“THIS IS FOR EVERYONE.” Gigantic, illuminated, uppercase letters, circling an 80,000 seater stadium, put there in July by Sir Tim Berners Lee in communal celebration of his invention; the World Wide Web.
It's a little easy to forget what that means, in the context of an industry whose attention is overwhelmed by a few big name products, services, media companies, and publishers. Big businesses have grown out of the internet, and they dominate its lucrative financial investment, too. Around these most popular sites the accessible, simple, consumer internet has come of age.
From within silicon valley, it is easy to worry that this coddled version of the internet may be at the expense of Sir Tim's universal sentiment. The consumer dominance of Google, or of ISPs like Verizon and Comcast, or the massive financial returns demanded from Twitter and Facebook's already massive financial backing support a simple thesis that money and greed a have poisoned the major conduits of how people use the internet. Each corporation's obligations to shareholders measured by law as raw financial value, nothing more.
It's with some amount of this engrained, sceptical, sentimental baggage that I left San Francisco behind for a week and escaped to Portland for Andys Baio and McMillan's triumphant first XOXO event. Appropriately referred to as a festival rather than a conference, it brought together makers, mediums, and culture way beyond the raw technical domain in which we usually congregate.
Here, people embraced and celebrated an unbridled generosity of creative spirit.
XOXO was a rally of the web at large. A reminder not just of the relevance of niches and individuals, but of their potential for success. A reminder of the total freedom to create and publish and share anything you like on the internet, without having to ask anyone's permission.
A reminder that Facebook and Twitter and Google and Pinterest and the next thing are not the internet. They are just one generation of mostly-great tools atop something infinitely, unstoppably greater. A reminder that underneath all of the interface we make is an open architecture more powerful than any of these services, and remains available, inexpensively, to anyone who'll learn it.
At XOXO we listened to people talk of the things they make, sharing humble snippets of their life stories. The tale of how they achieved success doing sometime they love, or building tools to help others do the same. These were not grandiose overachievements from purveyors of Scrooge McDuck riches; these were tales of people making a happy living.
Dan Harmon—a writer from the world of television—told us in his keynote that money ruined television. It's plainly observable the advertising-driven, financial optimisation of channel output has reduced every single avenue for putting video over the air to a mediocrity filter. He was delighted that the internet has not yet succumbed to this.
Initially, the suggestion of an internet not yet poisoned by the financial seemed curious, even ridiculous: Thoughts turned to monster acquisitions, IPOs, advertising, the meticulous cowardice with which corporations communicate, and the stories of investor pressure that change the services we love for the worse. It was easy, perhaps, to write off Mr Harmon's television experience as uninitiated to the creative plights of the modern technologist.
Dan Harmon is awesome and very funny but this idea that money hadn't corrupted / changed the Internet?!— Tom Coates (@tomcoates) September 16, 2012
@tomcoates Right??? Although maybe it’s not as visible; obviously it’s not as pervasive.— timoni west (@timoni) September 16, 2012
The more I stew on it—and the further away I get from my valley narcissism—the more I think he's correct in his words, without caveat. We do worry about the future of creative playgrounds like Twitter and Tumblr as they sustain themselves financially, and as popular usage trends toward the mainstream we worry too that even where we still post whatever we want, that the money may form an exclusionary cone of ignorance around the mainstream.
Put aside the fact that people who worry over these things include those working on Twitter and Tumblr, and instead assume the worst: Assume the commercial demands of Twitter's growth somehow transform the service into something that only satisfies the MOR. What limits society's creative potential online? I say nothing. Money at Twitter, or Tumblr, or Pinterest won't prevent anyone from achieving their creative potential. They can publish for themselves, or through the plethora of other services that would dedicate themselves to neglected niches. Maybe they still use those other services to distribute information about their creation, maybe something new emerges.
Paid or free, niche or universal, the financial path of one or even all of the major media companies on today's web has no bearing on the creative outlet of the web at large. If Twitter were to fail and become a conduit only of the vacuous and popular, the web on which Twitter is built is the same adaptive architecture on which the replacement will be built too.
At XOXO I was refreshed. Not only reminded of these core fundamentals of what makes the web great, but reinforced by speaker after speaker standing up as ambassadors for success at building the things they want to see in the world. Musicians The Kleptones and MC Frontalot successes led them here to perform not just to fans, but to their technocratic peers. Success measured not by excess, success measured by the fact they imagined something that didn't exist before, and now it does, it's sustainable, and anyone can share in it if they'd like to.
XOXO celebrated the real triumph of the digital age, and over three days separated us from unhealthy, cynical, dismissive attitudes—our own included.
Another thought from #xoxofest: cynicism is an effective barrier against bullshit. When there’s no bullshit, you don’t need cynicism.— Glenn Fleishman (@GlennF) September 17, 2012
I think it's important when considering the worth of what we contribute to the world to step away from the vicinity of where we work. Whether we're influenced by the money, or the lack of it, there's so much more going on. People all over the world are making things. Physical things and digital things; real things. Making things to satisfy themselves, and satisfying the people who partake in their business. People are making their livelihoods on the internet as independent businesses. Interoperating parts in an unbiased machine that doesn't measure it's success in any one simplistic way.
Maybe it's terrifying that a positive, uncynical and honest event like XOXO should come as a culture shock at all. Or maybe it's good and necessary for us to participate in a periodic affirmation of reality. Regardless, XOXO did me and all in attendance a world of good.
I returned to San Francisco relaxed, inspired, and enthused by what can be done with the things I build and contribute to.
Needless to say, XOXO was a soaring achievement. The outpouring of respect, gratitude and admiration toward Andy Baio and Andy McMillan for their vision cannot be understated. A wonderful, sorely craved idea, realised and executed with unflinching class. I feel very privileged to have been a part of it.
I feel like crying. Shaking a little. This is better than we’d hoped and dreamed, because of YOU. #xoxofest— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) September 15, 2012
The @xoxo festival is a love letter to the internet.— Jason Santa Maria (@jasonsantamaria) September 15, 2012