I found this community thanks to failure.
It was 2014 and I, unsure of myself but sure that I had huge student loans to pay off, was trying my hand at any sort of project that could vaguely be described as “a startup” or “generating income” or “a thing that exists.” One of those attempts amounted to “let me crate-dig for you!” In other words, I sold boxes of random vinyl records.
Genius, I know. VCs totally slept on it.
So did almost everyone else, but for that dozen or so that didn’t, I had to take their money. ‘Twas the point. For that, I wound up using Stripe. Stripe, in their infinite wisdom,
1) held an XOXO-adjacent party in 2014
2) let me know about it
3) didn’t check badges.
I left with free food, a free t-shirt, and the notion that there was this valuable community for people who made things — mostly with more success than me, but people like me nonetheless.
That failed crate-digging project spawned, in desperation, a mailing list. Rather than send albums for money, I’d just tell people about them and hope for referral credit. Turns out, the Russians and Ukrainians love that. (That’s a different story.) So I figured I had enough of a thing to try and go to XOXO 2015.
If I hadn’t checked my non-Google email that weekend, I would’ve missed the best thing that ever happened to me.
Between September 2015 and September 2016, I changed a lot. I stopped caring about “doing a business” or impressing VCs. (Frankly, most of them are not worth my attention anyway. Bryce Roberts, though, I’m cool with.) I wrote a whole novel to process my romantic relationships and my increased understanding of my place in the world. I found the best roommate I’ve ever had, and maybe the best roommate I could ask for.
I made friends I never thought I’d make, either because I never knew they existed or because they seemed so impressive and important that I could never measure up. I did things I never could’ve planned. Having brunch with someone who challenged my direction in life. Sharing stage fright with a musician I’ve listened to for years. Defusing virtual bombs with the guy in charge of MetaFilter. Turns out, they’re all people, just like me.
So when the application opened for XOXO 2016, naturally, I applied.
If that were where the story ended, that would’ve been fine. With the Slack backchannel, the story doesn’t really “end,” but I figured I was already at the point of having my life sufficiently changed and my community substantially expanded.
And then I went again.
For those reading who aren’t familiar with what XOXO is: these two guys named Andy gather a bunch of independent artists, builders, programmers, game makers, podcasters, and so forth into a 3.5-day storm of creative inspiration. There are deeply vulnerable talks about failure, finances, and harassment, alongside talks about surprise success and unexpected passions. There are spontaneous social events for a dozen different interests. There’s an entire laundry building full of quirky and clever video/tabletop games. There are debuts of eccentric and socially challenging shows and Q&As with their creators. There’s free child care and yoga and dozens of details to help accessibility and inclusivity. There’s good food and unpronounceable soft drinks. There is only occasionally any EDM.
In 2015, many of the talks explored the idea of making what speaks to you, expectations or mainstream taste or power players be damned. And, there was real talk about the dangers of making things at all. But at the end of the day, the drive to make things on your own terms — to face that call from your doctor with the fewest regrets — was the prevalent theme.
2016 was different. There were moments of vulnerability, with frank discussion about money. The idea of making for yourself came up again, but it felt dwarfed by the idea of making to cause change: whether holding up a critical mirror to a self-fellating industry, giving women of color a space to exist on their own terms, or using technology and risking danger to spread protest against criminal dictatorships.
2015 inspired me to create. 2016 inspired me to help.
And that’s the thing about XOXO, the reason that its absence next year (and potentially all the years after that) has been felt so tangibly. I’ve gone to technology conferences big and small. I’ve gone to conventions full of internet geeks. Sometimes they make me want to do things, but in a vague, “maybe someday” sense. XOXO is the only one that’s inspired me. It’s the only one that made me change as a person, or even made me want to change.
It’s forced me to think about contradiction, just as Sarah Jeong talked about it in herself. XOXO is the most inclusive convention I’ve seen, and the most exclusive. It’s a social event of introverts. I’m full of contradictions too; I hate my voice yet got on stage to tell a story and behind the mic to record a podcast. I’m afraid to strike it out on my own even though I’m only truly happy when I’m working on my own thing.
XOXO showed me a world of independent creativity that I’d always wanted to be a part of, that I’d always been scared of the challenges around, and told me that I can do it too. It showed me that I need to do it. It’d be full of sacrifice and pain, but it’d be worth it. Because it can help. I can help.
When applications for XOXO 2016 opened, I told the Furry Writers Guild. In 2015, I was an accidental “furry delegation,” opening up about an Internet community that this Internet community had only a little direct discussion around. My Fray Cafe story about Furlandia helped break the ice and drew in tons of kindness, curiosity, and interest. I felt so welcome that I wanted to bring in others like me.
Feeling vaguely forlorn I didn’t take the opportunity to go to the XOXO festival. Oh well. *sad trombone*
— Watts Martin (@chipotlecoyote) September 13, 2016
Ultimately, it didn’t pan out. Lotteries are like that. But now I feel a need to do the reverse of what I did in 2015. I see a chance to be the “XOXO delegation,” to share the spirit and ideals of independent art and community that I’ve experienced firsthand over the last year. There’s always a mountain of sadness over XOXO ending any given year, and an Everest of it this year, but the spirit isn’t kept in jars and boxes in some Portland warehouse. It’s something the community has tapped into and cultivated, and now we embody it. Andy Baio spotted it: XOXO is something bigger than any one of us, bigger even than the ones who run it. We can share it, just like they did, in the ways that we have available.
For me, that’s a mix. I can keep creating things the way I have been and hope they inspire people. (And they have, so far; my book helped a fan move past a difficult work environment, and my mailing list led a reader to start his own music project.) But Esra’a showed me how much more impact I could have. I can devote myself to making the world better, not worse. XOXO 2016 helped raise over $50,000 to fight homelessness, because that sense of making a positive impact is as much a part of the XOXO spirit as making cartoons or software. If I’m going to be the “XOXO delegation,” an ambassador elsewhere for that spirit, then part of that is helping people.
At the closing party, there was a table of scrap paper and an old mailbox set up near the door. Above it was a banner that simply read: “Thank You Andys.” Before the 10,000 seconds counted to down to Dan Deacon’s set, the box was full. I stuffed mine in, eyes full of tears, before I went home to rejoin my former life.
I don’t think I’ll be there long. I have a new life to start. Just like last year.
Images via The Verge and Ben Darlow