For the past five years, XOXO has ended with a warning that there might never be another one. The event — an annual gathering of 1,200 or so creative types in Portland — promotes the work of independent artists and makers, and has evolved into a world-class showcase of indie games, short-form video, art, and the open web. Then, at the conclusion of this year’s festival on Sunday, the end arrived: amid tears and hugs, the organizers said XOXO would not return in 2017, or possibly ever.
If you’ve never attended XOXO yourself, that might seem like no big deal. If you have — and I covered it for the past three years — it’s like learning that Christmas will be taking the year off. I always felt a little guilty coming to write about XOXO, knowing how many people tried and failed to win the annual lottery for tickets. The festival contributed so many good ideas to the world of internet culture — online and off — that its disappearance, however temporary, stings.
XOXO's disappearance, however temporary, stings
On one hand, organizers Andy Baio and Andy McMillan more than earned their year off. Conceived as a part-time project, running XOXO eventually grew to consume most of their year. That culminated in the opening of the XOXO Outpost, a co-working and event space that remains open year-round. But as the Andys turn their attention to other things, it feels worthwhile to highlight what made XOXO so remarkable during its five-year run. Most of the festival’s best ideas are all right there for the taking — and anyone else who does creative work would do well to consider borrowing them.
Showcase people on the margins. XOXO had a singular unfair advantage over most other conferences: the preternaturally good taste of Andy Baio, whose curatorial instincts lead him to some of the strangest and most beautiful parts of the internet. (He was an early technical adviser to Kickstarter, and many of XOXO’s most remarkable finds began as crowdfunding projects there.)
Where most festivals are designed to highlight the most obvious winners in their chosen fields, XOXO was more interested in whether something was cool, useful, or simply worth saying. It also took an abiding interest in pain: speakers regularly talked in great detail about their wobbly finances, imperfect parenting, and occasional near-death experiences.
A giddy, three-day tumble through the internet
The result was an incredible sense of discovery that pervaded the event. In previous years XOXO brought me my first exposure to Baman Piderman, a beautiful and nearly indescribable animated web series; to C. Spike Trotman, who built an empire of web comics about subjects other publishers refused to touch; and to Every Frame a Painting, Tony Zhou’s superlative series of video essays about filmmaking. Each year XOXO offered a giddy, three-day tumble through parts of the internet that most people had never seen.
One benefit of this willingness to investigate odd corners of the web is a diversity few conferences ever match. Of 16 speakers at the conference, 11 were women, and several identified themselves as LGBTQ; an equal number of men and women attended the festival; and 20 percent of attendees were people of color. The result was a collision of perspectives that made every talk, game, or art project feel wonderfully vital.
Constantly find new groups to include. Each year XOXO strived to be more inclusive than it had been the year before, and the result was a series of spiraling improvements that made the festival accessible to ever-greater numbers of people. This year’s enhancements included full scholarships for 10 percent of all attendees; shuttles that comply with the Americans With Disability Act; and a children’s arcade for any of the kids taking advantage of the festival’s free childcare — a 2015 addition that attracted many more women to the event. XOXO also paid heroic attention to gender diversity, offering all attendees buttons so they could advertise their preferred pronouns on their badges.
Sweat the small stuff. If XOXO were software, you’d call it polished — the event is manicured down to the pixel. It was the first major festival I am aware of to run on Slack, an innovation from 2015 that continued to yield dividends this year. A live web tracker let attendees monitor the progress of the shuttles that would take them from venue to venue. Corporate sponsors were unobtrusive and simply received an end-of-festival shout-out for covering the cost of useful things: coffee; beer; bikes for getting around.
Embrace smallness. XOXO served as a powerful annual reminder that there is success beyond money, scale, and fame. The creators who spoke at the event had become interesting by pursuing their own creative impulses wherever they led, often despite strong economic incentives to abandon them. The result is truly distinctive work — like the raps of Sammus, who has infused her hip-hop with subjects ranging from video games to social justice, or Lucy Bellwood, who wrote increasingly popular "adventure comics" about her experiences sailing on tall ships and white-water rafting while living off food stamps. XOXO doesn’t glamorize the life of its (sometimes literally) starving artists — anxiety over money is a recurring theme — but it does suggest forging ahead anyway, confident that the most interesting projects begin in tiny niches.
An hour-long mash-up centered on Smash Mouth's 'All Star'
Love the web. The internet is the greatest magnifying glass for attention ever built, and over time it has come to offer disproportionate awards to the web’s biggest properties: Facebook, Google, and a handful of other giants. XOXO remembers a time before all that, when web surfing yielded nonstop delight and absolutely no one had any idea what they were doing. "An unofficial goal of this thing is to support keeping the internet interesting," Baio said before introducing Neil Cicierega. Cicierega is a veteran internet prankster who most recently drew attention for Mouth Sounds, an hour-long mash-up centered on Smash Mouth’s "All Star."
Every year brought gems from the web like these. Some were silly, as with Cicierega. Others were more serious — this year, journalist Sarah Jeong examined the question of whether to use an ad blocker on the web from every angle, arriving at no easy conclusions. XOXO celebrated the possibilities of the web while constantly pushing it to be better. Notably, it regularly devoted one or more segments to the effects of online harassment, giving its victims a powerful platform to call upon technology companies to build better solutions.
On one hand, XOXO was a tiny gathering accessible only to a vanishingly small number of people. One speaker noted the irony of a festival that prides itself on inclusiveness requiring that prospective attendees fill out an application if they want to attend. (Some attendees I spoke with believe that if the Andys bring it back, it will be as something significantly larger.)
Then again, the tech- and media-savvy audience that the festival attracted took its ideals to heart — and they’ll continue to promote them year-round. Whenever a weirdo puts something bizarre and compelling on the web, or a broke freelancer finds a way to make ends meet until their next check arrives, or a marginalized person finds an unexpectedly huge audience for her project on Kickstarter — there we’ll see the spirit of XOXO enduring.
It was pretty much the best thing I ever went to. I'll miss it terribly.
Correction, 12:51 p.m. This article has been updated to reflect that the festival styles its name as XOXO, not XOXO Fest.