It’s been hard to put together coherent thoughts on my time at XOXO 2016. As my coworker Braden acknowledged, “That thing was designed to not be recap-able.”
It’s because, much like the internet herself, the XOXO festival is organized chaos—a structured, shared space to build ambiguous relationships, create content, and consume everything you find interesting. It’s an experience, not a set of takeaways.
When I first heard about XOXO, it was billed an “experimental festival” that celebrated independent internet artists, from developers and designers to writers and animators. It sounded cool. Earlier this year, Heben Nigatu tweeted that she was going to be one of the speakers on the same day that William, our developer at Zeus Jones, posted about it on our team Slack—so I figured I’d apply for a ticket.
Yes, apply for a ticket. If I remember right, I had to share what I do, what I work on, and something that I’m really proud of making. I also had to share that I identify as someone who hasn’t always been well represented at XOXO—in this case, as a female. The cofounders, Andy McMillan and Andy Baio, were up-front about the fact that their past attendee rosters haven’t been as diverse as they hoped. I think they also wanted to weed out people trying to attend for nefarious reasons, like for trolling famous internet personalities or poaching UX designers.
So I made it through the initial screening and into the ticket lottery, and wound up getting a spot. The pre-conference set-up was unlike anything I’ve experienced. I was immediately invited into the XOXO Slack team, a universe of 200-some channels, filled with hyper-intelligent unicorn people, all hustling on the coolest projects I’d ever heard of. As a gal with a 9-5 (let’s be honest, 8-7. and maybe again at 9.), and some small—nothing major—performing and writing gigs on the side, I felt like I might not belong there. These people were so impressive. They solved problems, they made art, they wrote books, they CODED. My ability to bold text and possibly make it italic was, er, not something I wanted to share.
But I poked around. Gently prodded. Tried to preemptively figure out where I fit in, and if I could bring any useful nuggets back to the folks at Zeus Jones, who awesomely agreed to pay my conference fee in exchange for shared knowledge.
What I ended up learning, in no short feat (for real; this post is long), is:
1. Most people feel like imposters
2. Most people are just trying to give something to the world
3. Some people are particularly good at being exactly who they are and giving things to the world
4. We can all be one of those number 3 people
So, let’s break these down.
1. Most people feel like imposters
During their Friday morning introductions, Andy and Andy shared this tweet on the big screen behind them.
People in the audience tittered and tweeted, and there was a collective sense that, yes, this tweet represented all of us. We were all asking if we deserved to be there—heck, some of the speakers were asking if they deserved to be there. So in our collective discomfort, we could all just relax.
On its very best days, Imposter Syndrome can manifest as humility (and I do mean humility and not modesty… modesty is just pretentious, amiright?). But overall, it’s the worst. It can trick the most intelligent and innovative humans into believing that their voices aren’t valid or their ideas aren’t worth pursuing. That they’re frauds. Until that tweet, I hadn’t recognized that I fall into the same trap. Every day, I work in an environment where a good idea can come from anywhere. Truly. But because XOXO is framed around the internet, and the internet is an endless trove of cool shit, it can be hard to feel like a meaningful contributor.
2) Most people are just trying to give something to the world
From the people I met on the “XOXO street” to the official conference speakers, it was clear that this idea of meaningful contribution weighed heavy on people’s minds, matched by a desire to unite it with the work they found most personally inspiring.
Starlee Kine (of Mystery Show) may have said it best, when—after a hilarious and meandering sidebar about how she really hates giving people her bio so it’s not surprising that her XOXO bio included producing on Marketplace even though she really only did it once and it was a long time ago but what else was Andy supposed to use—she gave the audience permission do to what inspires them. More specifically, she said that it’s okay to do what doesn’t make you feel tired.
Said another way by shitty robot-maker Simone Geritz: “If you find the thing you do interesting, chances are someone else will too.”
Through that lens, doing inspiring work and making a meaningful contribution are the same thing.
Starlee also brought up that when you do this kind of work, it can be hard to clarify private versus public. She’s not always sure when a thought in her head is for her or when it’s for work. Should she explore it in Mystery Show? Should it go into a tweet? David Rees (of Going Deep with David Rees… also Artisanal Pencil Sharpening) asked a similar question. After running through the list of political and news publications he used to browse all day while writing political cartoons for Rolling Stone Magazine, his question was, “Is this work or am I avoiding working?”
Maybe it’s both.
3) Some people are particularly good at being exactly who they are and giving things to the world
Before calling out specific presenters, I’ll say that I attended almost every talk, presentation and screening, and think every presenter is doing this well—whether they’d describe it that way or not.
Esra’a Al-Shafei is the founder of CrowdVoice, MigrantRights.org, Alliance for Kurdish Rights, Ahwaa.org, and Mideast Tunes (audiophile friends, check this one out, especially—it’s a music platform for discovering underground artists in the Mideast and North Africa). These platforms are literally changing people’s lives. And if you’re wondering why any of us felt like imposters, Esra’a is only 30 years old.
(Much) more importantly than her age, she lives by clear principals. She’s committed to her home country. She works in Bahrain, with other female, queer, Middle Eastern developers. When her stuff gets shut down, she figures out how to get it back online—maybe in a different format. Mideast Tunes was born out of the realization that art can be a powerful way to speak one’s truth without being censored.
She’s also incredibly funny. Whenever she recounted an exchange with another person, she’d effortlessly switch into high-register cartoon voice. In her struggles to establish that she actually, legitimately knows what she’s doing when meeting with potential funders, she squeaked a typical response from an older, male foundation VP: “You know what you need? A mentor! I know just the guy.”
“Giving things to the world” takes many different forms, and it’s not always the most obvious ones. Case in point: Jenn Schiffer, your typical lady code troll. She is intelligently, satirically, and relentlessly changing the narrative about what software development is and who gets to do it well.
If you don’t think mansplaining is a real thing that really happens, especially to non-male developers who actually know what they’re doing, check out the comments on Jenn’s satirical article, A Call for Web Developers to Deprecate their CSS. Even with my (very) (seriously, very) limited understanding of development, I know this is satire. CSS does not refer to California Style Sheets (lol tho) and a quick Google proves Jenn is a legit developer with legit jobs, and legit coworkers and bosses who find her work to be excellent. So I’d assume that in one reading, actual developers would catch on, enjoy the piece for what it is, and move on. But nope.
One example of about a million:
Jenn is doing what she loves while she deconstructs—piece by piece—the toxicity of an exclusionary coding culture that takes itself very seriously. And it’s working.
4) We can all be one of those number 3 people
I left XOXO reinforced that I, too, give things to the world. I solve problems. I make art. I provide insight. Sometimes, I’m even funny. And after spending four days in a vortex of intelligent, good-intentioned people who straddle the line between humility and debilitating Imposter Syndrome with such grace, I’m inspired to do more.
(For more on the topic of doing more with purpose and less of all the other stuff, check out When Work Gets Personal: Building Your Own Strategic Framework).
“You do cool stuff! Stop saying it’s not cool!” – Catherine Wood, my favorite new friend who I hope writes me back on Instagram and comes to visit me in not-Canada
“Ideas first and tools later…Your ideas might be smarter than you.” – Simone Giertz
“Don’t talk about diversity. Be about diversity.” – Heben Nigatu
“When you make something too realistic, you don’t give people room to see themselves.” – Brendon Chung
“We have to be able to talk about the problems of success if we want to be successful people.” – Frank Chimero
“Be gentle with yourselves.” – Lucy Bellwood
“For a long time, I believed in the myth of no effort.” – John Roderick
“You don’t know what’ll happen if you put your vulnerability in the wrong hands. Invest time finding the right hands.” – Sammus
And, finally, the key to all monetary successes, as evidenced by his frank and open reveal of the (lack of) money he’s made over the last 15 years: “All you need is a white guy in a black apron and the word artisan.” – David Rees