XOXO 2019

The 2019 XOXO Festival was last week, and I’ve been chewing on it since then. I wouldn’t say I’m done thinking about it, but it’s time to start putting some thoughts into words.

XOXO is one of my favorite events – they get so much right about how to run a conference/festival/experimental-gathering-of-people. For example, they work with custom beverage makers to bring a variety of custom sodas (and now also kombucha and teas) to the event, and bring in local baristas to handle coffee. They find delicious food carts from around the city and get them to set up and provide food for the attendees. They embrace the area they’re in (working with local charities, researching the neighborhood and calling attention to its history, among other things). Could they just let people fend for themselves? Sure, lots of events do. But it’s more welcoming and thoughtful this way, so they do it.

Or thinking about inclusion – they do a lot, and are always looking to find ways to do more. Do they need to provide fancy enamel pins for people’s pronouns? No, but they do. Do they need to acknowledge the history of the land they’re on, and the tribes who were here first? No, but they do. Do they need to prioritize the inclusion of marginalized groups? No, but they do. It’s that sort of event. The result is an incredibly open, welcoming experience, where you’re encouraged to talk to anyone and everyone, and given ample space and time to do so.

I’ve been going every other year since it started. The alternating wasn’t entirely an intentional decision, it’s just how scheduling and finances and everything else sort of worked out, and now that it’s sort of a trend, I’m debating whether to keep running with it. (On the one side: it’s a fun event that I enjoy. On the other: there’s limited space, and this opens up room for more people to go.) It’s been interesting to see how it continues to evolve over time. This is the first year I actually did the conference pass (previously I’d either volunteered or gone with the notably less expensive festival pass). It was nice – the talks were good, and in at least some cases, I was able to strike up conversations with my seatmates. (It’s not strictly necessary to do the conference pass – they thankfully stream the talks to the bars in the venue, which allows festival goers to still get most of the experience. That said, it was nice to actually be in the theater for once.)

So. As has been pointed out on this blog before, I’m a bit of an introvert, and struggle with depression and related social anxiety. Even with as welcoming a community as this, it’s still a struggle, especially at first. It helps that I’ve gone enough times that I now know a number of people (attendees, volunteers, staff), but it’s still a challenge. This year was no different – I spent a lot of time sort of on the edges of the gathering, doing my best to be present and not stuck in my head. The nice thing about this sort of community, though, is that there are a surprising number of other people who are also hanging out on the fringes, and so (after an hour or two) I managed to strike up a few really pleasant conversations (with strangers, no less).

That brings up something that made me feel good, and like maybe I belong after all: as I was walking around, someone came up to me and said that I’d been the first person at their very first XOXO that they’d talked to, and that I’d given them some advice for traversing the event, and they wanted to thank me for it. I’m pretty sure I mumbled something to the effect of “I’m so glad it worked out and you enjoyed it,” but it actually meant a lot to get that sort of acknowledgement.

Some highlights from this year:

  • Playing with the Playdate: It’s small and well crafted and feels very bespoke with the crank handle on the side, but I think it has a lot of potential, and even the demo was fun (if a little maddening, in a “Original Super Mario and needing to get that jump just right” sort of way).
  • The SmallBü Surprise: Alex and Lindsay are freakin’ adorable, and it was super rad getting to see some early early details of their upcoming project – a feature length animated film. Looks super cool. I’d talk about it more, but Lindsay made us all pinky-promise not to. Something to keep an eye out for… in like 3 years (that stuff takes a while).
  • Emma Kinema’s talk: Emma is one of the organizers behind Game Workers Unite, which is an effort to encourage/help organize unions within the game industry. I’m not involved in the game industry anymore, but I still know plenty of folks who are, and Emma’s discussion about organizing and unionizing definitely struck a chord. You have an industry that is worth how much, yet many workers make how little, while needing to live in some of the most expensive cities in the world? It’s not sustainable, and I’m glad things are finally moving forward in this space.
  • Caitlin Doughty’s talk: Caitlin is the creator and host of Ask a Mortician (and has written several books at this point about death). I already knew and enjoyed her show, and her talk was hilarious (discussing how she got into all this in the first place).
  • Jahkara J. Smith’s talk: Jakhara might be better known as Sailor J (but I doubt for much longer, as her acting career continues to grow). It was great to hear how all that started, and also her thoughts on influencer culture. Incredibly sharp, I’m excited to see where she goes from here. Definitely check her out later when the talks get posted online.
  • Lindsay Ellis’s talk: Lindsay does some really fantastic film criticism and analysis on her YouTube channel (I’ve linked her stuff on here before). The talk was a more serious one, and a bit of a recurring topic in a number of the talks, discussing online harassment. She doesn’t really highlight the attacks much publicly, so a lot of people might not have even been aware how bad it had gotten.
  • Rhea Butcher‘s talk: Rhea’s a standup comedian, and their talk was a mix of serious talk and standup. It feels weird to talk about standup (I feel like it’s better to, y’know, experience it), but I’ll say that I definitely enjoyed it, and suggest checking it out for yourself once the talks get put online.

Those are some of my highlights, but honestly all the speakers and discussions were pretty great. The talks aren’t uploaded yet, but once they are, go check them all out.

I feel like I should have some sort of insights or takeaways from the whole thing to share, but I don’t yet and might not. A lot of experiences left me thoughtful, but not in a revelatory way. I will say, one theme I took out of it all was that it’s worth being true to yourself. There are a lot of assholes out there, and as you gain recognition, you can end up in their crosshairs for utterly arbitrary and bullshit reasons. But if you stop because of that, you’re letting them win, and fuck that. Be strong, take care of yourself and those close to you, and keep going. Good advice, I’d say.