Building The Public Media Stack

This is the first of a two part essay. The first part is here.

If you’ve read the first part of this essay describing why we need a Public Media Stack, you probably already know lots of examples of projects that could be part of this stack. Here’s an incomplete set of my thoughts and examples of how the Public Media Stack currently looks. I’m sure I’m missing lots of examples of projects, so please email me or leave a note in the comments if you have any suggestions.

The Public Media Stack

The Public Media Stack



ETHICAL

CONTENT ARCHIVES — Storing content in sustainable archives with human and machine readable URLs so that it can used for research and analysis by the public after it’s initial publication window, and even after the lifetime of the publisher itself. This is by no means a trivial challenge — I was involved in the BBC’s Creative Archive, a project aimed at digitising the BBC’s TV and Radio archives, but the issue of archiving digital native content is even more acute. Nearly all the digital public media projects I commissioned at the BBC and Channel 4 in the 2000s are no longer available online.

CONTENT METADATA — Storing content metadata in similar human/machine readable archives so that it can be used for research and analysis by the public after it’s initial publication. This should at least include data about the creators/publishers, versions and corrections, and ideally structured data about subjects and themes.

AUDIENCE DATA — Storing audience data, including core metrics, audience funnels, and CRM systems for tracking how audiences access, use and pay for public media content. This is a huge challenge, especially in a post-GDPR world, but there is a real opportunity to create ethical systems for holding personal data. I commissioned a bunch of work about this when I was at the BBC around 2006, and this work is even more necessary now than it was back then, before Facebook showed us all how not to do it. Tim Berners-Lee’s Inrupt/Solid project is pretty much exactly what I was hoping the BBC would build ten years ago.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT — The Correspondent and other engaged journalism projects are leading the way in showing how public media can work with communities to tell stories, not just publish stories to them. There are even more radical models for this kind of engagement from the history of broadcast television. When Channel 4 launched in the UK in 1982, community film workshops lobbied for the ACTT Workshop Declaration — a commitment for the new broadcast TV channel to not only commission individual programmes from diverse communities, but to actively funded ‘integrative practise’ — workshops, education and access to equipment to enable community film & video workshops to make their own programmes. Many of the TV companies that emerged in the 80s and 90s independent TV boom came from these workshops, so imagine what similar workshops (or even accelerators, as we might call them now) could do in the next few decades.

Existing projects — Ethical OSPo.etWikidataInternet ArchiveEngaged Journalism AcceleratorThe CorrespondentHearkenCoral ProjectThe Membership Puzzle ProjectInrupt/Solid

STRATEGIC

CONTENT PUBLISHING — Alongside industry leading publishing platforms like Wordpress, we’re seeing publications like Vox and the Washington Postmaking their CMS technologies available to other publications, alongside open source platforms like Ghost.org. The fact that the Bezos-owned Washington Post are rolling out their publishing platform as a service is no surprise — Amazon has long recognised the competitive advantage of owning infrastructure as a way of getting a foothold in new industry sectors, from book depots to AWS and their Lumberyard game engine. It’s almost impossible to build on the web without using Amazon infrastructure for part of your stack these days. I don’t think this is a good thing.

AUDIO/VIDEO SERVICES — This is an area where existing public media organisations did lead the way, with the BBC iPlayer and similar services pioneering online video at scale in the mid 2000s. But since then the game has been raised by Netflix and Amazon Prime, both in terms of commissioning and product development. There is a very real risk that public media video and audio content will suffer because of the sheer complexity of products, apps and subscriptions that users need to watch the content they love. Plans for UK broadcasters to collaborate on a shared service were nixed by regulators in 2009, but a decade later, the same regulators are calling for a rethink.

The challenge is that content, product and brand are being tightly knitted into offers for consumers, so asking existing services to host public media content risks diluting their brand in a very competitive market. Also, a lot of public media video is currently being commissioned for social sharing on mobile streams, rather than the kind of ambitious, immersive storytelling that audiences are bingeing on VOD services. As well as opening up access to players, there needs to be investment in ambitious content that is attractive to premium VOD services. Podcast networks like Gimlet are starting to see results from developing IP in audio before transferring to video, so this could be a model for other public media projects. This is something we’re *very* interested in at Storythings, BTW.

SUBSCRIPTION/PAYWALLS — The Reuters Institute Digital News Report has shown for the last few years that media businesses are moving from advertising based revenue to more complex strategies with subscriptions or donations at the core. A decade of giving away audience data and monetisation to third party platforms like Facebook clearly didn’t work, so this is an area where there has been huge amounts of innovation in the last few years. Audiences’ willingness to commit to subscriptions has grown at both end of the scale, with products like SubstackPatreon and Drip building on the advances in crowdfunding for niche media projects in the last decade, and Netflix, Prime, Hulu et al at the premium end.

We might be reaching peak subscription soon, though, as there is likely to be a very hard ceiling on how many subscriptions users are willing to commit to. Bundling subscriptions is very likely to happen soon, and this will more than likely be led by the FAANG platforms again, as they already have payment infrastructure baked into their products. If public media projects want to avoid another decade of disintermediation, we should start exploring bundling subscription models asap.

AUDIENCE/NETWORK /IMPACT — This is a bit of a bucket for a range of issues, some specific to public media projects, some not. At the heart of it is the question of impact — what it is, how to measure it, and how to increase it. I’ve been working around this question of impact for pretty much all my career, from the early years of BBC New Media in the 2000s, through our experiments with digital commissioning at Channel 4 Education, to our work with clients like Omidyar Network, Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at Storythings.

Pretty much every organisation has a slightly different approach to measuring audiences and reporting impact, but for the sake of this post, I want to split them into three activities — audience metrics, network development and impact reporting. The technologies and conceptual models we use to measure public media projects combine all three, but I think it will really help to think of them as three different activities.

The first — audience metrics — is usually dealt with at the level of the individual project/publication, but there are huge advantages in sharing knowledge and models between projects. I’ve been involved in a project doing this in the UK museum and heritage sector called , in which large and small organisations worked together to make their audience measurement and insight projects more effective. A similar project working with public media projects globally would be hugely valuable — The Audience Agency in the UK is an example of how publicly funded technology and consultancy can help raise the skills of an entire sector (disclaimer — I’m on their board).

The second — networks — is sorely underdeveloped in public media content. Building technology to grow audiences by cross promoting content between networks has been proven effective in the early years of nearly every digital network, from the maker networks on Youtube to podcast networks like Radiotopia and Shoutout (this is something we’re developing at Storythings with Diffusion Network). There are thousands of individual public media projects that are all struggling with the same problems of how to grow audiences, and often publishing similar content. Why aren’t we working together to build more examples like the Solutions Journalism Network?

The third — impact — tends to be driven by funders, and their theories of change, rather than public media publishers themselves. The most interesting work happening here are the moves away from retrospective impact models to real-time, iterative impact models. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s open-source Impact Tracker tool is a simple, but very effective tool to help monitor real-time impact, but the really interesting developments are in the research and evidence-led approaches that the Wellcome Trust are experimenting with. This brings impact much closer to engaged journalism, in that both want more involved, complex relationships with audiences, not just measuring them.

Existing Projects — GhostChorusArcSubstackPatreonDripPRXBBC iPlayerBBC SoundsSolutions Journalism NetworkLet’s Get RealThe Audience AgencyRadiotopiaShoutoutDiffusion NetworkCenter for Investigative Reporting Impact TrackerWellcome Trust Public Engagement Team

TACTICAL

CONTENT SYNDICATION — We’ve been running Diffusion Network, a pilot project on content syndication at Storythings over the last two years, with partners around the globe. There are huge opportunities for public media publishers to increase reach and impact through syndication, as Project Syndicate has proven. But there are real costs to the original publisher, as host publishers are very inconsistent in how they attribute and share user metrics with the original publisher.

One of the most interesting challenges we’re dealing with in Diffusion is translation — we’ve syndicated content in Spain, France, South America and China through our partners at HuffPo, El Pais and Guokr. Syndication and translation are good examples of the kind of issue that can be solved much more effectively by a network — it’s almost impossible for small projects to fund the staff and workflows needed for syndication and translation, whilst host publishers would much rather deal with a credible network than field requests from hundreds of individual publications. Another good reason why we need to be funding more network initiatives in public media.

BUSINESS MODEL INNOVATION — The last few years has seen online publishers pivot their business models in an attempt to reach sustainability, from display advertising to sponsored content, native publishing on third party platforms and most recently subscription and membership models. The Non-Profit News Index shows that most of their members rely on Foundation income and individual giving for 90% of their income. To be truly sustainable, publications should have a more diverse mix, including more earned income. Projects like The Information Accelerator and Matter.vc show how a more commercial model can help media projects diversify their income sources — it would be more projects like the Engaged Journalism Accelerator and The Membership Puzzle Project that actively help public media projects diversify their business models and become more sustainable. More importantly, we need to develop open technologies that can support diverse income models, from ad serving to membership and events.


Credit:  INN 2018 Report

FORMAT INNOVATION — This feels like the area where there is the most investment from public media funders at the moment. I’ve worked in media innovation for most of my career, and it still annoys me that funders are more interesting in funding unsustainable experiments instead of helping to build genuinely sustainable ecosystems for public media. Format innovation is important work, but I’d like to see a shift in funding towards the other areas of the public media stack, not just format innovation. This is why I’ve put format innovation in the ‘tactical’ layer — it’s a the kind of experiment you should do only when you know your fundamental ethical and strategic layers are well established. Without that, there is no long term benefit for these experiments other than helping to showcase the emerging tech of the FAANG companies.

THIRD PARTY PARTNERSHIPS — Which brings us to the final element, partnering with the major FAANG platforms like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google and Netflix. Bruce Sterling coined the terms ‘stacks’ to describe the integrated strategies of these dominant companies in 2012, as he felt the dominance of these platforms meant it was no longer possible to talk about ‘the internet’ as a cohesive technology platform or public realm. Since 2012, this has only become more true.

Public media projects have relied on these platforms to reach audiences increasingly over the last decade — I’d love to know how much public media investment in the last five years has gone on promoting Facebook posts, for example. This might not change in the next few years, but it will over the next couple of decades. This is why I’ve put partnerships with the other ‘stacks’ as a tactical decision — it’s often not the right choice to make ethically, and we know it’s a poor choice strategically. Working together to negotiate these partnerships, with a long term goal of creating a sustainable independent ecosystem for public media, would feel like a much stronger position.

Existing Projects — Matter.vcThe Information AcceleratorGoogle Digital News InitativeDiffusion NetworkEuropean Journalism Centre



We’ve got a few resources at Storythings to organise a summit on the Public Media Stack, and I’d suggest that doing it in the US (possibly NYC?) in late spring would be a good idea. If you’re interested in taking part or supporting a summit like this, email meor message me on twitter and we’ll get cracking.

The Public Media Stack

Metal stacks in book room, Pequot Library, Southport, Connecticut. Credit —  Public Domain

Metal stacks in book room, Pequot Library, Southport, Connecticut. Credit — Public Domain

This is the first of a two part essay, The second part is here.

Why we need a Public Media Stack

As someone who is an eternal optimist, and who loves tracing the complex arcs of history, this is my favourite proverb:

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I’ve worked in digital public media projects for over 20 years. In that time, I’ve seen many attempts to imagine and build new ways to make public media effective, relevant and sustainable in a digital landscape. They haven’t succeeded. Instead, we’ve seen a growing monopoly of platforms emerge that prioritised the harvesting and monetisation of user data, and public media projects have had to dance to their tune, constantly pivoting their strategies in a quest for reach and financial sustainability.

For the last decade in particular, as the FAANG platforms tightened their grip on discovery, reach and advertising, this fight has felt un-winnable. But right now, at the beginning of 2019, there are signs of hope. The dominant platforms are facing calls for regulation or even breaking them up into smaller companies. Native digital publications like Buzzfeed, facing decreasing advertising revenues, are floating the idea of merging with their competitors, and there are other calls for publishers to share their publishing infrastructure to help them fight Facebook. New public media projects like The Correspondent are raising money directly from readers, rather than venture capital investors who demand the kind of growth that traps media companies into endless, disruptive pivots. And the founder of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, has announced a new startup to “restore the power and agency of individuals on the web”.

During the last decade, the unimaginable scale of income and investment at the FAANG companies has meant that most public media projects have focused on funding for editorial rather than tech development, and have become increasingly reliant on those monopoly platforms as a result. The Institute for Non-Profit News’ 2018 report showed that their 180 members spent only 6% on tech development, compared to 67% on editorial.

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But despite this lack of investment, there are signs of a ‘public media stack’ emerging, with a wide number of projects focused on the specific problems that public media face. It feels like there is a perfect storm right now that might make these projects more sustainable than similar initiatives over the last few decades, and there is the potential to co-ordinate them into something that could grow into a sustainable ecosystem that could survive in parallel to the FAANG monopolies for the next twenty years.

Firstly, we now have well over a decade of experience and data about how audiences want to consume digital media, and these behaviours are mature and widespread across nearly all demographics. Secondly, the underlying technologies for creating, storing and distributing media are mature and well understood — Wordpress, one of the most popular publishing platforms, is now over 15 years old. Thirdly, there are strong signals that media companies are shifting strategies to build more direct relationships with their audiences, rather than relying on the FAANG platforms as intermediaries. And finally, there is a much-needed conversation about how to build ethical technologiesthat see users as stakeholders, not resources.

As Benedict Evans has put it, we are at the ‘End of the Beginning’ — we’ve given access to digital networks to the majority of the Earth’s population, but the potential uses and benefits of this access are still only emerging. If we want to build institutions to ensure public media is a benefit that everyone can access in the next two decades, we need to do something about it now.


What is the Public Media Stack?

I think we have an opportunity now to co-ordinate investment and development efforts to create a sustainable public media stack, and by sustainable, I mean a project that can last at least two decades, as that is about how long it takes for digital ecosystems to reach maturity.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not saying we need to create a ‘digital BBC’ or a ‘publicly owned Facebook’. A 21st century public media ecosystem can’t be developed from within the public media institutions of the 20th century (believe me, a lot of us spent the last two decades trying), and we should stop confusing the infrastructure needed to own and monetise personal data with the infrastructure needed to produce and distribute independent public media (despite the current dominance of social streams, this is not the only means of reaching audiences). Instead, we can learn from projects like Government Digital ServiceCode for AmericaDoteveryone and others about how to build communities and ecosystems that work across institutions.

The public media stack should be an open community of projects, funders and partners, built around three layers — EthicalStrategic and Tactical. I’ve suggested these layers as they address very specific concerns facing public media network, but are broad enough to create a strong structure for planning and investing in for decades to come. Individual elements might shift up or down the layers over the years, depending on broader commercial and social contexts. For example, audience engagement has been treated as a tactical issue, outsourced to social networks like Facebook and Twitter. But as engaged journalism changes our perception of audiences from customers to stakeholders, I think we need to see audience engagement as an ethical issue, fundamental to the trust and transparency of public media.

The Public media Stack

The Public media Stack

The ETHICAL layer deals with the elements that are essential to the values of public media — transparency, trust and creating permanent archives for public analysis. These elements should be fundamental to all public media projects, and need business models and infrastructure that make them sustainable for decades to come. If you’re starting a public media project in 2019 you have to think about the ethical consequences of how you manage your content archives and audience data, for example. This layer includes content metadata and audience data as these drive the content algorithms and AI that decide what content audiences actually see in their personalised streams. This is probably the biggest challenge facing public media projects right now. The work Omidyar Network and Doteveryone are doing with their Ethical OS and Responsible Tech projects are leading the way on how to create ethical frameworks for tech in these areas.

The STRATEGIC layer deals with the elements that are critical to public media projects’ core activities. There are huge opportunities here to share infrastructure and business models between projects, and to create common services that can help grow audiences and networks. Creating networks to share infrastructure and build audiences has been a fundamental strategy in media from the days or early radio to Youtube, so I find it remarkable that this isn’t more common in public media projects.

The TACTICAL layer deals with experiments in new formats, distribution or syndication. This includes partnerships with third party platforms like the FAANG platforms. These have been the focus of a lot of investment in public media over the last decade, including Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund. But these should really be a small part of the work of public media projects — innovation is vital, but it should not come at the expense of investing in the fundamental ethical and strategic issues that make public media projects sustainable and healthy.

A really important feature of the Public Media Stack is that any individual public media project should be able to start building from the first layer, but also fall back to it if needed. The difference between building public institutions in the 20th and 21st Century is that sustainability and relevance are not gifts, but challenges. Whereas public media projects used to be given competitive advantages like access to limited spectrum or due prominence on listings, this is no longer the case. Digital public media projects need structures that enable quick launches, on-demand scaling, flexible business models, and the ability to scale back based on spiky patterns of attention.

A 21st Century public media ecosystem needs to be a platform that enables many different projects to face the challenges of sustainability and relevance, and if they fail, to let others build on their work. Public media projects that fail should degrade gracefully back into the ecosystem, creating archives and tools that can be shared and developed by partners, rather than having their legacy locked into third party platforms.

How can we start building the Public Media Stack?

I think supporting and developing a Public Media Stack over the next twenty years is not something that has an easy solution. I don’t think its the right time to start a new organisation or institution — there’s already a very broad and diverse range of projects working in this space.

Instead, I’d like to suggest instead organising a summit/workshop to explore the structure and elements of a Public Media Stack. I’d love to bring together some of the incredibly smart people working in this space, and flesh out some of the specific challenges and opportunities at each layer in the stack. Out of that could come a roadmap for building the Public Media Stack out of the loose network of projects and organisations I’ve linked to in this post, as well as the many posts I’ve forgotten to include, or haven’t yet heard about.

We’ve got a few resources at Storythings to organise a summit on the Public Media Stack, and I’d suggest that doing it in the US (possibly NYC?) in late spring would be a good idea. If you’re interested in taking part or supporting a summit like this, email me or message me on twitter and we’ll get cracking.

To go back to the proverb at the beginning of this post — we’ve seen the kind of trees that have grown over the last twenty years. It’s time to start planting the seeds for new kinds of trees now.

We're hiring - Scriptwriter/editor for audio & video projects

‘Blue Mic Snowball’ by  Sergey Galyonkin  is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

‘Blue Mic Snowball’ by Sergey Galyonkin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In 2019 we’re kicking off some more podcast projects at Storythings, and a new educational series for Youtube. We’re looking for a scriptwriter/editor to work on both of these projects.

We’re looking for someone with experience of writing scripts for audio/video, ideally with podcast or youtube experience. Knowledge of the technology/education sectors is a big plus, as is experience in producing entertaining casual learning content.

Here’s the full job description below - if you’re interested in the role, please send your CV with a covering email with examples of previous work to Matt Locke at Storythings. We’ll be starting these projects straight away in Jan 2019, so we’d like CVs before the end of Friday 21st Dec.

As always with Storythings, we strongly encourage applicants from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds, as we want to support new talent and as many different voices as possible in the work we produce.

Job Description
Audio/Video Scriptwriter

Reporting to:
Hugh Garry, Director, Storythings Ltd.

Responsibilities:
Leading on the research, development and writing of scripts for Storythings podcast and Youtube projects.

Working with the production team to develop editorial formats for these projects, identify story beats and structures for each episode, and research potential experts and locations for recording.

Working with the production team to develop recording/shooting schedules from the scripts, and supporting the production team to ensure the episodes are produced on time and to a very high standard.

Working with the production team to identify, clear and make available audio, video, images and other assets as needed for the production of the two projects.

Ensuring that all project deliverables are high quality and deliver the values of the Storythings and partner brands.

Ensuring that all project deliverables meet the technical and legal standards required of the project.

Representing Storythings at project meetings with our clients and project partners.

Requirements:

Experience of script production in audio, video and digital environments.

Experience in producing popular content for social media, including Youtube, Twitter and other platforms.

Experience in writing entertaining popular content about technology and/or education.

Experience in co-ordinating digital content from multiple sources and clearing rights for web/social media channels

Experience of working on projects to tight deadlines and broadcast transmission schedules

Experience in working with a range of CMS systems to write, edit and publish content.

Salary and conditions
Salary will be based on experience. We are happy to discuss either Freelance or PAYE contracts for this role, which will be for an initial 6 months, with 6 months extension based on work progress. The production team will be based in London/Brighton, but we’re happy to discuss remote work where this is feasible. We’re also very happy to discuss flexible working patterns where this is appropriate.

Storythings Impact Summary: October 2018

October saw the end of one huge project at Storythings, and the start of a couple more, including one very important anniversary.

This is the second impact summary we’ve published — the first was our September summary last month. It’s an evolving format, but we’d love your feedback and comments. We do a lot of very diverse projects, with different impacts for different communities around the globe, and writing this summary really helps us reflect on what we’ve been doing. Hopefully, it helps other people understand what we do as well.

Meredith Viera presenting the finale for The Great American Read

Meredith Viera presenting the finale for The Great American Read

The Great American Read

This was a major cross platform project for PBS, asking Americans to vote for their favourite novel from a list of 100 books derived from audience surveys and expert advisors. Launching in May 2018, a season of TV shows has explored the joys of reading across diverse communities, and online content has been getting out the vote to find America’s favourite novel.

What we did

We’ve been working on this project since 2017, helping TV production company Nutopia develop the interactive elements of the initial pitch, and then taking on the role of Digital Executive Producer to scope, tender and manage the production of the digital campaign. Over the last few months of the campaign we focused on analysing the voting data, pulling out interesting trends and stories, and helping the production team prepare content for the finale show.

The impact so far

After five months of voting, and over 4.2m votes in total, the winner of The Great American Read was - To Kill A Mockingbird! The book had led the voting from the start, and despite a strong showing from Outlander, held the lead throughout. We attended the live finale recording in New York on Oct 21st, and watched the social media response as the show was broadcast on Oct 23rd. The result generated a huge debate on Twitter, especially as TKAM explores issues of race and justice that are just as relevant now as they were when it was first published in 1960.

Conway Hall in London, location for The Story Conference

Conway Hall in London, location for The Story Conference

The Story Conference & The Story Academy
The Story Conference is our annual conference bringing together a diverse range of speakers from across different creative sectors. We started the event in 2010, and our speakers have included Alan Rusbridger, Bryony Kimmings, Musa Okwomnga, Nikesh Shukla, Cornelia Parker, Diane Coyle and Jarvis Cocker.

What we did

Our next conference in February 2019 is the 10th event, so to celebrate we’re launching The Story Academy, a year-long pilot programme to support emerging creative talent who are not in formal education or training. We’ve launched a call for sponsors and partners to help fund the salaries/bursaries and host the participants in a six month paid placement.

The impact so far

Over the last nine years of The Story, we’ve raised over £50k for three organisations who run literacy projects for young people - the Ministry of Stories, Grimm & Co and Little Green Pig. For the 10th anniversary, we wanted to do something more ambitious, and start a new project to give emerging creative talent the two things they need to develop their careers - time and networks.

HWGTN Beats Logo - Space.gif

How We Get To Next - Beats

How We Get To Next is our flagship publication, launched in 2014. At How We Get To Next, we think the future needs a new framework. We call it structural futurism: a way of imagining the future that focuses on how people interact with systems, be it corporate agriculture or institutional racism. How We Get To Next asks the questions: How should power be administered? How should resources be distributed? How should systems be structured? What we think about the future changes how we think about — and what we do — now.

What we did

In October we launched a new project within How We Get To Next called Beats. We’ve hired four new writers - Lou Cornum on “Space”, Alicia Kennedy on “Food”, Kenny Fries on “Disability” and Lola Pellegrino on “Health”. Each Beat offers a unique view into the structural challenges humanity faces as a global community — and, indeed, as a species. How should power be administered? How should resources be distributed? How should systems be structured? Our Beats writers will explore how these questions apply to corporate space travel, to global food production, to the legal and cultural norms that define both “disability” and “ability,” and to deficits in funding, research, and care in the field of women’s health.

Impact so far

The first two Beats essays have already had an impact. Kenny Fries’ essay asked how we can change the stories we tell about disability in the future, and Alicia Kennedy looked at what it would take for Americans to give up eating beef. Both essays generated a huge amount of sharing and discussing online, particularly among organisations and communities focused on disability and the links between diet and the climate. We’re really pleased to see the initial response, and are now working on ideas for how we can build and grow active communities around our new Beats writers.

Reflecting on XOXO 2018

Image credit:    Tom Coates

Image credit: Tom Coates

I had the good fortune to be able to go to XOXO in September this year. It was my first – I was a XOXO newbie. Up to that point, all I knew about it was from following some very smart people in my network on Twitter. I lived through them vicariously and I always hoped that some day I’d get to go. That actually happened this year.  

XOXO bills itself as ‘an experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet’. I’d like to congratulate whoever came up with that description because it is really accurate. It is experimental, it’s largely for independent creators (there were a fair few people attending who worked in traditional tech corporates like Google but they were not the focus), and it is very much about the internet. Creators Andy Baio and Andy Macmillan have created something special over the years – XOXO started in 2012, and happened every year except 2017, when they took a break. It’s grown steadily bigger, from a  few hundred to the 2000+ that attended this year, and I can really imagine the amount of work that went into it, coming right off organizing the Ada’s List Conference in September this year, which was just for 120 people!

I didn’t know what to expect going in. I knew some of the names – I’m a fan of the work of people like Hari Kondabolu and Ijeoma Oluo for example, both of whom were speaking at the conference, but largely I went in expecting to learn and be inspired. And I was. I’m not going to lie – a lot of it was very philosophical, and a lot of it political – but if I’m honest with myself I think about things in those veins a lot anyway so I was a good candidate to attend the event I suppose! Here are some of my favourite parts:

Cameron Esposito gave a rousing opening keynote on being a woman today on the internet. There was a lot of #MeToo but a lot of it was about making the internet better.

Jonny Sun started off the first full day of the conference talking about a few things: art, the internet, and mental health. He spoke about how even he, as a known artist, still experiences imposter syndrome. He said that with art what was important was to just keep going. I loved what he said about the internet itself, that it was a ‘place to work out who you are’ – essentially helping people build their identity. One of the powers of the internet, he said, is the fact that it makes us all feel outsiders - but we are all outsiders together. He said it’s tough staying positive on the web (trolls are real) and that it can take a toll on our mental health, so whether it is memes or jokes, use whatever you need to feel better. He closed by asking the audience to ‘reflect lived experiences as openly and honestly as we can’.

Jean Grae is really a polymath: a rapper, singer, writer, comedian, and actor. So much of what she said resonated with me: there aren’t many female rappers, and she’s always boxed into the ‘female’ category: “why can’t we talk about the full realisation of my narrative, why is it always ‘but what about your vagina and how does that hinder you in making music?!” Amen to that – I know a lot of women who are always assigned the ‘female’ role instead of being given the opportunity to talk about their area of expertise. Growing up, Jean learnt not to pay attention to anyone who said she couldn’t do something – which was a lot of people. She came to know the frustration of not being given opportunities when she could usually do things better than people who were selected. And she ended brilliantly as well, talking about American politics as it is today: “We should never get to a place in the world where we are right now.”

Jennifer 8.Lee is an Emoji Activist (yep - that’s a title I hadn’t heard before either!) through her grassroots emoji activism group Emojination. Her entertaining talk took us through the history of emojis and her contribution to the field (her activism played a big part in the creation of the dumpling and hijab emojis), amongst others. Her passion when talking about people who want conventional things from life expressly being the opposite of who she was, was the best: “Who you envy is a compass for what you care about”, and “I do not want to pass frictionlessly through this world.” CLAPS

Image credit:    Tom Coates

Image credit: Tom Coates

I loved that there was so much about feminism and politics, really. Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo took us through some of the best of Reductress, their satirical women’s magazine. I didn’t know about Natalie Wynn till XOXO, who runs the ContraPoints YouTube channel on social justice issues in a performative way. She’s got 4000+ Patreon supporters now. As a trans person going through her transition while she ran ContraPoints, she was doxed really badly, and learnt that she had to make a clear distinction between her public and private life if she wanted to keep sane, ‘it’s not Natalie but ContraPoints that’s being attacked.’ On politics, which she talks about in her videos, she had some noteworthy thoughts: “Politics is theatre, especially when a reality star is your President”, and “Fascism is a pageant, bring your own pageant if you are working in the media world – protect yourself”.

I’ve always believed that comedians have a really tough job – making people laugh is hard at the best of times, trying to make a stadium full of people laugh is even tougher! Day 2 of the conference began with Demi Adejuyigbe, a comedy writer who’s written for The Good Place and currently writes for The Late Late Show (Demi also did a comedy performance with a trumpet the previous day, which was totally hilarious. No, he doesn’t know how to play one!). He spoke about comedy, and how it is used as insulation, to keep from being vulnerable, referencing Hannah Gadsby and how “building a career on comedy isn’t humility, it’s humiliation.” Which, as Hannah did, made me think. He also spoke about Twitter (he’d been kicked off Twitter the previous day because he said something in jest to his best friend that went against Twitter’s rules – luckily he was soon allowed back!). Using that and other examples he spoke about how the things that make Twitter great also make it the ‘absolute worst invention of the 21st century’. Jack, are you listening?

Helen Rosner, food correspondent for the New Yorker, also spoke about feminism and being a woman writing about food in a world where criticism and trolls abound online. She told all women to stop apologising and stop using ‘hedging’ language: ‘but’, ‘sorry’ and so on. She ended by asking us to embrace our inner brilliance (it was a bit woo-woo but come on, encouraging oneself always feels good).

Then there were the people I was there to see: Ijeoma Oluo, whose work on race and gender you really should read. She was as good as I thought she’d be. Solid words on people asking her for advice about how to tackle race: “I am not the White People Whisperer.” “No one handed us a book on how race works.” She spoke about then importance of creating for the communities you want to reach: “If these communities are worth fighting for, they are worth creating for.” And why it is ALWAYS IMPORTANT TO PAY PEOPLE. Lastly, “There is nothing more uncreative than bigotry. It is literally a lack of imagination.” CLAPS AGAIN. And she’s a lovely person – even posed for a selfie with me!

And Hari Kondabolu, whose spoke about his 2017 documentary film A Problem With Apu, and his lived experiences being a brown person in America. He mentioned how there is no such thing as ‘equal opportunity offence’ – when you offend someone of colour, they can’t always insult you back because the consequences are too big.  

Surprise Act! Lizzo closing out XOXO 2018. Image credit:    Tom Coates   .

Surprise Act! Lizzo closing out XOXO 2018. Image credit: Tom Coates.

And that was just the conference bit! XOXO, as I said, was programmed as a festival. There were tabletop games, RPGs, arcade games, ‘Art + Code’ which had more talks, and screenings of films later in the evening. Lizzo was the surprise closing act and she rocked!

I want to say a word about the organisation of this festival itself. The Slack channel for attendees was great and a way of making me feel more included, especially as an XOXO newbie and someone who wasn’t from the US, prior to the festival. They had childcare, which Intercom sponsored – and I saw loads of kids there. It’s something so many events miss. Having said that, XOXO listens to the community like no one else I’ve ever seen. They are super sensitive to people’s issues around gender especially (the pronoun pins to help people use the right pronouns during conversations were nice). The meetups the day before the official conference started were a fun way to meet people as well, though you were largely left to your own devices (they did help by sharing a list of meetups beforehand). And there was a lovely installation and collaborative art project called Dear Future Me being done by Alice Lee on the premises, which made it feel less massive a conference than it actually was.

Letters to future selves, to be sent to people next year. Art installation by Alice Lee. Image credit:    Tom Coates

Letters to future selves, to be sent to people next year. Art installation by Alice Lee. Image credit: Tom Coates

If there are criticisms, it’s that the line-up was heavily US-oriented – but then they’re a US-based conference I suppose. And they literally had programming from 9am to 11pm on both days which makes for a LONG event for anyone, and if you’re not in the same West Coast time zone then you might find it physically hard to go to everything.

In October, the XOXO Andy’s announced that they were taking over management of Drip, Kickstarter’s programme to help independent creators make money – Kickstarter is funding them to start a separate company to do that, rather. If there is one challenge the internet faces today, it is making money without advertising. So much of our work at Storythings centres on that discussion, especially as we produce media and journalism ourselves. I’ll be watching what XOXO comes up with!

And as if on cue, XOXO has just published a video summary yesterday! Over and out.