Independence and the Creative Life: Thoughts From XOXO

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One theme kept popping up at the XOXO conference and festival in Portland earlier this month: being a creative person on the Internet in 2014 can be both awesome and scary. XOXO, which first launched on Kickstarter in 2010, attracts a broad spectrum of independent-minded makers and creators. Here are some snippets from talks and conversations at the conference, touching on what independence means, how to measure success when the old standards don’t apply, and the ups and downs of the creative life.

Jonathan Mann is a singer and songwriter in New York who has been writing and posting a “Song a Day” for more than five years, winning fans like Steve Jobs and Rachel Maddow (and Microsoft). That project generated a Kickstarter-funded album in 2011. Excerpts from a chat with Jonathan:

There are days when it feels like a great gift and a privilege, the fact that I get to write a song today. That I have the skills necessary to do that, and that I have the creative freedom in my life, that I have the time and wherewithal. There are other days when it feels like a burden, and something that is...

Like a job?

Yeah, or even worse than a job. Like, I'm not being directly paid for it. It's like a task before me that I have to perform, not so much for myself but... to feed the Internet machine, the monster of content. And then there are other days when it feels like what I'm doing is really affecting people, and it feels like I get really amazing feedback. There are days when it feels very lonely, and there are days that I feel very connected. After 2,083 days, it sort of runs the gamut of experience.

Attention and popularity on the Internet is a weird thing. I often find that people think I have, on a daily basis, a lot more views than I do, that I have a lot more attention… I don't know why, when I get a day when there's a million people looking at it, why that doesn't translate into more over time. I've thought a lot about it, and there could be a million different reasons. But I just kind of keep going, and I keep trying shit, and doing what I can.

Rachel Binx’s many projects include Gifpop (on screen above), a Kickstarter project that brought animated GIFs into the real world, and Meshu, a line of 3-D printed data-driven jewelry. Her project this summer to start a conference didn’t reach its funding goal, prompting her to say that “failing on the Internet is like crying in public.” Her talk hit on some of the frustrations and freedoms of being creative online:

I was looking at my bank account and realized that I have enough money to feed myself until the end of the month before I dip back into my savings… But you know, in the end, this is the life that I chose, and it is entirely on me. If I wanted to I could go find a job and I could have a stable income, and I wouldn't be giving a talk complaining about my lack of income. We take the time to focus on the things that are important to us. [Shows a note she wrote to herself about wanting to travel 25% of the year.] This is my year so far, January through planned stuff in November:

And it's kind of a lot. And some of you might be thinking, well Rachel, I figured out how you can save some money. And yes, you have a point, but all this is facilitated by the fact that I've officially lived somewhere for only four months this year. All of my stuff has been in storage, and I've been living out of a suitcase since February… This becomes surprisingly easy when you just turn your rent money into plane tickets. When your life has no routine and no structure and no safety net, it becomes really easy to find the time to work on your seven concurrent projects.

So what's important to me is to be able to explore these different interests of mine, and to be able to spend my time working on the things that are important to me, and travel around, and, you know... mostly making it work!

Erin McKean is a word person. Among many other word-related pursuits, she founded Reverb, which makes the online dictionary Wordnik. Her company has taken venture-capital funding, which, as she noted, made her stick out a bit at a conference focused on creative independence. But she told the XOXO crowd that “independence is a myth”:

Every maker is dependent on somebody! You might be depending on investors, or your Kickstarter backers or your day job or Patreon or your spouse or your subscribers or your 1,000 true fans or your mom, but unless you are an independently wealthy and incredibly reclusive maker, you are depending on someone. It might be for money, or for emotional support, or obsequious fawning, or external deadlines so you actually get stuff done, but you’re depending on someone, for something.

In the vacuum of space, no one can help you make.

But you should know what you need from other people.

Kevin Kelly is the founding editor of Wired, the former editor and publisher of the Whole Earth Review, and the author of "Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities." His “1,000 true fans” theory suggests that “there is a home for creatives in between poverty and stardom.” He told the crowd at XOXO about how new digital tools allowed a photographic nobody like himself to publish a photo book in 2002. Some excerpts from a conversation after his talk:

Technology is increasing the number of ways we measure success. What you don't want to do is imitate the metrics of success from other models. Mass education, mass society, mass entertainment had a measure of success that was mass — in the billions. So the new measures could be things like durability: Is this piece going to be appreciated in 10 years or 100 years? Or it could be, how much time does it free up in our lives? Or it could be, can we optimize its impact on people's lives? How many people came up to you and said your book changed their lives? That's a metric that the industrial system of technology couldn’t endorse.

So we have new metrics and new ways we can succeed — becoming ubiquitous, or becoming rare, or becoming special, or becoming common. Those are all different kinds of successes. And so what we are seeing with Kickstarter and other things like that, is that we have more ways to succeed than we had last year or 10 years ago. An individual or an organization's success path is going to look less and less like someone else's success.

The challenge is that you don't have a lot of models. It's very easy to say, we'll make our corporation like GM, and the more like GM it is, the more it will succeed. Or the more like Google. Well, when you have this world where there’s a brand of one, the role models, the pathway is unclear. So it becomes more and more difficult to actually see what that path is.

You have to figure out your own path, and that's hard work — unbelievably hard work. So the “brand of you” has no competitors but also no models. I think that's the challenge.

Andy Baio is the co-founder of XOXO (and helped build Kickstarter in its early days). In his closing remarks he picked up a thread that was woven through many of the weekend’s talks:

Independence is hard. Independence is lonely. And it takes a unique kind of bravery to create something and to put it out into the world in this unfiltered way that is enabled through technology… Every one of you needs to remember this when you are getting pummeled by the morons that are out there. It's so easy to criticize, it's so easy to be the knee-jerk contrarian, the anonymous Internet commenter that tears you down. And it’s so hard to make something new. And that is a lot of what we're celebrating here. We just want more of it. We want more people making amazing things and just pushing through the noise.

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