XOXO Fest 2016

The XOXO Festival took place during the second week of September in Portland, OR. It was my third XOXO, having attended in 2013 and 2014. And just like those previous years, this one did not disappoint.

XOXO is a conference or gathering for people who make things with the help of the internet. Its purview is a little bit outside of the realm of the Craft Industry Alliance, but not quite. Because really, XOXO is about people who are creating a thing and trying to make it independently. Whether that’s by writing code, or making a product, if you use the internet to help create or sell it, this conference is for you.

Produced by Andy Baio and Andy McMillan, lovingly called “the Andys,” XOXO takes place over three days. There are an opening and closing party, talks throughout the day on Saturday and Sunday, and the evenings are jam packed with showcases highlighting independently made stories and podcasts, films, videos, arcade games and tabletop games. It’s an impressive line-up of the internet come to life.

2016 was the fifth in the series of festivals. It was my third event and each and every year; it has improved. There has been a continuous investment in the attendees and presenters and a willingness to make the festival an inclusive and welcoming place.

Kelly Rand XOXO

Inclusivity and Representation

The first year I attended there wasn’t a line for the women’s room, but a very very long line for the men’s room. But this year, there was gender parity among attendees. Though it was pointed out that gender is non-binary, and there were preferred pronoun pins you could wear with your lanyard. The festival was still overwhelmingly white, but people of color represented about 20 percent of attendees, a marked increase over years past. Women made up the majority of speakers and individuals identifying as LGBTQ often centered that identity during their talk. Even the markers on the bathrooms made clear that whoever was there, was in the right place. I’m relaying this because inclusion, diversity, and representation matter. This conference strives year after year to be inclusive of all people who make and create. And those efforts show. The Andys always say they can do better, and people call them out on where they can improve and each year, they make strides.

There’s a code of conduct that all attendees agree to when purchasing a pass and they have never wavered in enforcing it.

This festival is one where I’ve felt completely at ease in plunking myself down at a table full of strangers and found myself welcomed into the conversation with open arms. Everyone wants to know what you’re up to, what you make, what you create. It’s amazing energy. And you learn about amazing projects and people who are doing extraordinary things.

This year, the Andys challenged attendees to help raise funds for a local nonprofit to help homeless families in Portland, as the festival venue abutted a tent city. They asked for $5,000 and ended up raising over $50,000 by the end of the festival.

The Meaning of Success

A couple of themes came out of the weekend from the presenter talks. The most prevalent one was that of success and what success looks like from the outside versus the inside.

This was highlighted by Lucy Bellwood, a cartoonist. In her talk, she explored how she’s had her best year. She got an agent and released her book. But the biggest thing for her about why it was her best year was she was able to come off food stamps. She finally made enough money to support herself without assistance, and that was the ultimate definition of success for her.

It was astounding to hear this story and experience her vulnerability in telling it as well as her anxiety over professing this to the internet and what her fans would say. Because there was another thread that kept coming up throughout the weekend and that was how fans could be fickle. They can want you to do well and cheer you on, but cross an invisible line into monetary success and you can be labeled a sellout.

Money was heavily discussed throughout the weekend. David Rees, of Going Deep with David Rees, candidly went through his financial revenue from the past 15 years. It brought home how transparency can be a good thing and how we don’t talk enough about money in the creative economy. It’s all hidden under vague notions of “success.” Gaby Dunn, of Just Between Us, talked about her experience with not negotiating contracts or payment. Sarah Jeong, Journalist/Writer, mused about the future of payment for writers and journalists. And Talia Jane, Comedian/Writer, recounted what happened when she publicly asked for a raise when working at Yelp.

Talks by John Roderick, Starlee Kine, and Simone Gertz were affirming in that what you’re doing is necessary, right, and correct. Because too often we hear that what we do isn’t.

Esra’a Al Shafei, Mideast Tunes, is from Bahrain and talked about how the platforms she’s working on is giving a badly needed voice to those who are oppressed in the Mideast, even if it means her safety is at risk.

Frank Chimero, a designer, closed out the weekend with a look at what we gain and lose when we’re independent makers. It all hit home and underlined the festivities nicely. And I haven’t even gotten to the talks by Sammus, Neil Cicierega, Star Simpson, Jen Schiffer, Leaf Corcoran, and Heben Nigatu. The good news is, video of these talks will be up on the XOXO website in the coming months.

This festival may be the last XOXO. The Andy’s said there wouldn’t be one next year as they need a break. But if there is ever another, I highly recommend you try and attend. It is gratifying, and heart wrenching, and gives you a needed boost and recognition that even though what you are doing is hard; you are not alone.


Kelly Rand is the author of “Handmade to Sell: Hello Craft’s Guide to Owning, Running, and Growing Your Crafty Biz,” published by Potter Craft in 2012. A freelance writer focusing on the intersection between art, craft, making and the environment, Kelly has written for The Crafts Report magazine, Cloth Paper Scissors Studios, the Etsy blog and Bust magazine. 

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