Look After Each Other(tm)
The 2018 XOXO Festival
After a year hiatus, the XOXO Festival returned this year with a new round of experimentation. I've been to every iteration except the first one, with the badges and t-shirts to prove it. Sitting down with my laptop in a brief respite, I notice that my drafts folder has a restrospective from the last couple of conferences, that I've never finished or published. So let's see if we can make it stick this time!
These is the festival as I experienced it, I didn't get to see everything. Unless I have a time machine and an invisibility screen. But at the time of this writing, I do not.
Content warning: To discuss the festival, I will have to talk about subjects discussed during the conference, including sexual assault, racism, sexism, and transphobia. (You know, light and airy subjects.) I will keep these to a minimum.
This year marks another shift in venue and size for XOXO—tickets for the conference were up from 1200 or so in 2016 to a massive 2250 attendees. (Fun fact: there were more folks on free passes this year than paid to attend the first festival in 2012!) As the size increased, no longer could we fit in Revolution Hall. Instead, the venue in the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum (VMC). This shift of venue offered both advantages and disadvantages.
- Reduced fear of missing out (the dreaded FOMO!) due to walking between venues, everything was right there
- The massive building allowed for everything to be together under one roof
- Twisty nature of the building let them experiment with a secret speakeasy hidden somewhere inside the buiding, this was unlocked by dialing various numbers on fake payphones and following the clues
- Good seating with great audio and visual work let everybody see everything in the talks, instead of forcing some folks to watch elsewhere on a temporary screen
- So many more people to meet!
- As this is an actual event space and not a converted factory or warehouse, no need for makeshift ramps, elevators, or portable restrooms
- The Coliseum is in a more isolated part of town (more on this later) and so if things were not at the venue, there was a walk/drive/transit to find it
- Signage in the building dates from its original construction and so all the bathrooms were a binary choice of men or women, this issue took a while to resolve
- Climate control in the building was all-or-none, so dressing in layers was more important than it normally is in Portland, still difficult to figure out
- So many more people to meet! There were many folks that I saw in passing that I wish I could have spent more time with!
- Moda Center was right next door, so the giant concert that happened during the festival made transportation problematic
Each day as it happened to me...
Thursday: Badges, Keynote, and Opening Party
In past years, obtaining badges and swag resulted in some long lines as people waited in line for a volunteer to find their badge. Hours to claim your badge were extended this year, which felt a lot easier than I remember it being in past years. The gear this year was mostly unchanged from previous years: a set of notebooks, a small guide to the event, a lanyard, and a t-shirt.
New to me this year: the map of the venue, and a set of pronoun pins. These pins were a great idea, though the design of gold text on a black background was impossible to read in dim light or at any conversational distance. The idea was sound, and should be refined. (This is already under consideration, hopefully something with shapes or larger type to differentiate the kinds of pin.) The badge design was greatly improved as well, containing a small schedule on it. Again, legibility in the dark was a bit of an issue, or maybe my eyes are not what they used to be.
This is also the first time in a long time that there was not a water bottle, which is probably for the best as probably I have enough stainless steel water bottles. However, it did make it more difficult for people to find a place to drink AND it felt like there were far more plastic cups being used than ever before. I wonder if the lack of water or the reduced emphasis on water bottles might have led to the run on other kinds of beverages? We were a thirsty crowd and consumed all of the non-alcoholic drinks.
Speaking of drinks, less of an emphasis on beer this year. Portions were smaller and the pricing encourage small amounts. This may be another factor in the run on sodas and shrubs.
Every year, Andy and Andy open the conference by talking about who they are, a brief history of the conference, and include a discussion about the Code of Conduct. And every year, some damn fool decides this discussion doesn't realy apply to them and gets kicked out. I wonder if there's some sort of Voight-Kampff Test we can give to help find these people?
One thing I really appreciated during the opening night was bringing on Rukaiyah Adams of the Albina Vision Project to talk about the past history of the neighborhood that existed where we were sitting. The city fathers of Portland in the 50s saw a predominantly African-American neighborhood, declared it a blight, kicked everyone out, demolished everything, then erected a modernist structure to sport and events. The Albina Vision Project shows how this could change and restore some of what was there, it's really quite exciting.
After an absence for the last few conferences, we had a keynote speaker! Cameron Esposito came on to talk about her work as a comedian and her philosophy about art.
"Art dismantles power, otherwise it is propaganda."
To illustrate this, she discussed the #MeToo movement and the damage to comedy caused by prominent comedians that had been disgraced—she knew they were going to make a comeback. To help counter the inevitable "triumphant" returns of these garbage fires, she created a special, booking over 30 venues in a very short amount of time, honing her material, and called in favors to reduce the cost of the film. Evidently the biggest fixed cost for the show was about $2500 for light rental, almost everything else was donated time and materials.
The result of this effort was Rape Jokes. This title was chosen intentionally to be the very first search result for the term, which she did successfully! (It's totally the first result!) All of the proceeds from her special go to RAINN. To date, she had raised over $55,000 on a special that cost about $2500 to shoot. By the end weekend, she'd raised over $70,000!
As we went outside the Coliseum following the keynote, the opening party started with a selection of food trucks. This was to be a harbinger of events to come: there was a massive demand for food and only a few trucks to provide it. I think, but would have to go back to pictures to confirm, that the number of trucks at the event was roughly what it was at previous XOXO conferences. However, the number of people attending was the largest ever, so the math doesn't quite work out. In addition, since the VMC is essentially in a food desert, any possible supplementation of food from surrounding restaurants just didn't happen.
The party was great, I saw old friends, met some new people, and had a marvelous conversation about the game Celeste. Everyone who'd ever talked to me about it before discussed the difficulty, but nobody had ever mentioned the deep story within! Bought the game as soon as I got home, which was around 11:45 or so. This was the earliest I would get home the entire conference.
Friday: Social Events, Film & Animation, Art + Code, Arcade, Tabletop
An oversight in the original conference plan led to an entire day of vaguely scheduled social activities. This bit of serendipity has led to one of the best traditions of XOXO: getting to know other conference attendees with similar interests and making friends with them.
My work had distracted me from planning much of the conference or which meetups I wanted to go to. As a result, I ended up getting to the VMC only around 1:30 or so. However, I did come prepared with Tim Tams.
Meetups (including the Tim Tam Slam)
Why Tim Tams? A little backstory: in 2015, one Australian member of the Slack started a channel called #tim-tam-slam-jam, celebrating the traditional method of eating the delcious Tim Tam cookie/biscuit/manna from heaven. Here is how I understand the Tim Tam Slam:
How to do a Tim Tam Slam
- Obtain at least one Tim Tam
- Get a hot beverage like tea or coffee
- Bite off part of the ends of the Tim Tam to make a "straw"
- Using this straw, drink some of the hot beverage
- Right before the Tim Tam suffers complete structural failure through liquid absorbtion, stop drinking and eat the entire cookie
I went to the first one on a lark, as I knew of Tim Tams from a podcast that I listened to, but did not know the slamming. My life was changed after a simultaneous slam—it's tremendously good! In 2016, there was another slam, but not many people brought cookies and many folks were left without. I did not want that for this year!
Showing up with my bag of Tim Tams, I started talking to the people at the bar outside, demonstrating how one did it. Then more people showed up and I did another demonstration! A few Australian attendees brought special flavors we do not get in the US, and I kept demonstrating the slam for new people. I loved seeing their expressions of delight.
Comparisons of ingredients were made, as we had cookies from the US, Canada, and Australia. In the US, the serving size is 2 Tim Tams, in Australia it's only 1. I wish I'd saved the wrappers to determine the other differences! After we'd consumed almost every container, a few were stashed for subsequent slams on following days.
Head buzzing with sugar and caffeine, I left the VMC to attend to the beer meetup with new friends. Marvelous conversations were had, beer was consumed, stories were told. I met people from cities near and far and had the most marvelous time. It grew late, so we returned to the VMC to attend the evening's events.
Film and Animation
The XOXO Film program is usually quite good and I try to make it a priority. In previous years, this could be a problem because one would have to make hard choices between film, podcasts, games, or whatnot. This was not the case in 2018.
I loved Lindsay Ellis' deep analysis of The Hobbit and where it had all gone wrong. This year, she presented her new film about YouTube, cake decoration videos, and the "authenticity" of hosts. She suspected the final cut would look different than what we saw, but even then I am sure it will be quite good. (And it looks like it's up! Smash that Like Button!)
Bill Wurtz was unknown to me before this festival, but the fever dream songs and animations shown made me an instant fan. The Q&A was somewhat disappointing, I think it could have been summed up from an exchange about Hug Me, I'm Scared from XOXO 2016:
I'd had my own suspicious about what the Mystery Film was, but they were very wrong. I stayed until the end and it was good. Hugely impressed at the director's willingness to show the film!
Art + Code
The venue for Art + Code was smaller than some of the other spaces, and the program was exceedingly popular. I missed every single presentation that night, much to my dismay. I would have loved to see all of it, but I couldn't get in!
Some of the presentations have unofficial videos that will come out in the future, I highly recommend looking them up when they are released. Probably my biggest regret of the festival is that this extremely popular event was so hard to attend and didn't have dedicated filming resources.
I knew a few of the games that were on display this year, the ones I didn't know were also amazing. The last time I was in the Arcade room was for a comic book convention, so that was an odd subtext.
Games that I enjoyed the hell out of:
This has been on my radar for a while, and I got to watch as a crowd cheered on a simulated goose. The line was really long and I was pressed for time on Friday night. I did come back on Saturday and stand in line to play the game. A few things:
- The game is quite fun
- I hope the end title is Titled Goose Game
- Playing a game on a 40-foot-wide TV is great fun, I'd pay to do this on a regular basis if some bar or restaurant would set something like that up.
First encountered this game when somebody I follow on Twitter had retweeted a screenshot from the development. I was instantly in love. Managed to get to play the entire demo, which involves cats, fishing, crafting, sneaking around, and a cat race. Buy this the moment it becomes available. THE MOMENT.
I'd backed this on Kickstarter, so I was thrilled for a chance to see it. So great. The sheer joy on each character as they pedal their bike across the screen is infectious.
Honestly, I missed all of Tabletop. The lineup looked amazing, but there were not enough hours in the day.
Saturday: Day One of Talks, Story, Comics
After getting home late from the film, went to bed. The first day of speakers was quite good. All of them will be available for viewing later on YouTube, I would highly urge you to watch them all! If I discussed them all in detail, this would stretch from Too Long; Didn't Read to Entirely Too Long, Turn In Your Text Editor. Besides, my friend Jason has done sketchnotes of all of them, he's way better at summarizing than I'll ever be.
My favorite moments from the talks on Saturday, in no particular order:
Jonny Sun's discussion about being an outsider and using humor as a Trojan horse to bring up larger issues. Jennifer 8. Lee talking about joining the Emoji Consortium and making emojis less driven by a bunch of tired dudes in a conference room. Open Mike Eagle explaining about how a song gets from his intiial creation to consumers, and the layers in between each step. Jean Grae was pitching dark fantasy puppet shows and I must see all of them now. Somebody greenlight that shit.
It is no secret that I love the Friendshipping podcast and love to do friendship at the problem. So the live recording of an episode was like a dream come true. In addition, there was a live, extended version of the theme song by Molly Lewis! It was super-great!
Anita Sarkeesian returned once again to XOXO to record an episode of the Feminist Frequency podcast and it was lovely. The segment about which problematic things the hosts had to keep or dump was hilarious.
The final show of the evening was Jean and John, with Jean Grae and John Hodgman. I hesitate to even try to explain what happened during the show, because I have a hard time convincing people that yes, Judge John Hodgman and Jean Grae did a complete breakdown of the lyrics to "Just A Friend" and had charts and graphs to back up their data. Jessie Char and company built a marvelous virtual wheel of topics! Hari Kondabolu and Sammus competed in a game called "Biggie or a Bear" and then we were visited by the living personification of Portland! And the show ended with "La Vie En Rose" and it was the most lovely thing that was ever lovely.
This was in the space for Art + Code, and since time was tight, I was unable to see anything here. Again. I did, however, manage to stay in line long enough to get a chance to play the Untitled Goose Game. So you know, priorites.
Came home really late. Again. I think 3.5 hours of sleep is a normal amount, right?
Sunday: Day Two of Talks, A Surprise Performance, and Saying Goodbye
I could talk about the Sunday talks forever, but the nice thing is that they were all recorded and you can watch them.
The talks Sunday started with one of my favorite talks at XOXO ever: Demi Adejuyigbe chatted about humor, how Twitter is the worst invention of the 21st century, music, performance, his fake songs for movies, vulnerability, and Kanye's strange fascination with the movie Ready Player One. He closed with a song and received two standing ovations.
Claire Evans wrote a book on the history of women in computing that I still need to read. She gives a glimpse into early days of the connected net, before it became completely dominated by men. Hypertext before the world wide web was a very different animal. I remember studying some of the early hypertextual novels in college and the contextual links were interesting—think a Choose Your Own Adventure if it could rewrite "go to page 54" and whatnot on the fly.
I also really loved Helen Rosner's talk about what it means to go viral. She included how to make delicious roast chicken at home for no addtional chage, too! Her mantra during the talk should be on everyone's mirror:
I'm really smart,
and I am really good at what I do,
and you should fucking listen to me.
We should say this to ourselves more. And listen to ourselves when we say it.
Watch Hari Kondabolu's film The Trouble With Apu if you haven't already. You'll be a step ahead of everyone writing for The Simpsons if you do.
The schedule always had a surprise musical guest, and we had a lot of speculation over the weekend over who it might be. Beyoncé was right out. Dolly Parton was proposed but also unlikely. My secret hope was Lin-Manuel Miranda but that was a non-starter since he wasn't even in the US that weekend..
Instead, we were treated to a command performance by Lizzo, who knocked it out the park with her music and stagecraft. If you were unfamiliar with her work prior, you were a fan by the end of the concert! She later joined the karaoke singers, another thing I regret missing.
There were other things that were at the festival this year that I didn't experience much of.
Level Eater Adventure
This sounded like a lot of fun, but it also felt a little odd. For an event with many subsidized passes, an additional experience that involved extra spending and prevented any social meetups had a hard time filling up.
The idea of a quiet, reserved space with bean bags is something I can totally get behind. Demand for such a place was high, so I ended up sitting on the floor with friends. Well, I did until my back protested because of a lack of actual chair. Great idea, would love to see it again. Perhaps larger to compete with demand.
Blue Ox Bar
This was a pop-up bar for the festival, and the karaoke scene therein was legendary. However, I didn't have a moment to go into it, and missed it completely. The only time I saw any of it was when they were taking it down on Sunday. I heard good things, though.
Honestly, I think you could get an entire karaoke conference just on the XOXO attendee list.
Secret Import/Export Exchange Bar
This was a combination scavenger hunt / escape room / speakeasy that could be accessed by dialing various "payphones" and following the clues to find the bar.
I love this idea with bells on, but the phone lines were exceedingly long and again, I was so busy talking to people that I never actually got to participate. It reminded me a bit of a secret game during a wedding I attended in San Francisco, where the bride and groom broke up the wedding guests in to "pirates" and "ninjas" and they attempted to steal ribbons from each other without the families figuring out there was even a game.
The game did feel a little like the cool kids table, but that may be projection on my part. There are only so many hours at XOXO and not everyone could spend the time waiting in line for a sekrit phone.
XOXO 2018 by the numbers
- Edition of conferences: 6th
- Attendees at this conference: 2250
- Speakers: 16
- Volunteers: over 100
- Kegs of kombucha consumed on first day: 10(!)
- Kegs of soda consumed: ALL OF THEM plus more from an entirely new vendor
- Independently-organized social events: at least 39
- The real conference: The friends we made along the way
I am incredibly fortunate to live in Portland with the ability to attend this festival, and to have the favor of the lottery gods that they have smiled on me consistently.
The original vision of XOXO was creating stuff on the internet and how awesome it was and what a success people were. However, this has changed (and for the better, I believe), to be about community and supporting each other because not everything is awesome. Things on the internet—and in life, particularly now—are hard, and the community fostered by the conference and the Most Important Slack Instance in Existence is invaluable to many of us.
I can think of no other event I've been to where I can run into somebody I've never met, geek out about any topic under the sun, and come away learning something massively intresting. I had the best conversations about video games, Hamilton, The Good Place, grammar as understood by AI, family, API Documentation, pets, watching rocket launches, living in Portland, goats, and a host of other things that I can barely remember.
This conference was certainly not without growing pains, as the increasingly demanding #xoxo-suggestions channel on Slack indicated. There are also some weird elements of exclusivity in what is the most inclusive conference I can think of.
XOXO is a liminal space—I think a lot of the comedown when going back to work after each festival is getting acclimated again to being back in a space where pronouns are assumed, gender is rigidly defined, inclusivity is abnormal, asking for pronouns is some sort of weird burden instead of just a thing you do (every cishet white dude with a Hot Take on this, just stop already, we've heard it and we don't care), creativity is a nice-to-have instead of a must-have, and an extreme lack of delicious, non-alcoholic beverages for free. Now that we've seen how society COULD be, coming back to how it IS can be a bit of a downer.
But the real XOXO is the one we carry with us all along. I applaud the Andys Baio and McMillen for committing to a 2019 Festival, I know that must have been difficult. But the road becomes slightly less difficult knowing that we could do it all again next year, without keeping our fingers crossed and trying not to get our hopes up.