in Technology

Some Thoughts on the 2018 XOXO Conference and Festival

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend the XOXO Festival right here in Portland. For those who don’t know about XOXO (as I didn’t before I moved here last year) it’s a festival and conference for and by makers of things on the Internet: game designers/developers, programmers, filmmakers, comedians, artists, podcasters, and the like. A single-track daytime conference accompanies the evening festivities, packed with thought-provoking keynotes delivered by very accomplished people such as Jonny Sun, Ijeoma Oluo and Demi Adejuyigbe. It’s primarily this part of the event that I want to say a few words about.

First of all, some of these keynotes address very profound and difficult issues of racial and sexual discrimination, trolling, trauma, and so on. Many of the creators on the main stage have persevered in making content on the Internet despite of all of that. As a conference that wants to encourage more folks (particularly less-privileged or marginalized people) to make things, it’s not surprising that the two organizers, Andy Baio and Andy MacMillan (the Andys), bend over backwards to create a culture of inclusion and diversity at XOXO. Clearly, many of these tactics, like pronoun self-identification pins, safe spaces for people of color/enbys/genderqueer folx, content warnings, etc. are designed to augment that culture. I do worry, though, that attempts to widen the size of the tent end up actually reducing the size of the Overton window. And I say this as someone who considers himself progressive.

My discomfort with some of these issues began when the Andys took to the stage on Sunday to deliver an adhoc and quite frankly rather unfocused discourse about trying to get speakers to eliminate ableist language like “crazy” from their talks, improve content and trigger warnings before the talks, and addressing several other similar pieces of feedback they received about inclusion. The Andys and other XOXO community members have also been in the XOXO Slack making strong statements saying that content warnings are not up for debate because they consider the issue settled and “not all ideas deserve discussion”. Now, I happen to be fine with content warnings; in some specific cases, like warning people about raw chicken, I think they are gratuitous, but they don’t hurt me and apparently help other people who deal with trauma. Whatever, I can live with them. It’s just an example that I want to use to point out that the discussion (or lack thereof) around them is emblematic of a disturbing strain of behavior I observed among certain XOXO attendees and sometimes the Andys to rush into policing and enforcing a set of increasingly prescriptive “correct beliefs”. There was even a discussion of distributing social justice 101 materials with 2019’s XOXO attendee packets which would literally define that Overton Window.

These developments made me sad because very quickly they can turn inclusion into just another type of exclusion. Maybe what’s coloring my discomfort is that while I’m philosophically on the left, practically speaking I’m a centrist. It feels like in 2018, that’s like belonging to an endangered species. I believe that we do still need to coexist with those who have privilege. That means we are going to have to compromise with them. Also, the views of underprivileged groups on equity and inclusion initiatives aren’t always guaranteed to be good or even practical for implementation at scale. Where is the empathy for folks with whom we disagree, especially when they have privilege? I suspect many underprivileged people would argue that privileged people don’t deserve any empathy and that empathy only flows one way, which is absurd.

I’m incredibly conflicted about XOXO. I loved the content of both the conference and the festival and in many ways, I feel like it’s “my nerd home”. I did meet a lot of wonderful individuals one-on-one and was able to catch up a bit with a long-lost friend from Toronto. But I don’t necessarily feel that the XOXO community at large is “my people”.