XOXO is “an experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet,” which is exactly as amazing as it sounds.  

Many of the people in my online circles have been going to XOXO since the beginning, and I knew that if the opportunity ever came for me to go I would jump on it. I was afraid that the festival was gone for good after it failed to return in 2017. Lucky for me, the Andys came back this year for XOXO’s sixth iteration, and its biggest ever. 

I traveled out to Portland, OR in September (my first time visiting), and I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed my experience there. Both the city and the conference were invigorating, and I can’t have imagined a better backdrop for this group of folks. Now that the conference videos have been uploaded, I wanted to take the time to share some of my favorite topics, events, and highlights from my trip. 

Art + Code

XOXO is both a festival and a conference. While conference talks took place (and were recorded) during the day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, festival events were in the evenings and were not recorded. I felt bad about missing some of the evening events, but the ones I did catch felt even more special because they were shorter, more intimate, and ephemeral. They left me wanting to explore and learn more about the speakers and projects I saw, and in that way the festival events stuck with me much more than the recorded conference events. 

Friday and Saturday night both featured an arcade full of indie game creators showing off upcoming games as well as a dedicated room for tabletop games. Friday night featured two sets of shorter talks: Art + Code and Film & Animation.

I chose to skip the film and animation talks so that I could catch as much of the Art + Code stuff as possible, and I’m glad I did. Art + Code turned out to be my favorite part of the programing at XOXO. While I can’t share any videos of the talks (since they weren’t recorded), I can share links to some of the demos and their creators.

Art + Code was sponsored by Figma and hosted by Jenn Schiffer, Glitch’s director of community engineering. For a good roundup of the talks from the night, I highly recommend reading Glitch’s official piece, put together by Maurice Cherry. There are enough links in there to keep you occupied for quite a while. 

The highlight of the evening for me was Baratunde Thurston and the demo of his app, Living While Black. The app generates headlines about white people calling the cops on black people, and asks the user to guess whether the headlines is real or not. Baratunde also talked a bit about the grammar and patterns of racism in our culture, which was fascinating. Glitch has a terrific interview with Baratunde over on their blog that I recommend you check out.

Another favorite from the evening was Janelle Shane‘s talk about training AI to generate knitting patterns, and then knitting those patterns to bring them into the physical world (here’s her post about it, including pictures!). Janelle also has some hilarious examples of using AI to create art over on her blog, which she shared with the room and told stories of how they came to be. Many of the talks centered around using code to create art, which was very inspiring for my own work

Imposter syndrome

Creatives are a highly dissatisfied bunch, often in no place more so than themselves and their own work. This is something that I have struggled with quite a bit in the past few years, and I’ve found solace knowing that others share in that struggle and that there is a wealth of experiences to learn from. No place is that more true than on the internet. 

The web is often where we’re confronted with our greatest feelings of inadequacy. Members of marginalized groups especially cannot exist online without being told that they’re not good enough (among other, more awful things). But there are other ways that our self confidence and value are eroded on the internet, and Helen Rosner told a wonderful story of her experience dealing with those situations. 

Another favorite of mine was Open Mike Eagle’s thoughts on this subject. He articulated how difficult it can be for a creator to communicate about their work and what it means to them:

Sometimes we need the reminder that imposter syndrome does not an imposter make. Our creative heroes face the same struggles, and they overcome it by being honest and open about their experiences. Sharing those feelings with another person (or in the case of XOXO, a couple of thousand people) is really something special. 

The inclusive web

Another theme that was woven throughout the festival was that the web should be place where all people are represented. The web is what we make of it, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that we have the power to shape the form of our medium.

In what may be my favorite talk of the entire weekend, Claire Evans spoke about the women who helped create the web as we know it, and how they have been pushed to the edges of history to make room for their male counterparts.  I was so inspired by the stories of early hypertext pioneers of whom Claire spoke, and so surprised to discover that their stories were unknown to me beforehand. 

Claire is the author of Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. I’ve since read her book and I can easily say that Broad Band is the best book I have read this year. I highly recommend picking it up.

Jennifer 8. Lee’s talk was cut from the same cloth as Claire’s. Jennifer is a journalist and emoji activist who is a member of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee and founder of Emojination. She spoke about joining the subcommittee and advocating for more inclusive, diverse emoji to better represent the people who are using them to communicate. She also touches a bit on emoji as language and how we use them to communicate, which I thought was very fascinating. 

Portland

Hale Pele lived up to the hype as one of the best tiki bars in the country. Go with a group of friends and hang out for a few hours. 

If you like Chinese food (especially dumplings), check out Duck House. The pork wontons in chili oil were incredible 😍. Pok Pok‘s wings were as legendary as everyone had told me they would be. The northwest location was was less busy than the others.

Really, just stick to Neven’s recommendations and you won’t be disappointed. 

Until next time

XOXO succeeds because it defers to the experiences of its community. It invites a group of interesting people from the internet into a physical space to discuss, share, and question their work with other like-minded folks. XOXO isn’t one thing — it’s a lot of things that are constantly changing. I don’t expect next year’s festival to be anything like this year’s, and that’s why I am so excited to go back to Portland in 2019 to do it all again. 

The Andys have created an environment that reflects the experiences of those who occupy it. XOXO is fluid and changing because working on the internet requires us to constantly change the ways we think and interact with one another. We shape our online environment, and we shape XOXO too. 

I hope to see you there in 2019.