I bought a ticket to XOXO, an "arts and technology festival" to celebrate "disruptive creativity". It's being organized by Andy Baio, someone I admire for both his writing and his absurdly ahead-of-the-curve link feed. I can usually count on him to care about a lot of what I care about, but to write about it with more force and credibility.
I'm excited about XOXO - it'll bring together a lot of great people. But there are some warning signs that have me feeling pretty cautious.
The biggest is that the price is $400. I find this oxymoronic for a conference dedicated to independent art and culture. Sure, we'd all like the conference to be comfortable, and to be able to pay artists who are traveling to Portland to speak and offer their work. And since there are no sponsorships mentioned anywhere on the conference description, no one will have to put up with a keynote by some product manager at a big company who wants to assert their relevance to the creators of tomorrow or whatever.
But I think I'd rather XOXO "sell out" a bit and get sponsorship money, than self-select the conference to be the part of the Internet that is the intersection of "taste for indie games" and "doesn't have to keep a monthly budget if they don't want to". I also didn't see any scholarships offered for struggling artists or toolmakers who'd like to go but have the exceptionally poor taste to live on the east coast, or outside of the US.
Because of that specific intersection of people who'll be going, I'm concerned that there will be a feeling of privilege and exclusivity there: that sense of "I knew about it before it was cool" but multiplied by about 1,000. We all have a little hipster inside of us, and I'd hate to see the culture of the conference bring it out for display. If there is a talk about "the New Aesthetic", I may emit an uncontrollable scream.
Finally, I'm turned off by XOXO's emphasis on top-down curation. I do want XOXO to be a reflection in part of what Andy Baio loves and respects, but it would be a shame if that were all it was. Will there be any parts of the conference driven by participants? The marketplace will be "tightly curated" - will an artist not be able to sell there unless they're cool enough?
These things worry me especially because XOXO is not supposed to just be about indie games and webcomics. It's about a future where artists and technologists can find success without middle men. That's what companies like Etsy and Kickstarter (who are speaking there), and even Amazon, are doing. It is a future that is happening, but is supposed to be, quite intentionally, a non-curated one where people's expectations are regularly upended, and people are allowed to participate without a corporation's subjective advance approval, or paying hefty upfront fees to publishers of any kind.
So while I like what XOXO claims to stand for, and I'll be going there myself to see it, I am concerned that it's not going to reflect its own values. Baio, and his co-planner Andy McMillan, are passionate people with a good vision - I just hope they are aware of the dangers as they bring it into reality.