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XOXO: Yes, you do belong here

In September I attended XOXO Festival for the first time. I’ve heard great things about the festival over the years. I almost attended in 2016 but I couldn’t quite make it work and decided I would go the following year. Then they announced they were going on hiatus, so there would be no XOXO 2017. I was really glad to hear they were coming back this year, so I was determined to attend.

XOXO bills itself as an “experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet.” The organizers are intentional about having a diverse and inclusive event, both speakers and attendees. Potential attendees fill out a brief survey about themselves and something they have recently created that they are proud of. This allows the organizers to invite a more diverse group of attendees instead of just having first-come, first-serve ticket sales. They also subsidized 20% of the attendees this year, which meant 400 free tickets.

Here’s a good little intro video with some footage from this year:

So what was my XOXO experience like?

I was struck by how friendly everyone was. There was a large pavilion outside the venue with standing tables and a many people would readily walk up to you and introduce themselves. There was very little “where do you work?” in the conversations and a lot of “what are you excited/passionate about?” It felt like a gathering of soon-to-be friends and not a schmoozy networking event.

The opening keynote Thursday night by Cameron Esposito was funny and powerful. One of the best lines included in that video above was “art dismantles power, otherwise it is propaganda.” You should check out her stand-up special, Rape Jokes, which deals with her experience of sexual assault. It’s free to watch on her site and she’s collecting donations for RAINN. As of this writing, over $80k has been raised.

In the weeks prior to the festival, attendees were invited to join the XOXO Slack group chat. There are a bunch of different topical channels in there to help you connect with each other. Friday at the festival was largely reserved for social meetups. The Slack channels organized over 30 meetups around Portland. It ended up being a great way to ease into the festival by meeting people and exploring Portland.

I attended the #indieweb/#mastodon meetup in the morning and the #mcelroy meetup in the afternoon. If you’re not familiar with the McElroy brothers, they’re best known for their hilarious advice podcast: My Brother, My Brother and Me. They have a segment within that show, “Munch Squad,” where they read fast food companies’ earnest, actual press releases for their new food abominations. It seemed only appropriate that if we were going to have an XOXO #mcelroy meetup, it should be somewhere like Taco Bell. So that’s what we did. We had some good, good (bad) food and lots of laughs. I kid you not, my total came to $6.69 (hashtag nice, hashtag blessed). For two people there, it was their first time ever eating Taco Bell, so it was a treat to introduce them to it.

I might have bought munchsquad dot club after that meetup.

Friday night the festival portion started, aka the Paradox of Choice. The main auditorium had Film and Animation. Another room had Art+Code. There was also the Arcade room and the Tabletop room. I went to Art+Code first and saw Jenn Schiffer’s introduction, including some attendee’s retro websites. I also saw Baratunde Thurston’s talk about racialized news headlines and his quiz web app, Living While Black. Try it out and see if you can tell which headlines are real or fake.

I decided to bop around to some of the other things going on at the same time, thinking that anything I missed in Art+Code would be recorded and posted online later. Unfortunately I was mistaken. I wish I had stayed in Art+Code longer, but oh well. I was glad to catch the Bill Wurtz segment of Film and Animation. If you’re not familiar with him, start with “and the day goes on.”

On Saturday the conference portion started. These were the main speakers and there was only one track, so no worries about missing anything. They were also recorded and many are now posted. Check out some of my favorites:

There’s several more posted on the XOXO YouTube.

A recurring theme from both attendees and speakers was experiencing impostor syndrome. Some attendees even made an XOXO Bingo game where the free spot was “have impostor syndrome.” There was a recurring encouragement, though: yes, you do belong here.

The Slack chat was an interesting component throughout the event. I was impressed that organizers and volunteers were on it regularly to answer questions and respond to feedback. Day-to-day, improvements were made based on feedback, like adding more lighting to the picnic tables outside at night. The organizers were very receptive to feedback and criticism; it was a transparent process since all the attendees could see it. It was also great to connect with other attendees through it. I used it to meet up with people for meals and even at the airport on my way home.

I went in to XOXO with pretty high expectations and was not disappointed. It’s a fantastic community. I highly recommend it if you’re involved in anything creative online. Hopefully I will see you there in 2019!

Check out some other attendee’s blog posts:

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@Jennifer Stavros, suldrew, Samantha Geovjian Clarke, and 1 others

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