XOXO 2018

XOXO is an event in Portland, Oregon that describes itself as “an experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet.” There are conference talks during the day, and a variety of festival-like events at night (film screenings, video games, live music, etc.). It ran annually from 2012 to 2016, took 2017 off, and then returned this year.

I love XOXO. I’ve been lucky enough to go to all six of them—literally lucky, since it’s popular enough that the ability to buy passes is determined by a lottery system–and with that perspective, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the conference has changed over the years.

The speakers are different, for one thing. Conference cofounder Andy Baio has a fantastic blog called Waxy, which I used to read religiously (and am now reading again!); when pitching people on the first XOXO, he said it was “the closest you’ll ever get to WaxyCon.” As a fan of the site that sounded great, but in practice it did seem like there was a certain insularity to the lineup. That improved over the years—more of the speakers were pulled from attendees’ suggestions, and XOXO became a much more interesting place where I learned about cool new people in addition to seeing folks I already knew about from Andy’s blog.

The topics of the conference talks themselves have also shifted over time. There was initially more of a focus on moonshot success stories, a tendency which Darius Kazemi sent up at the 2014 conference to great effect. Those gradually gave way to a different kind of talk, the kind that I most closely associate with XOXO: frank descriptions of impostor syndrome, harrassment, loneliness, money problems, and the other difficulties of making a living on the internet, all delivered with the raw honesty I’d expect from people commiserating privately with friends rather than publicly on stage at a conference. These talks, I think, get at the core of what XOXO is about, to whatever degree XOXO is “about” anything.

Perhaps the most noticeable change, though, is that XOXO has gotten big. In 2012 there were 400 attendees; after a few years of relatively modest growth, this year there were over 2,000. And while previous years’ events went out of their way to embed themselves into various Portland neighborhoods—even when that involved the organizers bringing their own AV equipment, and even bathrooms, to venues not naturally suited for conferences—this year they resorted (presumably out of necessity) to a more traditional venue, the Rose Quarter’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

This definitely involved some compromises, both practical and cultural. The Rose Quarter is sort of a concrete wasteland, so it was both less pleasant and less feasible to hang out there than in past XOXO neighborhoods; I think I ate meals away from the venue twice as often this time as in any past year. Still, I personally thought the change was worth it. Not only were more people able to attend, but there was also more room for attendees with subsidized passes. (There were about as many people who came free this year as there were total attendees in 2012, which is incredible for an event of this size.) At the same time, I can empathize with the people who felt like something had been lost in the process—it was as though XOXO had to contort itself to fit a space that wasn’t shaped quite right, and we all had to expend a bit more effort than usual to keep it in place.

Anyway! Big picture trends aside, here are a few personal highlights from this year:

  • My favorite talks were from Demi Adejuyigbe, Claire Evans, Jennifer 8. Lee, and Jonny Sun.
  • Outside of the talks, I also enjoyed seeing comedian Cameron Esposito, enigmatic YouTube musician Bill Wurtz, and comedy duo Jean and John.
  • At XOXO Arcade, the video game exhibit, I was excited to play Mineko’s Night Market, Ooblets, and Untitled Goose Game. I was already following all three, but it was great to see them in person.
  • This isn’t directly XOXO-related, but I came into town a bit early this year to hang out around Portland. After spending an entire day in Washington Park, and nearly as long browsing through Powell’s, I think I’d still have had a nice trip overall even if the conference wasn’t any good.
  • XOXO seems to attract an introvert-heavy crowd, but I’ve always found that most people are willing to strike up conversations with strangers all the same. It’s one of the friendliest events I’ve ever been to, and that remained true this year even with the larger crowd.