The week before XOXO, a festival dedicated to independent artists and creators, I was in Juneau, Alaska for a cruise with my wife and my parents. I got off the ship with my Dad and we walked around town. We kept walking, past the touristy stores selling smoked salmon and tanzanite. We walked for a long time, and right when we were about to turn around, I saw a small gallery/comic store called Alaska Robotics. The door had a sticker that said “We accept Bitcoin!” I thought “these are my people” and we walked in the store.
Have you ever had a dream where you walked into a software store, and they have every game and piece of software you ever wanted, and everything costs $3.99? Legacy of the Ancients, Below the Root, The Bard’s Tale, and everything else–just $3.99. I had that dream sometimes when I was a kid. It was one of my favorite dreams.
Walking into Alaska Robotics was kind of like that. It’s a collective of different artists, but you could see their love in the curation–less superhero stuff, more stuff like Watchmen, a graphic novel about Richard Feynman, and Penny Arcade books. I bought several things, including a cool dinosaur shirt because it’s not hard to get me to do dinosaur impressions.
I didn’t know what to expect at XOXO. I’ve been to one artists’ conference where I didn’t know anyone and I felt pretty awkward a lot of the time. So when I flew up to Portland for XOXO a week later, I thought to myself “Okay, worst case I have a fun T-shirt to wear that no one else has probably seen.” Sometimes a good T-shirt can feel like a protective shield.
Spoiler alert: everyone at XOXO was superfriendly, working on interesting things, and just happy to talk. It felt like Andy Baio and Andy McMillan curated the XOXO experience as carefully as the group of artists up in Alaska curated their gallery. Even the conference volunteers were nice–I spent an entire break talking with a volunteer and Nelson Minar about business models for sustaining open source services (not just code, but web services). Or you’d be in line talking to someone and realize “Oh right, he’s the guy that does usesthis.com!”
I have a joke that I never turned into a blog post about how few people actually create things on the internet. Like you’ll stumble across a version of the U.S. tax code online for some reason, and then you realize that the guy who did that is named John Walker and he also founded AutoDesk. Or when you find out that the guy that built Upcoming also served as the CTO of Kickstarter back in the day.
So XOXO was a creator-rich environment. People were friendly enough that you could walk up to someone and say hello on the assumption that they’d enjoy talking. And if you dug a little bit, they were usually trying something different, weird, or fun, like biking across Oregon the following week.
One night, I was playing a 10-player (!!) indie video arcade game called Killer Queen and one of the people on my team said “Hey, nice shirt.” I was wearing my Rawr! dinosaur shirt that I’d bought up in Alaska the week before. And I said “Thanks!” and then a couple minutes later I looked at his badge, and it said “Patrick Race.” Hmm. That’s one of the people that does Alaska Robotics. And then it clicked–I’m playing a video game with the artist who drew the dinosaur. On the shirt. That I’m wearing.
It was just an awesome, bizarre moment. Like when you say you’re from Kentucky, and they say “Oh, do you know Drew?” And you say “Okay, not everyone in Kentucky knows everyone else, you know.” But it’s still kind of funny, so you play along and ask Drew’s last name. And then they’re like “Uh, I think his name is Drew Curtis, maybe?” And you’re like “whoa, Drew Curtis from Fark? Strangely enough, I do know Drew!” So there were a few moments like that at XOXO. I think it goes back to my joke/non-blog-post about how few people on the internet actually create things.
If this were a conference write-up, I’d summarize the talks. Screw that. Go watch them yourselves–XOXO is posting the videos of the talks on the web. I think you’ll enjoy them.
But I will share a few things that stuck in my mind from the talks. One is Kevin Kelly’s talk:
The whole talk is worth watching, but I especially enjoyed some things he said about halfway through the talk.
Kelly said this:
“One [type of success] is not better than the other. We think of evolution as a ladder but it’s really kind of a radial explosion, and so every single species alive today is equally evolved and is equally successful. They’re all successful. The dandelion and the cockroach are as successful as the bird of paradise, if they’re surviving. So what I’m suggesting is that all these different three million species that we have catalogued on Earth already, are all figuring out and all have their own definition of success.”
Kelly drew a parallel to the “Cambrian explosion” of technology and all the different types of success that enabled. Rather than imitating someone else’s success, technology enables new types of success that are measured in different ways. For example, the “fast growth” model of a startup is just one kind of success. Kelly talked about being liked (broad but shallow popularity) vs. being loved (deep but narrower engagement). Or things that succeed on the axis of longevity. Kelly also talked about how if you can find 1,000 true fans willing to pay $100 for your work, that’s $100,000, which is pretty darn good.
Kelly concluded by asking the audience “What do you want to optimize?” In other words, given that everyone can have a different opinion of what success looks like, what does success look like for you? Kelly said that what he was trying optimize in his own life was “opportunities to learn and time to make cool and useless stuff.”
It was a great talk. I highly recommend that you watch the whole thing, or at least the second half. Kelly’s points echoed Socrates for me: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Because if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want to do (and that’s something only you can decide for yourself), how do you know how you’re doing?
My main takeaway though was that XOXO an interesting group of people trying to create awesome things and help each other out. The XOXO conference also brushed up against GamerGate, but I’ll save thoughts about that for a future blog post.