I was lucky enough to get to go to the XOXO Festival in Portland this past weekend, and I’ve read a lot that’s been written about it since, and, yeah, pretty much all of it is true. It was a wonderful time, special in a way that each person is putting his or her own spin on: it was the anti-South by Southwest, it was a love letter to the Internet, it was “disruptive creativity” made real. XOXO felt like each of those things, and many more. But to me it was the lack of something deeply familiar that marked it as unique:
It didn’t feel lonely.
I’m an introvert, not a particularly distingiushing trait among computer programmers. I generally don’t like crowds, and I especially don’t like crowds of people I don’t already know. I don’t like having to interact in real-time. All of it makes me feel tired and nervous and stupid. Oh, I’m sorry, excuse me — I’m faking a data center emergency on my phone so I can go over to the corner and read Twitter.
At XOXO, there were 400 people all together in the same room. Four hundred unique, potentially problematic souls and I knew maybe 5% of them. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a bit of a wreck going in.
And then it started, and it flew by and not for one second did I feel awkward or adrift or lonely. I didn’t second-guess myself. I didn’t want to crawl into a hole and die. I don’t think I can say that about anything like it before.
I’ve been to a handful of festivals and more than a few meetups and the odd couple of professional events over the years, and without exception there’s been a moment at each where I think, “What the hell am I doing here?” The people — their conversation, the agendas that underlie that conversation, the motives that underlie those agendas — eventually feel otherworldly, and usually sooner than later.
I attended a “founders meetup” once, during a failed entrepreneurial phase, and lasted all of half an hour, including the time it took me to drink a beer in the hopes it would numb the intense urge to flee. But after a handful of conversations about funding and VCs and term sheets and a whole host of other crap that nobody interesting could possibly make the primary motivator of their life, I did flee, out the door and off on a long walk that consisted largely of the glacial realization that this was not a world I was cut out for.
After that happens enough times, you start to feel like maybe there isn’t any world you’re cut out for.
XOXO itself was a pleasure. The logistics were astonishingly well-handled, and everything from the building to the food to the A/V to the after-events to the bathrooms appeared effortless. As a physical reality, XOXO worked.
But, more importantly, as a collection of like-minded people, as the expression of a philosophy, as a new and powerful approach to work and art and achievement, XOXO shined. I’ll leave it to others smarter and more articulate than me to describe the details — each speaker took a turn removing marble that wasn’t part of the statue — but the upshot is that if you are of a particular mind, a particular bent, there is now a place for you. A place to talk and share and experiment and explore. A place to feel among friends. A place to not feel lonely.