on xoxo

I attended my first-ever tech/design/nerd conference this weekend in Portland. I’m writing this on the plane home, while it’s still fresh in my exhausted mind (and while I am still on vacation).

Whenever I told people that it was my first conference, they’d say that most of them aren’t like this, that it was all downhill from here (should I choose to go to other tech/design/nerd conferences, which, who knows whether I will). I heard the word “magical” bandied about a lot, and it was: there’s always some alchemy to putting a bunch of sincere and smart and caring people in a room together with free rein to enthuse about what they love. I had a huge grin on my face the whole time from talking to strangers, which is usually such a hard thing for me. Andy and Andy deserve so much credit for organizing a place where that happened in such full force. I felt welcome, despite having decidedly sparse nerd credentials (by which I mean: I don’t make internet for a living). Life felt intensely charmed. It was tremendous.

But even when you’re in a room with a bunch of people you admire and like, you’re also always in your own head, and my own head is always a place of complicated philosophical internet problems and powerful feminist opinions. One of the best things that I took with me from XOXO was a new conviction that it’s valuable for me to say so. (Which, jeez, talk about the magic being inside you all along. It was. I’m making time for it.)

XOXO was billed as a festival of disruptive creativity. In the opening talk, Andy Baio acknowledged that “disruption” is kind of a bogus buzzword, that “disintermediation” would be more appropriate for the type of creative work under consideration: artists finding their audience with only websites as mediators. The tone the Andys set about all this was powerfully hopeful and uncynical; I really hope I can apply it liberally with a big sloppy brush to my internet life. And I hope everything I say about the conference is taken in that spirit.

And so, about disruption: even to get to a point where you’re disrupting something, you have to have some level of privilege. You have to know you’ll be able to eat and not die. You have to have the time to work towards whatever you’re making. To be in that room, I had to have the eating and not-dying covered, along with disposable income and vacation days to get to Portland. (Because yes, some of us still rock the cubicle lifestyle as we wend our way up the Maslow’s pyramid of self-actualizing on our creative projects.)

It’s not particularly fun to meditate on your privilege. If we’re trying to make creative communities online and in the world without keeping privilege in check, though, we are going to be totally screwed, and we’re going to bring those communities crashing down with us in flames. We have great tools, but they’re not going to fix our instincts to be afraid of differences. I wrote a tweet to this effect after Dan Harmon made a couple throwaway jokes that contradicted the spirit of his otherwise fantastic keynote. His thesis was: don’t take the internet seriously, take people seriously; the internet is a people-connector. Great, yes, and well-stated, and funny, and maybe don’t make jokes about babes in the audience, because you are telling the babe contingent that we’re welcome there for our babe status and not the things that make us fully people. (Also, these sorts of jokes are way lazy.)

Even if you’re taking people seriously rather than the internet itself, it’s still dangerously tempting to think that people who aren’t like you (trolls, Tea Partiers, haters of all stripes) are less human: you aren’t really seeing them, after all, and they aren’t seeing you. And that’s when the internet gets cynical and shitty. I’d argue– I have argued– that this alienation is maybe built into the platform. Let’s all please disrupt the hell out of that.

The talk that sold me on going to XOXO in the first place was Maggie Vail and Jesse von Doom’s, about CASH Music. Jesse said the thing that summed up a lot: Disrupting things is easy. Fixing them is hard. If we really want to use all our cool disruptive internet power to fix the world (which hopefully is the thrust of all that happy sincerity), it’s gotta be an internet that learns from the world’s mistakes, that doesn’t silence women and people of color, that makes space for difficult art and complicated conversations.

I think the XOXO co-organizers know this, because I spent a while talking to Andy Baio in the middle of the crowded street outside the afterparty last night. I wanted him to know some of this stuff in person before I said it to the internet, and he was already hyperaware of it. That’s the best place to start. I’m interested to see how next year looks: maybe scholarships for more artists and makers of all genders and races to come? Maybe more small talks and conversations? More women and people of color is a major given that everybody knows, but that doesn’t happen without a welcoming space. This was the beta test space for the conference’s future, I think. I hope everyone feels as welcome next year as I did.

I left feeling mostly encouraged that we can work on these things together, we people who write the internet and people who make it work. I made new and wonderful friends; I put faces with names and Twitter handles. I ranted at length about books and poems to lots of folks (which is my ideal thing to do). But still, our time and attention is all we have, and it’s only as good as what we do with it. I want to find more time to figure all this out. That would really be magical: disrupting time to have more of it, to have these conversations more.