On XOXO and diversity, or, I swear this is not (just) a listicle

I had the privilege of attending XOXO, a young indie arts and tech conference, earlier this month. There’s an awful lot I have to say about the event, but half of it has already been said better by others and half is still ruminating deep within me. This post isn’t my last word, just the word I could write at this point.

Looking around the room or at the stage at XOXO, it was clear that there were disproportionately few women and disproportionately few people of color*. (In other words, my inner snark says, it was a tech conference.)

I want to give Andy Baio and Andy McMillan (hence: the Andys) credit where credit is due. XOXO was miles more diverse on both race and gender than almost any other technology or business conference I have been to. Just as importantly, the conference put on stage people who talked about race, gender, and class. Molly Crabapple, Christina Xu, Mike Rugnetta, and Jay Smooth each dedicated significant time to the topic. And these speakers didn’t pander: they spoke unsettling truths and asked uncomfortable questions.

I also give the Andys credit for curating a literally awesome selection of people, onstage and off. Every single person I spoke to was thoughtful, excited, and creative, and my biggest regret was not breaking off from my usual social set more to meet more of these wonderful new people. XOXO is clearly made up of things and people that the Andys love. The unity of vision is part of what keeps XOXO from being just-another-tech-conference, and that voice is part of what makes it so joyful to attend. As Andy Baio put it last year:

Curation is the most important factor of a great event. A clear editorial voice, a coherent theme, and who you invite to participate changes everything that comes after it — good curation brings great attendees, generates word-of-mouth, great press, and opens all kinds of doors.

I also give Andy Baio credit for admitting on stage that XOXO isn’t representative along race, gender, or class lines and that some of that lack of diversity is because XOXO represents his taste and his experiences – which as an indie-minded tech guy, are disproportionately white and male. I can empathize: like most of the audience, I laughed in self-recognition when Marco Arment flashed the indie/tech-y/”stuff white people like” stereotypes slide, and despite my self-assured cosmopolitanism, I often discover that I’ve been living in social or media echo chambers.

How do you manage the tension between wanting a particular viewpoint and aesthetic and wanting to avoid having a room of people who look like you? I think it’s a deep question that deserves more than a facile answer. Luckily for this blog post, I think XOXO can do a lot just in reaching out more to the people in other communities who already fit its viewpoint.

Here’s my wishlist of eleven men of color and women that I would love to see at XOXO next year, or really, see at any tech/arts/maker conference I go to. To narrow the field a little bit, I’m limiting this to people who weren’t at XOXO in 2012 or 2013 and who came readily to mind (i.e., no targeted searches). Some of these people are friends or former colleagues; some are famous. All are personal heroes of mine in some way. All are people who fall pretty squarely within my XOXO-compatible tastes, and people whose projects are worth knowing about and following. In other words, this isn’t tokenism.

  1. Asheesh Laroia is a coder and co-founder of Open Hatch, an organization that helps people learn to create and contribute to open source and collaborative software projects.
  2. Eleanor Saitta is one of the best voices to follow if you follow security; she speaks powerfully about the connection between technology and the social fabric. Her talents range from writing protocols to painting artwork to building space robots to hacking the Icelandic constitution to founding a makerspace.
  3. Issa Rae is a smart and wickedly funny entertainer who leans into her vulnerabilities. After years distributing her work on the internet via a hit indie YouTube series, she’s recently gotten to see how the Big Content half lives, working on projects with Shonda Rhimes and HBO.
  4. Kate Beaton has always had a touch of Old School about her, and I don’t just mean the history themes that frequently pop up on Hark! A Vagrant. Her first webcomics were created in MS Paint while at her day job, based in part on requests from her Livejournal followers.
  5. Kenyatta Cheese is a self-described “professional internet enthusiast” who revels in, shares, and critiques web culture. My own love affair with web culture is a bit off-and-on, so his Know Your Meme project (know owned by Cheezburger Network and I can’t believe I have to type that as a company name) has saved me loads of times.
  6. Limor Fried’s intro electronics hacking projects and kits were a gateway drug for many a maker, and her company Adafruit is one of the preeminent sources for hardware hackers today.
  7. Liz Henry is a technologist (Mozilla, BlogHer), maker (founder of legendary hackerspace Noisebridge’s Anarchafeminist Hackerhive), and a poet, because some people get all the talent.
  8. Quinn Norton would bring a dose of the acerb to temper the cloying others complained of at XOXO. She writes hard, meticulous technology journalism that is raw and true. She’ll pull your heart out and change your worldview by the time her words are done with you. Incidentally, her blog post on counting was what inspired me to write this list of people up, rather than keeping it to myself.
  9. Ta-Nehisi Coates is an autodidact of the best sort and my favorite American public intellectual. He writes as deeply about football, Warcraft, hip-hop, and superhero comics as he does about politics, literature, race, history, and sociology – and I have a feeling he would chide me for implying there was real separation between those camps. His career took off through his blogging and he still uses his blog as an ongoing conversation of ideas.
  10. Tan Le is the founder of Emotiv. Their consumer-targeted EEG headset was the second-most funded project in the design category on Kickstarter, ever. As a human-computer interfaces geek, I am cautious but excited to see what developers will build that can use the Emotiv’s output.
  11. Thao Nguyen. I wish I were a music critic, because I’m not really sure how to make slightly breathy singing and danceable electric banjo/guitar beats sound like something more than “quirky folk pop-rock”. I guess it is that, but her music has depth and resonance too: injustice, ambiguous choices, sadness and longing.

To make a living doing what you love independently on the internet, you need to take risks and to have a cushion. This fact of our society disproportionately favors the privileged, the wealthy, the native-born, the able-bodied, and the “unmarked” – the straight, white, unaccented-English-speaking male. At XOXO, I would guess most attendees would decry this fact. Yet we reproduce this pattern in the societies we make, like samizdat presses mindlessly reprinting the party doctrine.

I had been looking forward to having my first real conversation with one of the people on the above list and had thought they would be at XOXO. When I asked a mutual friend if the person was coming, I was told they hadn’t received sufficient assurances that the venue would be accessible to their wheelchair, and so they didn’t try to come. (Can an XOXO patron specifically try to cover accessibility access next year? Could we all forgo that last drink at one of the many open bar events if it meant the elevators had an attendant to make them accessible to wheelchair users?)

At least one of the other people on this list would not have been able to come up with the $500 or even $300 for a ticket. They’re making a living following their calling on the web, but in the US, that “living” doesn’t include niceties like health insurance, never mind plane fare, hotel, and conference tickets. (This year, No Show Conf let people buy “sponsor someone!” tickets that were redistributed to not-rich awesome people. I want XOXO to do this. If they do, I promise to sponsor at least one attendee next year, whether or not I get to attend myself.)

And I’m sure there are loads of people I haven’t listed who didn’t come because they aren’t ensconced in the indie/tech echo chamber. This is a harder problem, the knotty identity-policing problem I waved off earlier. Why do I cringe at the hypothetical idea of a Mommy Blogger on stage at XOXO – isn’t she an "independent creator using the Internet to do what [she] love[s]"? I idly wondered to a friend at the conference what would happen if the fanfic authors from WisCon and of XOXO were to be thrown together in a room, and he predicted angry words and scuffles. There are communities out there with similar values to ours that we don’t know how to talk to because their aesthetic is different. How do we build a broader community where we can learn from each other?

* On Day One of the conference someone (a white dude) tweeted: “By my count, half of the #xoxofest speakers are women.” Actually, it was 6 out of 22, or 27%, not counting Andy Baio (organizer), Andy McMillan (organizer), or Glenn Fleishman (panel moderator). The studies I’ve heard of peg most men as perceiving equal gender representation at only 17% though, so I guess this guy was ahead of the curve?

30 September 2013 ·

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About Me

I'm Kaia Dekker: Tuck grad, data junkie, frequent flier, erstwhile physicist, and media/tech geek. I think a lot about how to make great products and bring them to market.

Email me at kaia@protagoni.st