Photo credit: Tom Coates
Kickstarted in 2012, Portland’s XOXO Festival is self-described as an “experimental festival for independent artists and creators who work on the internet.”
Now in its sixth year, XOXO has evolved beyond a tech-centric conference to become a growing, thriving online and irl (in-real-life) community that celebrates creativity, vulnerability, collaboration, inclusion, diversity, and representation.
It’s important to understand that XOXO is not a tech event, networking conference, or music festival. Instead, it’s an internet creator community intent on “[amplifying] voices that have been traditionally marginalized both in our community and in our society” [Source].
This is an idea that extends to every aspect of the festival, creating a unique environment where speakers and attendees could share their expertise, vulnerabilities, fears, hopes, and visions for better things with one another in a safe and kind space.
Engaging and informative speakers
Even before XOXO’s official lineup of speakers and seminars had got underway, there had been a thriving community of meetups and activations that had made it feel like the festival had been going on for much longer than it actually had.
Nevertheless, each speaker was special, inspiring, and heart-breaking in their own way and each served up a message that attendees could take away and implement in their own lives.
Internet poet and artist Jonny Sun, for example, spoke about his struggle with imposter syndrome, seeking a community and audience online, and the realness of the internet (words matter!).
Lyricist, producer, composer, chef, dancer, choreographer, editor, director, hairstylist, singer, actor, and engineer, Jean Grae, expressed frustration with people who constantly strive to categorize her and her endeavour to “make weird sh*t”.
Jennifer 8. Lee of Emojination talked about how she got the dumpling emoji added to the Unicode standard, and how she and her team have democratized a secretive and arbitrary process that controls how billions of people communicate around the world.
There was also Demi Adejuyigbe, a writer for ‘The Late Late Show’, who spoke about how Twitter helped him and others start their careers but is a horrible platform that magnifies the good and bad (ironically just before his talk he was suspended from Twitter and wove that into his commentary.).
Mari Naomi described how she turned her research for an article into the Cartoonists of Color Database and later the Queer Cartoonists Database. The “mind-numbing and boring work” (her words) of updating databases has had a real impact on people’s lives and highlighted the importance of community work and how just one or two people can make a big difference.
The final speaker of XOXO was filmmaker Hari Kondabolu. His film ‘The Problem with Apu’ looks at comedy and racism in media by analyzing ‘The Simpsons’ character, Apu and asking how and why he was created, and how in 2018 he’s remained unchanged and on-the-air.
Photo credit: Visnja Milidragovic
With so many amazing speakers and activations to be experienced, it’s simply impossible to condense everything from XOXO into a single blog post. But there are some key takeaways that have stuck with us and which can help inform anyone who operates in the digital arena:
Whether in tweets, films, tv, or anywhere else, seeing yourself has a very real impact on you. It’s far too easy for those who are already represented to assume it isn’t important and that is why it’s important for those with the privilege to listen and amplify the voices of those who have been marginalized.
The internet is real
The work we do, the relationships we forge and the experiences we have are real and cannot be dismissed by anyone.
Fail in public
Let your garbage show. Don’t wait for it to be perfect.
Ordinary people make a difference
XOXO intentionally highlighted creators on the margins who saw a gap in the world and moved to fill it with their work. They aren’t rich or venture-capital backed. More likely than not they sought out, or established communities that support one another and together they’re building a more inclusive, accessible future. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
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