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.