"It's not a festival" Andy Baio says, before abruptly correcting himself– "it is a festival," he concedes. I can sense that most of the two thousand or so people Baio's addressing from the coliseum stage understand what he's getting at.
Standing next to Baio is Andy McMillan, and together the two co-founders of XOXO (known as "the Andys") are delivering their opening remarks for this year's event. Much of their intro concerns why, after a year off in 2017, they deemed it important to bring XOXO back.
Just what are the Andys bringing back? In the broadest possible terms, XOXO is a festival about the internet. You can look up recap videos and talks from previous years, search Twitter for meticulous sketch notes penned in attendees' swag notebooks, or read effusive praise of the festival, all without getting a good sense of what XOXO's whole deal is. It has never been straightforward for the Andys, or for people writing about XOXO, to sum the event up in a few words. When I lived in XOXO's home city, Portland, Oregon, the boilerplate description I got from friends who attended was that people who "make things" and are also online maybe too much — who doesn't that describe nowadays? — will find plenty to like there.
XOXO's first incarnation in 2012 was pitched as "a celebration of disruptive creativity" [emphasis XOXO's]. You can still watch the original Kickstarter pitch video and browse through that year's "Conference" section lineup — which was predominantly white and male, and by all accounts the majority of the 400 or so attendees were too.
In the years since, XOXO has been continually tweaked in response to internal criticisms and broader movements advocating for inclusivity in the many fields it caters to: tech, comics, filmmaking, gaming, music, podcasting and more. XOXO has now been a thing for so long that, going back through all the lineups (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016), it's hard not to see them like delicately preserved snapshots of internet culture that year.
The 2018 page for XOXO bills it as "an experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet" [emphasis XOXO's]. Look past the pitch and line-ups for the "Conference" and "Festival" portions to XOXO's Code of Conduct and Inclusion policy, and there you'll find significant signs of the festival's evolution, some findings of the XOXO "experiment" since 2012. The Code of Conduct is strikingly thorough, borrowing heavily for its definitions of harassment from the blog Geek Feminism. XOXO's Inclusion policy explains and justifies several items pertaining more to how XOXO itself is run: details on its progressive lottery-based ticketing policy, on-site childcare, ADA accessibility, availability of gender pronoun pins.
Having read Baio's thorough blog post announcing XOXO's comeback, I know the theory and motivation behind hosting XOXO again, but as a complete newcomer, I'm eager to identify the aspiration behind the decision — whatever the hard-to-express dynamic is that makes XOXO both a festival and not a festival. The best descriptor Baio offers on-stage is simple: he calls the four day event "the glue" that holds the gathered XOXO community together. With approximately 2,300 people in attendance, that community is bigger than ever.
After the opening remarks, the attendees file out of Veterans Memorial Coliseum to greet a clear-skied Portland evening and each other. I find that being at the festival to write about it for work doesn't dampen my usual social anxieties, but as soon as the thought enters my mind I get drawn into a conversation with a complete stranger. One moment we're learning each other's names and pronouns, the next we're asking about each other's work, and soon we're cracking jokes about the latest absurd, depressing thing we've seen on online. I think, maybe, I'm starting to see "the glue."
On the opening night of the festival, McMillan and Baio aren't the only ones to talk before keynote speaker Cameron Esposito takes the stage. They invite Rukaiyah Adams to talk about, as Baio calls it, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum's "long and difficult history." Adams, whose family left the Jim Crow South for Portland, tells the audience about the neighborhood that used to exist in what is now the footprint of the coliseum, neighboring convention center and of the Moda Center, home to the Portland Trail Blazers. A thriving community of black residents, many of them displaced to the northern reaches of the city, in the name of "progress" — an entire community broken apart for the sake of a few buildings people only visit for sports, concerts… and events like this.
"This building is our Robert E. Lee statue," Adams says plainly.
Though Adams' presentation isn't listed in XOXO's program, I'm not surprised to see her given the space to address the area's history. When trying to decide whether to attend the festival, one piece in XOXO's Inclusion policy struck me, as a former resident of Portland, as particularly keen. Under "Location" reads the following:
XOXO acknowledges that we rest on the traditional lands of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other Tribes who made their homes along the Columbia and Willamette rivers.
That an event in the continental US takes place on land stolen from indigenous people should not be new information to anyone. That an event in Portland, one of the whitest major cities in the country, has settled on a venue with a troubling origin is unsurprising. But seeing a broad-scoped art and tech festival, let alone one founded by two white men, provide space for explicit, nuanced acknowledgement of those facts in the event material and within the event itself deserves notice. I'm not suggesting these are praiseworthy decisions so much as necessary ones, as eliding Portland's past would be unjustifiable given its worrying present.
Having lived there, I imagine that Portland's not-so-progressive history regarding race is more familiar to me than it is to many of the XOXO attendees visiting the city for the first time, though I acknowledge that my perspective is limited. Case in point: Rukaiyah Adams' presentation is the first time I hear of the Albina Vision Project, a proposed initiative to redevelop the neighborhood housing the coliseum into greener, livable spaces while reclaiming the area's past. At first glance, the architecture mock-ups for the Albina Vision Project look like any other urban revitalization initiative, but as Adams speaks, the project's drive for restorative justice becomes evident. She mentions placing a Liberian flag in one of the mock-ups as a joke to herself: Liberia's where free black Americans relocated after the Civil War. "I ask that, sometimes, you think about the people too," says Adams before wishing the XOXO audience a good time in Portland over the weekend.
"For its last three years, XOXO featured many speakers covering dark and difficult territory like financial insecurity, online harassment, impostor syndrome, mental health, and discrimination," writes Baio in his post announcing XOXO 2018. The decision to devote the year's main stage "Conference" programming talks to "artists balancing activism with their creative work" bears out: all the speakers circle around how hard it can be to muster optimism about the internet today when so much of it is, well, plain awful.
"Ever heard of a website called 'Genius'?" asks rapper Open Mike Eagle. "Fuck that website." For Eagle, he's weary of the internet content machine's hunger for meaning in his music. For YouTuber Natalie Wynn, a.k.a. ContraPoints, her warning against leaving a lengthy record of our fallible selves online — so that it can't be used against us by harassers of all stripes — is accompanied by a giant, all-caps "DO NOT TWEET" slide. For food writer Helen Rosner, internet media's darker impulses for bias-reinforcing headlines and, again, Twitter's canny ability to obscure context are to blame for the weeks of ridicule she endured for talking about a really smart way of preparing chicken. For comics artist MariNaomi, speaking candidly about the struggles and rare joys in maintaining her dual databases for people of color and queer people in cartooning, the emotional and financial costs of the work are compounded with unending spreadsheet monotony.
Some of the talks address the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election. Matt Furie speaks about his dual artistic and legal efforts to reclaim Pepe the Frog from Trump supporting trolls and alt-right media outlets. In her keynote speech, Cameron Esposito urges the parts of the audience for whom challenges like these feel new to consider that "other people around you have always been working with opposition" — that though things feel worse for everyone in 2018, the conditions that led us here are, as ever, not new to marginalized people. Ijeoma Oluo, editor-at-large of The Establishment and author of "So You Want to Talk About Race," recalls being inundated with notifications from people insisting on her input while she hosted an event on election night — to the point where her phone stopped working, meaning she couldn't get in touch with her kids at home.
So yes, the "Conference" section talks tend towards heavy material. There are too many insightful moments to relate and do justice to in this space. But I want to emphasize: good cheer is never far from hand at XOXO, doubly so at night during the "Festival" programming.
"Looking like Rick Moranis is 50% of jazz," explains comedian Demi Adejuyigbe to the main stage audience on Friday night. Adejuyigbe's fake presentation on jazz, basically the funniest TED Talk parody you could ever see, is wedged into XOXO's Film & Animation programming alongside delights like Graham Annable's animations, Lindsay Ellis' latest video essay and Bill Wurtz's… well, all the different things he does. The jazz primer is certainly the most overtly comedic talk at XOXO — I nearly get a cramp laughing as Adejuyigbe walks through why the club scene in "Spider-Man 3" is the epitome of jazz culture.
Beyond the main stage, laughter echoes down the coliseum's halls from the other event spaces. In the tabletop gaming room people are roleplaying as greedy inheritors at a will arbitration, getting to know one another, becoming besties and, at one station, quite literally playing with their food. At the "Art & Code" presentations, there are guffaws as Diana Smith shows off the best, blockiest remixes of her famous all-CSS portraiture and cheers when anonymous Twitter GIF prodigy @darth makes an "appearance" as a plush red panda at Roberto Baldwin's presentation on "The Hard G Project." People are going hog wild spamming pancakes in "Nour," and running themselves ragged to file timesheets in "Busy Work" at the XOXO Arcade. Eclectic karaoke choices are blasting non-stop from a downstairs bar, courtesy of Portland's Baby Ketten (seriously, what other karaoke songbook has nine songs from '90s power-pop band Jellyfish?).
At night, I can clearly see why Andy Baio cannot say XOXO isn't a festival — people are crisscrossing the coliseum, drinking beers or free sodas named for pop bangers and having fun.
When I see malcontents rail against inclusive spaces and content warnings, it feels to me like they've tricked themselves into thinking that it's impossible to square having a good time with striving for inclusivity. However much the daytime talks delve into difficult subjects and heavy emotions, the rest of XOXO provides an offset.
It's not just because of the programming, of course. It's the people. I've been to other events where "don't be an asshole" was the passive, boiled-down code of conduct, but at XOXO it feels like there's an active minimum standard. "Be respectful," or "be friendly" seem closer to the mark.
The most free-wheeling part of XOXO, the Friday "Social" portion, is largely organized from the bottom-up — instead of talks and activities at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, XOXO attendees active in the community Slack organize dozens of IRL meetups based on some of the Slack's numerous channels. Some are more professionally-aligned (#civic-tech, #kickstarter), some are private meetups for marginalized groups (#poc, #enby), some are Portland-y (how to pick just one place for #beer?) and some are just for fun (Disney fans at a tiki bar, McElroy Brothers fans at a Taco Bell). I start Friday by grabbing lunch at Ground Kontrol arcade during the #videogames meetup — lots of attendees taking turns at the 10-player "Killer Queen" cabinets — before strolling over to the offices of Mozilla for a AR/VR/XR meetup.
I go to the Mozilla event because it's one of two "branded" events during XOXO, along with a UI/UX design-focused Creative Jam organized by Adobe. Picking between the two was easy: I'm not a designer, but I can put on a headset.
Realistically, organizing an event the scale of XOXO necessitates some form of sponsorship, but in 2018 tickets to XOXO cost either $500 or were completely free if you belonged to an underrepresented group or were otherwise unable to attend (somewhere close to 20% of 2018's attendees, a stunning amount, attended for free). XOXO refers to the six corporations — Mozilla, Adobe, Figma, Intel, Intercom and Mailchimp — supporting the event as patrons, not sponsors.
When I arrive at Mozilla's Portland offices, I'm pleasantly surprised to see that the branding present is pretty minimal. Aside from a banner, a pile of Mozilla stickers and some subtle corporate art in the lobby, the space is given over to XOXO. I'm pretty sure I see more Firefox ads stuck to telephone poles around Portland than I do at Mozilla (and yes, seeing a web browser marketed like a local band is kinda weird).
The demos at the AR/VR/XR event are, refreshingly, varied. In a corner devoted to Mozilla's XRStudio workshop for women and nonbinary people there's a facial recognition demo. Next to that, a VR experience designed to de-bias public school teachers. Faced with the choice, I opt to play through an edutainment demo on methane monitoring bankrolled by the Environmental Defense Fund instead of a simulator that walked people through performing a knee surgery. I'm sad to miss out on Hyphen-Labs' NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism experience, as I get stuck waiting in an unexpectedly long line to try on a MagicLeap AR headset — no special demo there, just two of the $2,300 headsets and dozens of people who don't know when they'll get a chance to try one again (reader, I think it's pretty neat).
I don't see a single VR game until the two main demo stations are switched over for a "Beat Saber" tournament an hour before the event's end. On top of that, I don't talk to or happen to hear a single person adopting that familiar tech evangelist manner of speaking, where the tech in question is always world-changing and worth the investment, definitely-assuredly-yes. Instead, this is the first _____-reality showcase I've attended where the people showing off their work aren't trying to sell you on the tech's appeal. The tech is here, now, and though access is often limited, it's being used for entertainment, education and art in ways that aren't being pitched as the next-big-thing.
The same is true throughout the rest of the festival. People are eager to meet one another and talk, but it doesn't feel like anyone's trying to get your attention for personal gain. While chatting with a friend of mine from college at the festival, he describes it as a "molasses" feeling: the sticky, magnetic quality of the encounters at XOXO. I see people snapping photos of each other's festival badges, and while I'm sure that some of small sliver of that is networking and some of it's a noncommittal promise stay in touch, I can't write it all off as either. It's like people all around the festival are feeling the pull of the other conversations to have and people to meet, but don't want the one they're in to end.
That dynamic is playfully flipped on its head by the alternate reality game hidden at the festival. Around the coliseum, lines start to form at three phone booths, all with different instructions on what to say when placing or receiving a call. At each, callers are guided to dial another booth's phone and tell a story involving three specific animals. In return, the person answering the call will describe a specific symbol, which the caller then sketches on a slip of paper — three booths, three symbols. With all three symbols collected, players wait in line at an unmarked door, waiting for a doorman with a waxed mustache and chameleon goggles to check their "papers" and grant them entrance.
Nobody is skimping on extraneous details in their three animal stories, and not one person exiting the mysterious room is telling what awaits inside. A friend and I dutifully collect the three symbols and wait in the queue. When the doorman ushers us inside, we see that behind the first door is just a waiting room for whatever's behind the next door. We plop down on a couch and the doorman grins approvingly. He keeps calling us "VIP" in a giddy, gravel-y voice. Finally, we're let into the secret room. Spoilers: The reward for the game is a free cocktail.
Once inside, though, my friend and I aren't even sure if the game is really over; we're also handed a token emblazoned with an axolotl and another guy holding a cocktail tries to convince us he's another actor in the game. He's not, but it's as good an icebreaker as any.
We get to talking, and it dawns on me that the people behind the game have turned XOXOers' curiosity into yet another opportunity to get people stuck in conversations — at the phones, in line for the door and now inside what is probably a storage closet-turned-speakeasy. It's ingenious and fun, yet totally unnecessary. At XOXO, where nobody's really a "VIP" — I see main stage speakers lounging and chatting like everyone else — you might as well send up the concept of exclusivity with the help of a man wearing kid's goggles.
"Any conference, or convention, those are people working that are all working in a particular industry, doing a particular thing," Andy Baio tells me over a Slack call close to two weeks after XOXO 2018 has wrapped. "And a festival, typically, is fans. They're people who consume a thing. And we're the weird…"
Baio trails off. I grab a piece of paper covered in notes from a meeting I had with my editor earlier that day. On it, there's a really simple diagram representing my messy attempt to put XOXO, as Baio's suggesting, somewhere on a line between festivals and conferences — to express what it really is. It's not terribly helpful, since the "what" of XOXO's structure feels like it matters less than the "who" in attendance.
"I don't think it would feel cathartic if it was just a bunch of fans," Baio continues. "It's because it's these people who you identify with, that are going through difficult things. You spend the day watching those people talk about their lives, and pair that with the social portions and nighttime activities where you can revel in their company and experience what they make. I think the combination of those two things is really powerful. If it were just one or the other, it'd feel unbalanced."
I tell Baio I've been struggling to get at an encapsulation of XOXO that feels appropriate or even adequate. Some of that I expected going in — I'm a straight, white, cisgender male who doesn't live with disability, and as such my appreciation of XOXO's deep commitment to inclusion is, by nature, less personal. I'm not even an independent creator; my job paid for my travel and ticket to the festival so that I could report on it. Still, I felt the tangible difference of being at XOXO, as opposed to conventions and festivals I've attended in the past, and having felt it I feel an overwhelming responsibility to not fuck up how I talk about it.
Baio and I spend close to an hour just on talking about how to sum up the festival, by the way — this is the condensed version of that.
Like the years before it, XOXO 2018 had issues. Two individuals were removed from the festival when it came to light that they had histories of abusive behavior (the Code of Conduct isn't just an aspirational document). There were myriad accessibility issues in Veterans Memorial Coliseum — for example, the seating options did not adequately accommodate some people's needs or were just too limited in number, and options for private and gender-neutral restrooms had to be identified and publicized during the event with new signage and announcements on-stage and in the Slack. Some speakers used ableist and exclusionary language, or gave talks that would have been better served with more specific content warnings. For these issues and more, the Andys would field requests in Slack, and take the stage between talks to address them.
Which, in addition to seeming like a huge drain on them from afar, meant the Andys' time on-stage inflated as they sought to address people's concerns on the fly and make apologies, a development which also received constructive criticism over the weekend. Baio and McMillan's central roles in organizing XOXO have been shaped and challenged by the community's growth — growth in sheer number and its ongoing push for inclusivity. The Andys are far from solely responsible for XOXO now: this year they brought on Lead Producer Rachel Coddington as a full-time XOXO partner and the line-up of speakers and guests was mostly sourced from suggestions in the community Slack, which is active year-round separate from the festival.
The XOXO Slack "is now, in many ways, more important than the festival itself," Baio attests. It's not just a tool for communication in the lead-up to and during the festival — it's the hub for future and past attendees who really participate in XOXO as a lasting community. Because XOXO works on a more-equitable lottery ticketing system, and because its guiding ethos necessitates that it can't work with an ever-growing number of attendees, the Slack is vital connective tissue. "It's private, it opens for this window of time and brings some new people in, and then some of them stay and some of them don't," says Baio. "That's worked pretty well for us so far."
Since XOXO, the ticketed once-a-year-event, is a space for (extremely) online creators to come together and forge new friends, it'd be a huge missed opportunity to have no space to facilitate those connections year-round. Though I was skeptical of its function at first, the XOXO Slack really does fill the role of that space. No solution will be fully accommodating or close to permanent: the Slack is limited in all the ways Slack is, and the Andys' offshoot Portland co-working space launched in 2016, XOXO Outpost, had to close after a year due to rising Portland rents. Historically, the festival's return hasn't been guaranteed — from 2012 onwards, Baio and McMillan never committed to hosting another XOXO the next year.
Now, that's changed. In their last appearance on the main stage this year, the Andys committed to putting on another XOXO in 2019. I can only guess at how it will change (at most, I'm guessing it won't get bigger). Over the next year, the community will go on thriving in the Slack before welcoming in a new cohort in the lead-up to the event. Lessons from 2018 will be applied, stories will be shared and new friendships will be made. To those for whom XOXO is already one of the most important communities they belong to, they can live the next year knowing that "the glue" is sticking around.
"For years, we had this unofficial motto of: 'lower your expectations'," Baio tells me towards the end of our chat. "Because we were always afraid of that. People hear stuff about XOXO, not understanding what it is. They just hear, like 'it was really, really great,' and then: [that's] the hype. I just never want the hype." If I've done even a remotely good job representing XOXO in this piece, then I hope it doesn't come across as pure hype, and if it sounds like a community you'd like to be a part of, I hope you enter the lottery for 2019's incarnation.
If it doesn't sound like your thing, but you've read this whole piece anyway, then I can guess that you see being online as a big part of who you are. I cannot stress this enough: people should have spaces and belong to communities where they can evaluate what living and working online means to them. My usual experience of life online, alone or in conversation with friends and coworkers, is an unpredictable flow marked by celebration, despair and rare moments of reflection. The counter to that, which I don't think is a galaxy brain-level stretch, is to carve out opportunities to consider the whole. That takes structure and a heaping helping of human kindness, and XOXO is only one possible configuration.
Stepping back from the roiling noise of the internet to look at it all with a group of peers — people to whom we relate, support and admire — seems like the best, or only option, for really actualizing your life online when logging off is a no-go. At the very least, without that distance and context, it's just harder to appreciate what's still good about the internet. XOXO proved to me that parts of the internet are still really, really fucking good.
The fonts used in the header and section breaks in this article come from PHL OpenType, a collective started by XOXO attendee Philip Buckley, that sells typefaces inspired by Philadelphia, PA neighborhoods and donates the proceeds to local causes. In order of appearance, those fonts are Point Breeze Block Party by Buckley, Bourse Chiseled by Kosal Sen, Vasa by Danny Kane, and Callowhill by Mike Balcerzak. All the pull quotes are from talks given during XOXO 2018's "Conference" section, which will be available to watch on the XOXO YouTube channel in the near future.