Field Report: XOXO Festival

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An entrepreneurial, DIY spirit was in full force at the inaugural XOXO festival, and the event was exciting, engaging and well-attended. Speakers came from a variety of creative fields but shared a common message about connecting artists directly with audiences and eliminating impediments to individual expression.

In our initial conversations with Andy Baio and Andy McMillan, the festival’s organizers and co-founders, we uncovered a shared ethos about ways that technology can encourage democratization and creative freedom. Based on this knowledge and the Andys’ desire for an environmental-scale interactive experience to anchor the downstairs “market” (where a hand-picked group of mostly local artists, designers and artisans displayed their wares), we set about making “What’s Your XOXO?”  The spirit of the conference was irreverent, fun and about individuals. How better to reflect and amplify this than to give attendees a way to define the event for themselves and share that definition? “What’s Your XOXO?” crowd-sourced the conference’s theme.

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The specifics of the experience were simple: visitors played a word association game on their mobile device, tablet or computer. In this game, visitors were prompted to start with a word that they associated with “XOXO,” either choosing from the list of words others had already entered or entering their own. They could then keep going, making a string of associations.

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As they played the game for themselves, they also “voted” words and associations up in the overall ratings. The more individuals associated “XOXO” with “kisses,” for example, the more votes that association gained in the overall pool of associations. Projected on a 12′ by 40′ screen at the end of the market hall was an active sea of the accumulated associated words with the winningest combination of words at any given time shown the largest and brightest. Words and associations battled each other onscreen, representing the playful (one might even say puckish) conference attendees’ attempts to describe the conference experience and gain “word dominance” over one another. It was fun, it was funny, it was messy, and it was competitive. Most of all, it was thoroughly democratic.

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At the end of the game, visitors had a chance to print a custom temporary tattoo based on their very last word association using the trusty onsite tattoo robot we designed and built to accompany the installation.

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We very rarely have an opportunity to create an interactive experience this open. It takes a lot of nerve on the part of an organizer, institution or venue to allow this kind of radical democracy. People could (and did) put challenging, vulgar, poetic, hilarious and revelatory words up on the screen for all to see. We applaud the willingness of Andy and Andy to provide a venue for this experiment, and we thank the conference attendees for making use of the experience in a way that told us all a lot about what open platforms can do when they are placed in public spaces. The phenomena of chat rooms and comment fields will very soon collide with the internet of things, and with “What’s Your XOXO?” (which, coincidentally, was provisionally titled “Words with Nerds”) we’ve seen firsthand one version of what that may look like.

XOXO was perhaps a coalescing moment for a particular subculture, as suggested by two excellent short articles in Wired and The New York Times. This was a wonderful moment to witness and participate in. Further, as all good conferences do, the experience raised as many questions as it answered for me. First: for makers of things, how can we ensure that open access to creative tools is truly open? This conference was attended by a very specific demographic, and for freedom to be meaningful it has to be universally accessible. Second: what is our responsibility as makers of digital experiences (the demographic in question, for the most part) to ensure that these experiences are inclusive rather than exclusive from the perspective of the user? The design community has to always be looking outward in order to solve real problems.

We would like to extend our sincere thanks to Yale Union for providing such a uniquely well-suited venue for the gathering. We also want to thank Andy McMillan and Andy Baio for the invitation to participate in this unfolding conversation and for all their hard work in imagining and realizing the conference.

—Daniel Meyers, Creative Director

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Second Story creates enchanting, informative, and entertaining media experiences with innovative technologies that empower connections to ideas.

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