How the XOXO Festival Charms Cutting-Edge Thinkers

Portland's homegrown ideas fest creates an arts and technology think-tank for the hacker generation.

By Marty Patail September 3, 2013 Published in the September 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

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The world’s brainiacs—especially in the interlocking worlds of tech, culture, and creative industry—don’t lack opportunities to gather. There’s the famous TED and its numerous spin-offs, the Aspen Ideas Festival, South by Southwest Interactive, and many, many more. 

Yet last year, Andy Baio decided there was room for another conference focused on arts and technology, but with a distinct twist. Baio, a Portland-based Wired contributor and adviser and former board member for Kickstarter, wanted to rally thinkers specializing in “disruptive creativity”—i.e., using the Internet to create (and sell) products and ideas outside traditional channels. Baio and a friend, designer Andy McMillan, posted the idea on (naturally) Kickstarter. Within 50 hours, they sold all 400 tickets, and raised $175,511.

XOXO’s debut last September lured a who’s-who from eye-catching digital startups: The Atavist, Simple, Etsy, 4Chan. (The guys from Mythbusters may have been the biggest stars.) “It’s focused on independence,” Baio says, distinguishing XOXO from the corporate old-growth—the Intels, the HPs—of Oregon’s Silicon Forest. “It’s about people using technology to do what they love.”

The press and blog praise was effusive: Wired called it a “defining moment” for the hacker generation. This month’s second annual XOXO boasts an equally eclectic lineup, from entrepreneur Cabel Sasser of the Portland software business Panic to New York graphic artist Molly Crabapple. Compared to “rivals” like the huge SXSW Interactive, which draws more than 30,000 people to Austin, XOXO’s gathering at Southeast Portland’s YU building is small. To some, it’s perfectly formed.

“It’s different from a lot of tech events,” says Matt Haughey, a McMinnville-based programmer best known for founding, a community-based link discovery site. “At SXSW, for instance, people are in the business of selling technologies, not making them. Whether it’s made out of wood or code, these people are creating things.”

Five XOXO Highlights

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The former Wired editor in chief and author of The Long Tail now runs his own robotics company. 

Uhrman’s OUYA, the world’s first open-source video game console, debuted this June. The project raised more than $8.5 million on Kickstarter. 

The sci-fi author joins the three other cofounding writers of the hugely influential online “neurozine” Boing Boing to mark its 25th anniversary. 

If geek culture had a church, Coulton would be the organist. In 2005, Coulton quit his programming job to sing about about robots, Ikea, killer dolls, and, yes, programming.

In addition to the sold-out conference, XOXO 2013 promises a night of top-notch indie rock, an arcade featuring game creators, and a film program.

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