XOXO versus an unfortunate debate
What a way to spend a weekend. The XOXO Festival that took place this weekend in Portland had to have been the single most creative conference I have ever attended, and believe me I have attended too many. Founded by Andy Baio and Belfast Build conference founder Andy McMillan, it attracted hundreds of folks and many “makers” to share, mingle and meet. As Andy Baio told Wired magazine “First and foremost, XOXO is about independence. It’s about artists and hackers and makers that are using the internet to make a living doing what they love independently without sacrificing creative or financial control.” It was a privilege to just be amongst the audience and I made many new friends.
There was much to learn and having the speakers give taut, roughly 25 minute talks and presentations meant there was no fear of being trapped in the middle of a row of seats while lapsing into boredom. And the best thing about the format? No panels.
My favorite talks were Andy Baio’s opening comments, a really engaging Keynote from Chris Anderson, former Wired Editor-in-chief now the founder of DIY Drones and 3D Robotics, writer/designer Jack Cheng, artist/writer Molly Crabapple, and a somewhat muted but funny and insightful talk from Twitter founder Evan Williams. And finally a spirited interview with Mark Frauenfelder, Cory Doctorow, David Pescovitz and Xeni Jardin on the 25th anniversary of bOING bOING‘s first issue. Afterwards over a beer it was great to see Frank Chimero and Duane King hugging after not seeing each other for a couple of years – I swear they hugged three times. That’s the kind of spontaneous outbreak that XOXO causes. (On a related side note I spent a while catching up with my friend Amber Case who said she had cried for almost twenty minutes after seeing/hearing Cabel Sasser of Panic talk.) There was much, much more of course but that was just my Friday and Saturday and I’m heading back down there today.
In a rather odd coincidence, instead of attending the opening night of XOXO I found myself rather unwittingly caught up in un grand débat that took place at the University of Oregon Turnbull Center in Portland, presented by the Portland Advertising Federation. Here’s a link to that event but, as you will see there, the debate was presented as some kind of verbal boxing match between myself, a digital strategist, and Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian. To be known as an advertising contrarian says all you need to know about Bob’s position I’d say. Bob has had a long career in advertising and I have not. He treats the web as some sort of apparatus that is out to fool advertising folks into making terrible decisions. Judging by the online advertising “campaigns” I often see, he may have a point. And yet his attitude, that somehow when advertising meets the Internet it becomes some kind of giant con game, doesn’t hold water. I will explain why, but first here’s an extract from the teaser for the event:
“Advertising is dead. Social media is the future. All you need is a mobile strategy. Digital agencies have become ad agencies. Get out of advertising and learn to code. Confusion rules.”
None of the above is remotely true. Advertising is not dead. Social media is not the future, whatever the future might be. For brands, more than just a mobile strategy is a must, but it would be great if brands indeed did have a digital/mobile strategy. Digital agencies versus ad agencies is a tired argument. Learning to code is certainly a requirement if you would like to develop digital products or perhaps build systems, but the leap from advertising to that means traversing a rather large chasm. So no, don’t worry about coding, but by all means leave the advertising industry. Finally, yes confusion rules…
And here’s where I think Bob as an advertising contrarian gets confused; the Internet is a platform that requires new thinking, new practices (yes, even after two decades) – as Paul Ford has often said it is not a meta-TV, meta-magazine, meta-newspaper, nor is there such a thing as “above the fold” on the web or an iPad “magazine” – it is its own thing. Advertising can live there, as it clearly does, but the web is not built for advertising or campaigns, the web simply disrupts common convention and rolls happily along. And Bob sees Internet/web advertising scams everywhere. He’s looking down the wrong end of the telescope.
So on one level, advertising as we know it and digital platforms where users gather in their millions, are about as similar as Scarface and Legally Blonde – if the platforms and advertising really worked together great things could happen. Unfortunately this rarely occurs.
Meanwhile back at XOXO, Marco Arment said something along these lines in his talk as tweeted by Dan Hon – “In podcasting there are no page view scams, no click bait scams, no trashy monetization. There’s not a whole lot of assholeish things publishers can do in podcasts as a medium.” Marco is apparently building a Podcast app, or not. Also Evan Williams reminded us that throughout history other technologies have been just as amazing as the Internet. He used agriculture as an example of creating what he called “convenience.” As humans who need to eat of course, we no longer had to forage for food therefore saving us both time and energy that could be put to other valuable uses. So the Internet can be seen as freeing us he said, not connections for the sake of connections, such as likes, retweets and follows.
What Ev is getting at there is a reminder that the Internet is a people-powered construct and that’s what makes it truly “freeing” as he puts it. Brands meanwhile fall into the trap of merely seeing “eyeballs,” and are desperately searching for those likes, retweets and follows, even though they are a sad weak link and a terrible metric for success online.
Bob should stop worrying about the Internet. All the makers and artists and creators that it brings together are heading down a very different path and are finding that it is freeing. And that freedom and independence was on ample display this weekend.
Here’s some tweets from XOXO:
“Simplify, simplify, simply. Or, as I like to paraphrase, Simplify.” @Pinboard #xoxofest via @marihuertas
“There is another internet – the constructive internet. It connects places where there were no roads to begin with.” #xoxofest via @hondonhon
And finally, to return to Andy Baio’s statement that XOXO is about independence, here’s a Tweet with a picture – “Independence, then and now.” #xoxo via @haddiebird