XOXO Festival: reconciling my two industries

September 24 2013 | arielmstallings
Me at XOXO Festival. Photo by Lance Arthur.

I first got on the internet in 1992, and I started blogging in 2000. Back then, Blogger.com was still just a side project of Pyra Labs, and the scene was so tiny that when I went to San Francisco, I would go to blogger meet-ups where the only thing we had in common was the fact that we blogged. There were so few of us that that was all you needed.

I worked for tech and media companies through the '00s, and then inadvertently crawled in bed with the wedding industry in 2007 when Offbeat Bride the book was published, and I launched offbeatbride.com to promote it. I now straddle the two industries, with my left foot firmly rooted in tech/blogging and my right foot (and 80% of my revenue) coming from the wedding industry.

Last fall, I spoke in Las Vegas at Wedding MBA, the largest educational event dedicated to the business side of the wedding business. This fall, I attended XOXO Festival, a tiny conference in Portland, OR for people who make things online. The two experiences were vastly different, and clarified so much for me about the two worlds I divide my time between, and my role in each of them.

This post is long and rambly, but if you're in the mood, come along for the dawdle…


This is only the second year XOXO has happened, so the event is new and you can feel it still defining itself. That said, it's mostly serious nerds who do some seriously cool shit online — speakers included people who make flying robots, web comics, tabletop and video games, music, math videos, and software. There were talks from people who were higher ups at the tools that you all use (Tumblr, Twitter) and talks from people you've probably never heard of. Attendees included some of my favorite online writers (some of whom I've followed since those early days of 2000) and people who made tools that changed my life and the course of my business (more about that later).

Attendees also appeared to be approximately 80% white dudes with beards and/or glasses. It's been years since I attended a tech industry event, and in the wedding industry I've gotten spoiled by being in rooms dominated by whip-smart women running creative small businesses. My entire company is staffed by women — and yes, that includes "the IT guy," who is also a woman. 95% of my readers are women, and of the 5% that aren't women, half of them are trans, queer, or otherwise non-gender-binary-identified. It was distinctly odd to be in a room SO FULL OF WHITE NERD COCK. It wasn't uncomfortable for me, and as one of my fellow female attendees so aptly observed, in one very small way, the disparity served me:

…But there's no denying that the gender balance was very, VERY different than what I've become accustomed to, and speaks to the fact that the tech industry still has a long way to go.

The good news? Most folks seemed keenly aware of this. There were some amazing talks from the likes of Jay Smooth and Mike Rugnetta about the power of inclusivity on the internet. In fact, Mike Rugnetta got in so deep into the Internet's ability to bring people who self-identify as non-normative (fandom! furries! freaks of all kinds!) that it was like he was looking straight into the many-tentacled octopode soul of the Offbeat Empire's readership. Amazing. If there's room for furries on the internet (and oh yes, there is!), then there's room for more women at tech conferences. We'll get there.

So many feels!

One of the ways in which XOXO feels very different from most of the tech industry events that I've attended is that it felt very emotional — a surprising commonality with my other industry. For a tech conference, XOXO had a surprising number of feels and emotions and tears. Speakers talked about their failures and their melt-downs, their families and their values. There was a sense of magnitude and impact. I teared up several times, sort of in the same way I teared up when I crashed that reader's wedding last month.

Balancing out the feels, were also some major SQUEEs. I allowed myself only a couple fangirl moments:

  • I ran into Stewart Butterfield, one of the co-founders of Flickr. WE ALL KNOW I HAVE STRONG EMOTIONS ABOUT FLICKR, but regardless of me and my Flickr feels, the site has been a pivotal part of my business since the day I launched. All the wedding photos you love on Offbeat Bride? In a way, you have Stewart Butterfield to thank for those. He built a tool that made it easy for me to start collecting and sharing reader wedding photos, way back in 2007. These photos are, of course, the backbone of the site… and who knows how I would have dealt with the hot mess of photo submissions if Flickr hadn't made it easy right off the bat.
  • I also took a minute to thank Cory Doctorow, who first linked Offbeat Bride from Boing Boing back in 2007. That link from Boing Boing marked the site's first traffic spike, which can't have hurt Offbeat Bride's nascent google juice. Cory not only graciously accepted my thanks, but ended up being completely warm and charming and turned what could have just been a fangirl moment into one of my favorite conversations of the weekend.


I made a super concerted effort at XOXO to keep myself in a positive, engaged, optimistic mind-frame. The tech industry practically invented snark as performance art, and I totally respect that for some people, the way they enjoy and process an experience is through witty critique. For me, for this weekend, I chose to sit right up front for the presentations — literally the very front row on Saturday, and the second row on Sunday. I didn't want to spend the weekend on my phone, filtering the entire thing through Twitter, and indulging in snark one-upsmanship.

By sitting up front, I kept my phone in my bag and made eye contact with the speakers. To be sure, some of the presentations resonated with me more than others. I had a few panelists whose work I knew, and whose presentations I wanted more from… but meh: even the less resonant presentations offered nuggets of insight or entertainment. In the words of my old blogger colleague John Halcyon Styn, when faced with the choice of a glass half full or the glass half empty, I chose to just sit back and think "It's a beautiful glass."

Peer-to-peer mentoring

While I totally respect the snark, I spent most of my time in those front rows being amazed and inspired and emotional and impressed … but also feeling empowered.

I've been struggling recently with the concept of mentorship, and being frustrated by feeling like I can't find a mentor. Most of the people on the stage were around my age and experience, and I had this major aha moment of realizing that, as new media people who've been doing this now for close to 15 years, my colleagues and I might have trouble finding mentors because… we're at the forefront. I have peers who've been indie publishers like myself for about the same amount of time, but what am I really looking for in a mentor? For the last 13 years, I've been among the first wave of independent publishers making my living online… why was I looking for some sort of magical other older unknown person? I need to be turning to my peers much more. WAY more.

This concept of peer-to-peer mentorship may have been my biggest lightbulb moment at the conference. Despite the fact that I've been part of the blogging scene (and oh, it WAS a scene) for 13 years, I've always allowed myself to feel a little bit peripheral. I think this is mostly my own issues with OTHERING myself, but in some ways I am outside: I only attended SXSW Interactive once (in 2008), and it had already been decreed as "over" by my cohort there. I attended BlogHer a couple times, but was never part of the Mommyblogger elite that dominated the mid-'00s. I've built a relatively successful publishing company, but in a disconnected non-tech content niche.

Before Wedding MBA, I allowed myself to feel like Offbeat Bride was too nerdy and weird to be respected in the mainstream wedding industry… but being asked to speak at an enormous mainstream wedding industry event killed that stupid insecurity. Before XOXO, I allowed myself to feel like Offbeat Bride was too girly and wedding-y to be respected in the tech industry…. but XOXO finally helped me have a real sense of how my work both reflects my 13 years in the tech industry, and see how my work absolutely fits into the industry. Offbeat Bride's values of inclusiveness and constructive communication are hugely important to me, and I feel like using weddings to spread those values is subversive and important.

XOXO allowed me to see that the resources I need to grow and advance my work and my company aren't secrets held by some magical mentor somewhere out there in the ether. The resources are in the arms and minds of my colleagues. All of them, from both my industries. I need even more nerdy in my froof. And I need more froof in my nerdy. (And maybe more furries.)

  1. Wow! Great post! I wish I had gone to XOXO myself; will need to make plans for next year. I love how you chose to sit in the front row and chose to avoid snark and "checking out" on a digital device – that is a great mindset for attending conferences that I will need to make more use of.

    • Yeah, I took all my notes in a bound paper book and although I did snap a couple photos, my goal was to be making eye contact with the presenter as much as possible… it made the entire experience much more personal.

  2. Sounds very fun, and worth being really present for. I like your big lightbulb moment. That, in turn, just gave me an "aha!" that several of my jobs have involved fostering peer-to-peer mentorship in totally different settings and ways…I hadn't drawn that particular link before. Also, while I know that sometimes mentorship from the person who has charted a course very similar to the one you're on is invaluable, I realize more and more that I get my insights and inspiration and teaching from all kinds of people, sometimes when I least expect. So peers (and not necessarily ones in the same field or a specific age) totally make sense as mentors.

  3. I went to college with Mike Rugnetta. He was even (briefly) my RA. I can 100% confirm Ariel's assessment – he is awesome. 🙂

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