The Internet wasn’t always this way.
I think it’s hard to work on the web for over a decade and not have some nostalgia for the way it used to be. Nobody knew what they were doing but we had youth, naïveté, ignorance, and optimism on our side. The medium was not yet fully formed and we were still learning what it was capable of.
Conferences weren’t always this way either. Those who went to early iterations of SXSW interactive and Etech (or was it Etcon?) reminisce about a space where all that mattered was bouncing around interesting ideas. Everyone there was doing interesting things and the conversations outside were often more inspiring than the sessions themselves.
Back then things were simpler, more honest, and more fun.
Many want to keep that spirit alive. But we’ve got too experienced, too good at what we do, too good at deconstructing ideas, too absorbed in the implementation details, too good at making money, and too jaded. And the world has changed around us, the web has become ubiquitous, well understood, and somewhat boring.
And, of course, the past was never actually as good as we remember it.
This creates an impossibly high bar for any conference that aims to talk about more than just technical implementation. It doesn’t matter how inspiring your speakers are or how good the hallway track is you still won’t live up to the legend of previous events that never really happened.
Everything about the setting contributed perfectly to the tone of the conference. The City of Portland, the low-road architecture of the Yale Union, the custom-made signs, the afternoon sunlight, the distant passing trains, and even the fancy bathroom created a great sense of space for the event. It could not have happened anywhere else.
It was obvious how much care had been put into every aspect of the production from the visual identity, signs (again) and badges through to the AV setup, WIFI, and other logistics. The high quality reinforced so many of the themes of the conference itself.
They got exactly the right balance between structured sessions and room to talk, between the fringe and the conference, between the planned and the improvised. The schedule covered a huge range of topics but established a compelling and inspiring narrative without being repetitive. It was authentic and honest. There was sponsorship but at no point did I feel like I was being marketed to. There was debate but no cynicism or snark. Above all the stories told were so very inspiring; I’m sure more than a few attendees are already planning to quit their jobs.
Ultimately the attendees made the event. James Duncan Davidson said “The attendee list at XOXO couldn’t have been better curated if one had tried to”. The unique way in which the conference was funded created a unique audience. I caught up with people I hadn’t seen in over five years, made many new friends, and finally got to meet some of the people that inspired me to start working on the web. Everyone was engaged and excited with interesting thoughts, commentary and ideas.
But the way the tickets were sold was also the event’s biggest problem. As great as the crowd was, almost everyone there had committed to spending a huge chunk of cash on tickets and travel with less than 48 hours notice. This inevitably led to a lack of diversity, and was especially worrying when money was one of the primary themes of the conference. I have to assume it also led to a lack of participation from some of the people the conference was notionally aimed at. Even then it still feels like the experiment was worthwhile, and I know the Andys will be thinking about ways to avoid this if they run the event again.
And that leads to the other problem: I can’t see how it’s possible to make this happen again. It was just too good.
Listening to the Kelptones fill the dancefloor, the surprisingly emotional “Indie Game the Movie”, Dan Harmon’s lecture on money & creativity and Julia Nunes’s beautiful story of luck and siezed opportunities. Someone paying for everyone’s drinks on Friday, the unattended iPad with Square on the Cards Against Humanity stall, the spontaneous applause when Ron Carmel said he didn’t need to work for a decade, hiding under the table with Finn, and everything else that happened. I have never laughed or cried so much at a conference, and it’s a long time since I’ve felt so proud to be part of this community.■