent perception in the public is that if you’re notable enough to be “internet famous”, that must mean you’re also making a lot of money from that notoriety. It simply isn’t true, but there’s pressure on creators to appear… well, at least solvent, if not actually affluent, when the reality very well may be that they’re supported by a partner or day job or are struggling and on food stamps. This is an incredibly important topic, and I’m really glad that there was as much focus on it as there was.
It wasn’t the only topic, of course. There were also excellent talks discussing allowing elements of vulnerability and emotion into our work, for our own wellbeing as well as for the sake of the art. There were talks about pursuing your interests and letting serendipity play its course. There were talks about the challenges of creating tools to enable the voices of people in repressive societies. In all, though, the watchword was transparency and openness, which is emblematic of XOXO. In so many ways throughout the event, you’re encouraged through word and deed to feel and engage with those feelings.
Feeling the Feels
I’ve mentioned this in other posts, but I’ve been going through a transitionary period recently, figuring out what I want to do next, and working through a resurgence of depression. Despite feeling like I should be minding my budget, it was really important for me to attend XOXO this year, to connect with others and hopefully find more of my people and my path.
It’d be nice if I could say I had a revelatory moment and that the skies opened up to reveal my cosmic calling, but that didn’t happen and that’s totally okay. What DID happen is that I did my best to be social and talk to strangers and be present in the conversations that were happening, and it (combined with everything else happening at the festival) made me feel more connected than I’ve felt in a long time. It was exactly what I needed, and I’m continuously grateful that I had that opportunity. I had some really good conversations, and I was genuinely glad to meet so many new people.
Some of the talks definitely hit home, either for where I am, or where I’ve been. I really wanted to give the speakers a big hug afterward, because a) it’s so damn impressive to open up like they did, and b) because I felt what they were saying so much.
What really floored me, though, was in the closing remarks. I’ll not go into specifics (I’m not sure it’s really my place), but there was a very emotionally impactful topic discussed, at the end of which, both Andys gave their phone numbers out to the entire audience with the admonishment to call them if they were ever feeling suicidal. That’s not something I can imagine happening anywhere else, and exemplifies just how much the event is really about the people and supporting each other.
A Conference? A Community.
XOXO has continued to evolve. It’s more than the event itself, now, and I don’t think anyone could have anticipated it becoming what it has become: a community, in the truest sense. If you look at the tweets and comments from attendees, you can see it, feel it, the sense of belonging is palpable and so, so needed. And now we have things like the Slack team to let that sense of community continue to grow, to be better able to support each other when we try hard things, to console each other when we falter, and cheer each other on when we succeed.
It’s good that we have that channel, because XOXO won’t be back next year. The organizers have been increasingly consumed by this event each year, and they (justifiably) need a break. There’s nothing clear as to when the event will be back (if ever), though it’s clear it means so much to them (as well as the rest of us) that I can’t imagine it will be forever. But even if it is the last one, it won’t be forgotten and the community will live on. I can’t think of a better legacy.