XOXO 2013 wasn’t so much a conference as a pep rally. It brought together 500 people for two days in Portland to talk, learn, and share about the process of making and to have a good time together. The organizers promised focused sessions and great fellow attendees, and they delivered. It was more fun than any conference than I can remember going to and the quality of the speakers was high across the board. But even by that yardstick, two really stuck out for me.
Max Temkin is one of the creators of Cards Against Humanity, which has achieved the fairly astonishing feat of being both completely free to download and one of the best-selling games on Amazon (if you count the expansion packs, it qualifies as four of the best-selling games on Amazon). I wasn’t sure what to expect from Max. I have never played Cards Against Humanity (I’m not much of a game player) and really only knew about it as a phenomenon. But he was great! He told the story of how he and his friends started making games in college, had some success, and after seeing how much people liked their downloadable “party game for horrible people” decided to see if people would pay for nicely-made, boxed sets. In the two and a half years since that project was successfully funded, the game has generated millions of dollars in sales.
Max talked about how he and his friends have managed to keep their heads during all of this. His advice was to make sure you know your values before you start the project, or at least understand the values that will inform the project. Let those values guide your strategy, and then figure out your tactics from there. Writing it down now, it seems so simple—like something you’ve heard over and over from other people. But this is thing about XOXO. If you know these people’s backstories, very few of them will surprise you. But when you have engaging speaker after engaging speaker telling you that they succeeded by doing these things, it starts soaking in. You start to actively think about the values that you bring to your projects. Are they values you have in other parts of your life? Do they make sense for this project? Can you stand behind them?
Jay Smooth was the other speaker that really resonated for me. Jay is the host of the longest-running hip-hop radio show in New York, and posts social commentary at illdoctrine.com. Jay and I have very different backgrounds and very different lives, but we have some common ground in how important outsider music was to us in our younger days. I came of age just as American punk rock reached a peak, and it was in that network of underground communities that I became an adult, and the spirit and attitude I learned there has stayed with me, even as the idea of punk as I knew it has transformed into something else. Jay grew up in New York City in the middle of the invention of hip-hop. He became a part of that and has stayed a part it. He’s been doing a lot of thinking about what it means to be an adult rooted in an art form that has maybe not aged all that well. As you might imagine, that train of thought spoke to me.
Jay told a few different stories. One was about reaching out to some acquaintances in the NYC Asian hip-hop community to mobilize people in response to ongoing racist humor by some radio DJs and how some good friendships came from that. Another was about playing some old ‘70s funk for a record producer who then sampled it on a Jay Z record, and how that helped the original composer of the source material—who had just turned 88 and fallen on hard times—pay off his house and help a few other people. His point was that you can’t always tell which actions in your life are going to have lasting effects, and that it pays to always act with intention and integrity. Again, this is not an earth-shaking revelation. But again, sitting there in that environment, it was a good “Yeah!”, fist pumping moment.
Jay also addressed one of two major problematic issues with XOXO: diversity. It was a largely white, largely male audience and the speakers where largely white and male, too. Not exclusively, mind you, and it was great to see groups outside those two represented on both sides of the stage. But when you go out of your way to set yourself apart from other conferences, you set some expectations. It was a topic of conversation among the attendees and was acknowledged by the organizers, and I’m confident that if they decide to put on XOXO again next year, we’ll see some efforts made in both speaker and audience diversity.
The other major issue is how that audience got there. The filter/screener/application that people had to fill out before getting put on the list to buy a pass has received a lot of attention. Both of the organizers have written about how they decided to try this approach: Andy Baio and Andy McMillan. In a nutshell, they wanted to ensure that people coming to the purposely-small gathering (only 500 attendees) were there because they were excited about making things, and specifically not just about marketing to the other attendees. I think that’s great and in the end, their approach worked. However, there were two things that I hope are improved if there is another one.
First, they have to communicate the intention of that kind of screener much more clearly. It was way too easy to skip over it. I did, and I know several other people who did. This is not entirely their fault. It’s not like they hid it. But getting these passes had developed a little bit of a land-rush feel, partially because 2012 was so highly regarded and reported and partially because of the trickle of information coming out from XOXO HQ. So when people (myself included) plowed through that form to get that pass before they all disappeared and ended up with a “Thanks, we’ll be in touch” message instead of a field for their credit card number, it was a confusing letdown, which was made worse the multi-day wait to hear whether you would get to go. To be clear: those of us who did not read carefully are responsible for not having read carefully. But there is also a design problem here for the organizers to solve next time. If they go with the same filtering mechanism, I believe they will handle it a little differently.
Second, the one-ticket-per-person rule has to be addressed somehow. At least four of us in the Mule office wanted to bring someone who we thought would benefit from the conference, people who for various reasons likely wouldn’t have gotten through the filter. Because of the risk of one person being accepted and one not, three people at Mule decided the conference wasn’t right for them. I ultimately decided to go, and I’m glad I did. But I also think my wife would have gotten a lot out of attending even part of it. I think it would make XOXO an even better event if it could help put more people on the maker path, not only to serve those already on it.
I’ll close with some ways that I would like to see XOXO grow.
Have I mentioned that I liked it? I really did. I have two different projects that I’ve been working on for several months that I’ve been hemming and hawing about taking up a level (my podcast, It Might Get Personal and my band). This kind of enthusiastic and upbeat group of people was just what I needed to feel like my projects are worth putting the effort into, and helping me figure out where to focus my energy to make that happen.
But after two days of pep rally I wanted a little bit more scrimmage, or at least some discussion of the play book. The single track of speakers is great, but I would really, really love to see some kind of option for attendees to get practical advice. Maybe from the same people speaking, maybe from a different set. Some kind of smaller sessions, whether running in parallel with either the speakers on Saturday and Sunday or the social events on Thursday and Friday, or changing the format to one day of inspiration and one day of perspiration.
Andy and Andy have created something good and special. I hope they decide to see if they can make it even better next year. I left Portland charged and excited, with dozens of ideas competing for my attention, and I’ve already acted on some of them. If everything goes according to plan, I’ll be telling you about them from the stage of the next XOXO.
Mule creates delightful interfaces, strong identities, and clear voices for useful systems and nice people.
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