In about two weeks, Andy McMillan and Andy Baio will welcome several hundred makers what may be the last XOXO festival.
The fest is a mere 4 years old, but during that short run it became a premier destination for discussing creativity and technology. Over the years, attendees included a range of creatives: blog stars from Boing Boing, DJ sensation Dan Deacon, design fiends of all stripes, the makers of Cards Against Humanity and social thinkers like feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as design fiends, podcasters, comic creators, game developers and so many more. (If you're ready to geek out on the festival's full online video archive, you can get started over here.)
But despite strong attendance (they end up turning away hundreds of would-be attendees each year) the Andys are hitting the brakes. There will not be a XOXO festival in 2017.
Andy Baio notes, “We’ve said every year we don’t know if we’re going to do it again. You do it four times in a row and people stop believing you.”
That’s not to say they will never bring it back. But after four years of engagement on methods, markets, practice and process, Baio and McMillan say they’re shifting focus toward the built environment. Here are some highlights from our interview.
Q&A with XOXO Founders Andy Baio and Andy McMillan
Andy Baio: After last year's festival we decided to open a year-round workspace here in Portland called the Outpost, which is now over 70 members — artists of all kinds, using the Internet to stay independent and support each other.
April Baer: What's it been like going into the real estate business?
Andy McMillan: Anyone who's had even the most fleeting of interactions with Portland's real estate market for the last few years will know: it's obviously a great amount of fun!
April Baer: I suppose it was inevitable that the conversation you started with XO, if it takes place in Portland, would have to take into account space and place at some point.
Andy Baio: Yeah, I mean the concern was that prices are skyrocketing. You hear this on a weekly basis: artists — and really everybody — getting forced out of Portland. What we did that was kind of unusual is that everyone pays what they can afford. All of the existing spaces that we saw priced out independent artists entirely. They were dominated by VC-funded startups and remote workers. And that's fine, but it wasn't the community that we've been fostering.
April Baer: So how did the decision come to bring XOXO fest to a sunset this year, at least for now?
Andy McMillan: Lots of different reasons. And we've already touched on one of them, which is that the Outpost, it turns out the three full-time jobs that the festival gives us each, plus the full-time jobs of the outpost are quite a lot to manage simultaneously. It's better for us to focus on one thing, at least temporarily. So no XO [festival] next year, but we are not ruling out the possibility of doing something again in the future. The XO Slack channel will be how XO continues until we figure out what the next iteration looks like. There's a good 1,700 or 1,800 people in there talking — a good percentage of them talking every day. Almost 200 channels.
April Baer: The dialogue at the festival has always been somewhat oppositional to what was going on in the rest of the tech world. To what extent is the decision to focus on the outpost an answer to that?
Andy Baio: I think it's just another incarnation. The festival was bringing together 1,200 people who are dealing with similar issues across disciplines for four days. The most interesting thing about it was that it became this sort of support group, the stories of the struggles that people are facing being independent — and working online: The ever-present feeling that you have no idea what you're doing, careening from place to place and it's all going to come apart at the seams. Imposter syndrome, the anxieties of financial stress. We've talked more and more about online harassment. And so it doesn't matter if you're doing creative coding or you happen to be someone who's working on a new album independently and building a fan base doing online videos on YouTube. Everyone is going through similar issues and just bringing them together and an interdisciplinary way ended up being really valuable.
April Baer: It's been interesting watching the festival see itself expand in Portland during the time when you've been doing this work. What's it been like to watch the explosion and how people talk about their work?
Andy McMillan: I guess I've just seen it trend toward what we've been encouraging, which is being open and being honest. A lot of events are kind of getting away from what XO was in the first couple of years, which was talking about successes, almost doing a portfolio. "Here's all the stuff that I've done. Look at it, isn't it kind of interesting? OK, my 15 minutes are up." Events that are curated in that way aren't the predominant force anymore. What we have is people talking about difficulties and challenges, and lots of different events are approaching that in different ways.
April Baer: Systems?
Andy McMillan: Yeah. And I think that's incredibly valuable — that we are trending toward having more honest conversations with each other about our work.
Andy Baio: We also don't shy away from discussions of failure. I think we do a disservice to the community to only talking about successes. Survivor bias is strong. It can discourage people from doing something independent. You hide the failures; it's bad for everybody.