Making Things in the Digital Age: Sophie Cunningham on Portland’s XOXO Festival

Sophie Cunningham attended Portland’s XOXO Festival around independent digital culture last weekend, and she’s reported on it for us - and reflected on the way that so many of the burning issues of digital culture also resonate for her as a writer.

XOXO is a small festival around independent digital culture that has, in the three years it’s been going, developed a big reputation. It was started, with the help of Kickstarter, as an alternative to SXSW. It’s also a way of distinguishing the work independent producers do from the massive corporations of Silicon Valley and the like. The fact that it’s set in Portland certainly helps create that sense of difference.

Most events took place in a disused warehouse that had been painted in festival colours and been set up for some 750 participants. The car park beside the warehouse hosted Portland’s famous food trucks (there are 400 of them across the city) that sold everything from Khao Man Gai to Korean BBQ, and fried egg sandwiches. The emphasis on food was a considered one; the organisers have described food carts as an equivalent to indie art and technology. ‘The barrier to entry and costs are low, letting you experiment with new ideas and build a following without falling into deep debt.’ I was even more won over by the herd of urban goats that lived in a paddock down the street.

The Portland-based organisers, Andy Baio and Andy McMillan, first met via Twitter and see one of the roles of the festival as enabling real-life meetings of like-minded people who have first met on social media. There were a series of informal social events, organised thematically: Story, Arcade, Music, Film & Animation, and Tabletop. At these various venues, people got to see and play games in development, drink, listen to bands, watch films and just hang out.

The Andys (as they are known) are white men, in a largely white industry, but they demonstrated a serious commitment to diversity. Last year only 22% of the conference attendees were women; this year more than 40% of the attendees identified as women, and women gave 6 of the 16 talks. They had less success with people of colour, as attendees or presenters – while they didn’t have exact figures for the first two years, anecdotal evidence suggested that this year’s figure of 13% was only a marginal improvement. There were strict codes about sexual harassment and one attendee was asked to leave the conference when he ignored those guidelines. There has been a growing understanding that events need to be supported in this way and the fact that one of the speakers, Anita Sarkeesian, has been the focus of vicious online campaigns and death threats underlined exactly why festival organisers and participants need to be clear on these issues.

The social events were set around two days of a relatively formal conference, though the style of the presentations was different from most formal conferences. Presenters spoke about making things. What does it take to turn an idea into something that people can buy, share, or take part in? How can these ideas turned into ‘things’ become sustainable businesses of a sort? Should that even be their goal? This year the intensity of the questions were ramped up a notch. How can you work independently and not give way to financial ruin or depression? What if things go wrong? Given that failure is more likely than success, how do you cope when it’s your turn to fail?

Speakers were asked to provide some kind of context to what they do, or, if you like, a ‘story’. In some cases this meant talking about what they’d made, but in others, speakers focused on the link between their personal and professional lives. The talks will become available online over the next few weeks. Here’s a brief recap of some of them.

The first speaker, Kevin Kelly, was also the oldest. In his sixties, Kelly is the founding editor of Wired and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Review. While his story of travelling in the 1970s and building his own house might be a familiar one, his talk gave me a clear sense of the way the counterculture has fed into digital culture. Gina Trapani, founded Lifehacker. She talked about 9/11 and the impact that had on her as a young woman in New York: her heightened sense that life is short. She talked about the realisation that our worst moments can lead to our best work, as well as the difficulty of having one project end and needing to find the momentum to begin another. I was particularly interested in Ethan Diamond’s description of the business model for Bandcamp, which allows musicians to stream and sell their music directly to fans.

There were speakers that considered (or enacted) the performance of a private self in a public forum. Jonathan Mann has recorded a song every day since January 2009. That’s more than 2000 songs. Break-ups, gastro, politics. You name it; he’s sung about it. His talk demonstrated that persistence itself is an art form, and becomes strangely moving in the process. Justin Hall described what it was like, in the mid-nineties at the age of 19, to have 27,000 people check in with him daily to read about his exuberant sexual life, drug-taking and his father’s suicide. (These days, he noted ruefully, he has an audience of about 270). What was fascinating was his growing understanding of what it meant to have an audience and the implications of that for his friends and family.

Of course there can be a neatness to the narratives speakers create (at this conference, and in events like TED talks) and Darius Kazemi, the founder of Tiny Subversions, upended that, in a satirical presentation that needs to be seen, not described.

Anita Sarkeesian, the creator of the Feminist Frequency video series, had the most confronting story to tell. Her project, Tropes vs. Women in Videogames, has been met with a sustained campaign of violent threats and abuse. She talked about the more ‘subtle’ attacks on her, such as identity theft, disinformation and defamation. (As if to underline her point, the next day there was a guy approaching people and handing out pamphlets about Sarkeesian and the danger she posed to men and gaming in general.) She walked off the stage to a standing ovation.

The final speaker, Paul Ford, was both charismatic and unassuming – a hard combination to pull off. He’s a writer of essays and has one novel under his belt, was an editor at Harpers Magazine (which he also took online), and is a computer programmer, a teacher and commentator. He pulled together many of the conference’s themes, talking about his personal battles and the ways that his work as a blogger, designer, writer and developer both helped him manage these issues and contributed to them. He also talked about the relationship between time, ideas and the internet.

As he spoke I thought about the way the internet both saves and wastes time. The way moments can be captured, stored, and searched, ad infinitum. Is it good for a writer to be able to capture the recent past? Does it free up our memories or does it leave us drowning in information? Much of what was spoken about resonated with issues I face as a writer. It was incredibly refreshing to be surrounded by so many people thinking and talking about the world they were engaged in making.

Portrait of Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham is a former publisher and editor and the author of four books, including the acclaimed Melbourne. 

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