XOXO and the Shimmering Distortion Field

My badge. I should have put “medium-sized deal” on it.

My badge. I should have put “medium-sized deal” on it.

This has taken me a while to write, both because jet lag and day-to-day logistics got in the way, and because I needed to chew on it for a while. Or maybe the distortion field has started to fade, and only now can I decide what actually happened.

This is mostly personal reflections, because other people have written better summaries and reports of the actual contenty bits. If I started in on examples of things that were said on stage, or things I got to try, this would be twice as long – there were so many good talks and good soundbites and weird and important and fun experiences.

I'd never been to XOXO before. I'm sure I'd heard of it, but not to the extent that it was really in my consciousness when I saw the teaser video earlier this year. I can't say what made me apply for a space in the lottery*, but I'm so glad I did and that I got a spot. It definitely felt like a big deal, mind, to pay for the ticket and the flights. It's definitely not nothing. And I did worry in the following weeks, both about the money and about if it was even a good idea to go.

So XOXO is a sort of conference-festival-gathering, in Portland, Oregon, for people who try to independently create things online. (And the people who love them...?)

Someone said that it's like gathering a bunch of podcasts in a room, and half the people are in the audience and half are onstage, which I liked. Maybe the main thing was that it was people who talk and care about talking about creating things. Or just about things. Who care, unironically and sometimes loudly. Some of them are people who also have jobbyjobs, maybe at Big Important Companies, or at something totally non-techy or non-creative, or who make a living with illustrations but also want to create board games. Or whatever.

Jonny Sun knows what’s up.

Jonny Sun knows what’s up.

I mentioned to several people how I felt a little bit like a fraud because my indie-ness and freelancing are so different because I live in a country where I don't have to pay for health insurance or health care. I still worry about money but that, at least, is not part of it. I know it doesn't really make me a fraud, but it does make it feel like less of a 'brave' choice.

Then again, I think almost everyone there felt like a fraud in some way. Because they made money, because they didn't make money, because they had many or few followers, because it was their first or sixth XOXO, because they hadn't heard of the speakers or knew all of them personally. After a while the jokes about impostor syndrome sort of passed into the absurd and then back through jokes and all the way to earnest. Or something.

Anyway. Caring earnestly doesn't just stop with the things we (they? we? the collective xoxivemind?) make, though. There is earnest care taken by the organizers to make sure people are and feel welcomed and comfortable. The lowest common denominator is that it’s everyone's responsibility that everyone feels safe and OK. The baseline is not that people have to ask for accommodations or, well, to be treated like a person; the baseline is that you think hard about why you think it's important to be 'allowed' to say or do, or neglect to do, something that can hurt or endanger or dehumanize someone. Pronoun pins, content warnings, a very thorough code of conduct, live captioning – and a living ongoing conversation where adjustments were made as well as was possible.

At one point, one of the Andys checked in directly with the captioner, who was in Seattle and let us know that in the captioning. Meta.

Never that all-too-common air of, oh, we're all good people, we're woke, we're underdogs, we're from the internet – we could never be bad or sexist or racist or homophobic or transphobic or ableist etc. It was understood that everyone in attendance ascribed to certain values, values that needed to be lived and not just held, and if you messed up it wasn't glossed over and forgotten. Understood, possibly forgiven, but not just acknowledged as lip service and let’s move on. Not just a blanket “be decent” but “here is the minimum it actually requires to be decent.” (And a couple of badges removed and the people in question banned permanently; no crap about anyone being a good person really, they just...)

I acknowledge that my perspective, of course, is as a European-living white cis woman, and also a queer fat neuro-atypical one, with aspirations to awareness, and all that those aspects bring with them of seeing and not-seeing things. My feeling, at least, was that on the whole it was a safer space than most others of a similar bent. And, again, the intentions to be a safe and welcoming space came with action, not just a nice turn of phrase.

Note: This is definitely not to say that the event or the people there are 100% perfect. There were some issues, both logistical and personal, and not all of them could be resolved, but there was a combination of intent, action, and humility that made such a huge difference in how the whole thing felt.

There's a lot of ongoing complaining about bubbles, but there is something to be said for them sometimes. It's not like most of us have the luxury of actually ignoring what's going on outside the group of people who agree with us, so it's nice to get to inflate a little shimmery temporary forcefield, undulating gently, where the rules are slightly different for just a while. And don't forget: If you eat while you're in the land of the fae, if you sleep under their stars, if you dance their dances – you're forever changed, and you take a little bit of it inside you wherever you go.

Jenn Schiffer MC-ed the Art+Code - you can  watch her intro here .

Jenn Schiffer MC-ed the Art+Code - you can watch her intro here.

XOXO has evolved since the first couple of go-rounds, when it seems to have been more tech-flavored.** Art and, I don't know, ‘softer’ making and ideas seem to have been given an increasingly bigger space, and not just in the Art + Code segments that were introduced this year to intense joy and cheering. I managed to get into that room right before they had to shut the doors, and was very glad I did.

Art + Code, incidentally, was at night, and the evening programming was the only time there were multiple tracks. I really appreciated not having to make any choices during the day. There were a couple of things I was bummed about missing in the evening coin-toss, but I'm happy about pretty much everything I got to see. Which is definitely not the norm for a conference.

Baratunde Thurston  talked about a media-language-reprogramming game that was both hilarious and enraging, in the best way. Level 3 was a good mnemonic.

Baratunde Thurston talked about a media-language-reprogramming game that was both hilarious and enraging, in the best way. Level 3 was a good mnemonic.

At one point much later I was trying to explain to someone that one of the talks felt a little out of place because it was too polished, like it could have been given at any number of conferences, and they joked that oh, was it too good? And that wasn't it at all, though I could see where that idea came from, as I'd been trying to explain that the talks were personal, they were in-progress, they were vulnerable and open in different ways. Maybe that was it – it wasn't that it could have been given anywhere, it was that it could almost have been given by someone else, if they'd been given the notes and a little rehearsal time. The other talks and presentations were, even when they weren't personal in the intimate sense, so there and so theirs, and so in the moment. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, sometimes inspiring or urgent or weird or confusing or all of them at once. Definitely 'good'. But most of all very present.

The attendees, too. Everyone just seemed so happy to get to be there, to meet people and play games and listen and think and know that it was OK to not be on, networking, successful, hungry.

The Friday was set up as a day for self-organized social meetups basically based around different Slack channels, and I managed to hit a few and was happy that I did and only a little bummed for the ones I missed. But then I think the headspace of meetups kind of stayed?

I quickly started asking people what they like to do and what they do-do (which, hee, poop) because that made it up to any one person what they wanted to focus on, while not making them decide if their jobjob or their stolen midnight craft hours or their loose future dream was what supposedly defined them. Also easier to answer than “So, who are you”. And I was fascinated by all the responses – the immense breadth of what people do, and do-do, and want to talk about, and are afraid of, and want to help each other with.

I described it as a number of different things over the days and afterwards (and heard and saw other people describe it lots of ways, too.) The one concept I kept coming back to was summer camp, but mostly the good bits. (I've only ever been to theater camp, the once, so let's say the Platonic ideal/idea of summer camp.) You connect quickly because it's this totally separate space from your everyday life, because maybe you have things in common, because the explicit and implicit vibe is one of Be Decent and you don't feel as scared or anxious as you might otherwise, and because there's oxytocin pumped through the vents of the arena to make you feel good about other people. (Probably not that last one. Or maybe?) There's lots of activities, you kind of stay up a little too late because everything is exciting. You connect in that immediate intense way that kids often do, that we maybe lose as we grow up, that can be about liking the same thing or about just being at the same table at lunch.

Many people were saying on the way out that they didn't want it to end, and I agree – I don't know if I'd actually been able to handle much more, but I wish I could have had an extra day of not even any actual content, just picnic tables and games and decompressing and maybe applying the new sense of HELLO I LIKE THING, YOU LIKE OTHER THING? TELL ME ABOUT THING!

Helen Rosner . We should all have this as a poster.

Helen Rosner. We should all have this as a poster.

Weirdly, there were moments where I could have felt like an impostor and somehow didn't, because I was reminded of things I've done that have mattered. At other times, to be clear, I felt like a tiny little pile of slug slime because I'm not doing all I could or should be doing, but even then I was sort of boosted by other people's efforts.

Some (even more) personal notes

I don't know how my experience was affected by having P with me. I do know that I'm very glad that the application process lets you link yourself with someone, so that you can both go if one of you is selected. Maybe going alone would have made me better about inserting myself into situations and talking to people; maybe I would have been more overwhelmed and nervous. We did split up at times, and both did separate social meetups and impromptu stuff, even if we did hang out most of the time.

Kian Lavi  snapped me talking about something either very deep or entirely odd. Possibly both.

Kian Lavi snapped me talking about something either very deep or entirely odd. Possibly both.

The social experiences, though, were so lovely and intense. Several times someone in a group would realize that they followed someone else and liked what they did (and I was on both ends of such interactions, which was amazing) but just as often people just clicked and slotted in. There was no real way of knowing, if you sat down with other people, if they'd been friends for years, worked together, were married, or had known each other for exactly two and a half rounds of an intense and hollery space ship game. There were way too many times I wish I'd remembered to snap a picture of someone's badge because we connected briefly and then had to run to something and my brain is just a bit tired.

I also know that I'm glad for P that he came. Initially, it was maybe a little bit more of my thing, and he was thinking that maybe he's not a creative in that sense. But he got to meet fun people, play with and talk about makey things (because he is creative and makey) and think a little bit about the things he does and the things he wants to do. And it maybe did something for us as a couple, to get that boost at the same time. Plus, he can assure me that the bubble, the weird other realm, was real. Or at least real enough that we had the same experience.

Coming home, I felt like I was both still in that sense of elation, the distortion field of XOXO's shimmery reality, and in a simultaneous cynical state where I was questioning if it was real and if I was going to do anything with that energy. Are these people friends now? Because we played weird games and sang karaoke and were slapped about the brain with the same talks and realizations? I mean, yes, but are they? And am I really inspired or is this just a brief case of fest brain?

(There was an art installation called Dear Future Me and the first time I tried to write future-me a postcard I started crying and had to leave. A little overwhelm in the situation, and a little overwhelm at thinking about the future. But I did go back and write one later.)

I sort of feel like… it doesn't even matter? I've had kind of a shit year, work-wise, health-wise, world-wise (and I know a lot of other people have too) and it was good for the soul to be reminded of the fact that people can be good, people can do good things, and sometimes very small things can make a big difference to someone else.

And some of the things I do matter to someone else.

Automation Resources Group had a big CNC, and we all got little wooden XOXOs. I’m curious if people will decorate theirs.

Automation Resources Group had a big CNC, and we all got little wooden XOXOs. I’m curious if people will decorate theirs.

A couple of days after XOXO, still in Portland, I had a dream about coming into a storefront-slash-studio space that was being fixed up for me; I'd forgotten about it but knew it was mine, and they were clearly my choices – the kitchenette was being painted all in dark petrol-teal. If I was a dream-interpret-y type, there'd be lots of possible layers there. Like, I have the (physical and mental) spaces to do things, I just have to remember that they're there. Or, spaces can be used for lots of different things. Or, I need to be more present so I don't miss out on things.

Or, I need to paint a room dark deal.

I still have little flutters of anxiety, weeks later, about having been too much, about not deserving to be there and talking too much and taking up space and all the fun things that my brain does to me. But I think I'm OK. I think it was OK that I was there.

And I think I want to go again next year.

Random bonus thoughts:

A good selection of free (!) non-alcoholic drinks


This was definitely a good place to wear and show off hand-made dresses. (I brought one for each day.)

The amazing sneak peek arcade with fun, weird, gorgeous games of different kinds (I wish I'd had time for more than a glance at the tabletop room, but Space Team and You Think You Know Me are definitely on my post-XO wishlist.)

The chill room! I'd expected just a quiet area to one side but there were big lounge bags and dimmed lighting. Every establishment ever should have a chill room.

Lizzo was GOOD AS HELL.

Lizzo was GOOD AS HELL.

Lizzo was the secret musical guest! I had been making P listen to her right before we took the trip, so it was extra fun on top of an amazing concert. (I will forever hate strobing lights though. Boo.)

The karaoke! Even before Lizzo and Open Mike Eagle and sundry other ‘real’ musicians took over for a bit.

400-odd subsidized, meaning free, passes. A lot of people who wouldn't have been able to come, could come.

I got to meet David Malki, who makes Wondermark, where one of my tattoos is from!

*Everyone fills out an application to be entered into a ticket lottery, where they briefly mention what they’re working on and are proud of. Not to prove their worthiness, just to weed out the oversalesy biz types.

**This is the sixth time, after a break in 2017. XOXO is the brainchild of Andy Baio and Andy McMillan; this year they also employed Rachel Coddington as a full-time producer.

Some out-links:

Cameron Esposito gave the opening key note and you should check out her special ‘Rape Jokes’

I talked a bit about XOXO in episode 14 of Make Do

#xoxofest on Instagram and Twitter

XOXO’s youtubes has talks from past years; this year’s will be up in a bit

Mathew Olson wrote a meaty piece for Digg - and one about the Arcade

Dear XOXO from Hey Georgie

The Folx from Anxiety by E. Christopher Clark

XOXO 2018 by spideyj