In the spirit of "reporting on one's #xoxofest experience" I am going to blog about mine so as to add to the data points regarding the festival, if in an ambient and orthogonal way. I had the "festival pass" which meant that I did not attend the festival talks, and so I went to Portland to circulate and enjoy the atmosphere rather than watch the speakers. This is in keeping with how I tend to do social festivals anyway (I have been to four SXSWs and two DefCons without full conference passes) so XOXO seemed like an interesting and very 2014 iteration on this practice.
Upon arrival in Portland I was struck even more than usual by how calm it seemed in relation to the city I came from (San Francisco), where everyone in the city proper is perpetually on a precipice of potential startup fortune or ruin. Portland, by contrast, seemed exuberantly chill. Strangers frequently asked how my day was going and listened genuinely for the answer, which I suppose is something you can do when you aren't seeing everyone around you as a potential startup competitor.
On Friday morning after breakfast I wrote an essay about Peter Thiel's Mystical Futures, which was not inspired by the above storefront (which I serendipitously encountered later), but serves as a nice post-facto illustration.
I then walked over to the district where XOXO was being held to pick up my tote bag, t-shirt, and pass. The pass had my name imprinted and I wondered if they had made a mistake, giving me a fancy pass when I was a mere festival party goer. Later in the day I realized that the parties were in many ways the point. The conference functions as a way to put faces to internet handles and acknowledge IRL presence/being, since so much of what constitutes "independent" creators these days is one's internet activity at the peak of a vast internet infrastructure, about which Tim Maly has written well.
Walking to the XOXO building I ran across a van marked "First Response" like it was an ambulance, but it turned out to be a kind of ambulance for security (unrelated to the festival). "Video Surveillance, Access Control," it said on the side of the van, and it felt very Snow Crash, and somehow appropriate.
'Hardly Art, Hardly Garbage'
At the XOXO building later the Song Exploder panel was going on and a singer for a band called The Thermals was talking about a song he sings where he says "Hardly Art, Hardly Garbage" over and over. This phrase, intoned over grungy guitars, seemed like a perfect way to put the state of creative work in 2014 and I thought about that for a while. It got dark outside and the building was sort of rustic and industrial at the same time and it felt cozy. Then I met up with Rusty and Ingrid and Tim and Amit and Darius and we sat in the parking lot slash beer garden for the rest of the night.
On Saturday I went to the Sauvie Island river beach, replete with hundreds of nude people (not pictured), with my friend Amelia and her husband and child. We enjoyed sunshine and later, beers at the farmers market. I noticed that all the beer bars serve kombucha in Portland, which is chill. Witches brew everywhere. If #WitchWave is the future of tech, Portland is way ahead with its ever-present array of hand-bottled fermented beverages.
Saturday night I went to a sushi restaurant with some XOXO-attending Cool Dads (TM @Jessicakroy) who talked about camping and bears while we ate massive and strangely inexpensive plates of Americanized but tasty sushi. The waiter bro-ing down with us swore that a Coconut Sake on the menu was delicious, and we thought it sounded terrible so we didn't order it. Then I decided that we needed to taste it on account of our waiterbro's enthused recommendation. It tasted like suntan lotion and 'ruined my palate' for the rest of the night but I was also glad that I tasted it. There was something refreshing about being in a place that would un-ironically and happily recommend a terrible sake that tasted like suntan lotion. No country for authenticity snobs in this particular restaurant. The restaurant at my hotel, on the other hand, was v obsessed with authenticity: it thanked "foragers, farmers, and purveyors" for their contributions. I wasn't sure if anything I ate there was actually foraged, though.
After the sushi restaurant I walked for a mile or two with some internet friends from Kansas who were very nice in the nicest sense of that word. Like, very very nice. Niiiiiiiice. Some people are really just actually, totally nice. We ended up back at XOXO and I ran into an old good friend from San Francisco and we drank free lemon dill slushies (fresh dill= v luxurious). He noted that he hadn't seen so many white people as he had at XOXO since he moved to Portland. As others have noted, the conference is quite white, and still obviously more men than women. Later my friend Ingrid suggested that next year XOXO should try to get writers like Mikki Kendall and other prominent online feminists of color, which is a good idea. One gets the sense that XOXO is very much the product of a certain internet community, that centers its particular things, and it could expand its internet horizons.
On Sunday I walked to a neighborhood called Hollywood to meet up with an internet/intellectual friend named Mel Gregg who turned out to be rad IRL. She shared her amazing journal article about hackathons with me, which I am excited to share & discuss on Twitter when it comes out. We drank a flight of beers out of skateboards on an old wood spool table, naturally.
XOXO ended with a party at a place called White Owl Social Club which reminded me exactly of the Yellow Jacket Social Club in Austin, which is a similar outdoor, modern hipster bar in an industrial area. It was apropos because XOXO reminds me of a neo SXSW, but newer and northwest. I met up with Tim and Amit and Ingrid and Rusty again and went with Rusty to get drinks at the bar. The choice for free beers was PBR or Tecate, and I said that while they are both terrible the Tecate is the better option. "Because the name is better", Rusty said, finishing my point for me.
And that's what made me feel like XOXO, as a place of internet-to-IRL community, might work: because despite the deep complications in the conference's "creator" and "community" definitions, sometimes you need the opportunity to hang out with people IRL who vibe on similar things, like the fact that two beers are marginally distinguished by one brand name being better than the other. Sometimes, very rarely, the options are that simple, the beer is free, and everyone actually is nice and supportive; and despite all its lofty ideals and attendant complexities I think this is where XOXO's heart wants to be. While I wasn't present for the speaker tracks (I look forward to watching them when they are released online), in its nighttime hours XOXO's vibe of a kind of considerate, friendly creative dialogue felt palpable, if still a luxury available only to a few.