Why I attended two monetization-resistant conferences

I spent the past two weeks betraying a basic rule of self-employment: Don’t go someplace without having enough work lined up to pay for the trip. Worse yet, I paid for a conference badge–twice.

I had my reasons. The XOXO festival in Portland promised a repeat of the mind-expanding, heartening talks I watched with rapt attention in 2013 and 2015, plus the side reward of getting to spend a few days in a city I like but hadn’t visited since 2015. The Online News Association conference in Austin, meanwhile, would bring its usual mix of professional development and catching up with old friends.

XOXO stageI had hopes of selling a post or two from each, but I’d still lose money from each trip (and then I wound up not selling anything at all). So what did I get for my $500 XOXO pass and $439 ONA registration, plus airfare and lodging for each?

This year’s XOXO was not the same independent-creativity pep talk as before, because most of the speakers didn’t address that theme. But there were some seriously compelling talks anyway:

  • Jonny Sun and then Demi Adejuyigbe talked with candor and hilarity about battling impostor syndrome;
  • Jennifer 8. Lee explained how she worked the emoji-governance system (yes, there is one) to get a dumpling emoji added;
  • Claire L. Evans retold some forgotten stories about female computing pioneers;
  • Helen Rosner spoke about being defined by an out-of-context tweet and having to defend her expertise, then led the audience in a recitation of this pithy, profane self-affirmation: “I am really smart, and I am really good at what I do, and you should fucking listen to me.”

Trust me, you will want to watch these whenever the organizers post the video to their YouTube page.

XOXO also had a day of meetups across Portland and endless conversations with fellow attendees. Somehow, this conference manages to attract some of the kindest, nicest people on the Internet; it’s a wonderful contrast to the acid bath that is Twitter on a bad day.

XOXO postcardThe people at ONA may not have been as uniformly pleasant–look, if we journalists had a full set of social skills, we’d all have real jobs–but that event had the advantage of being much more tightly focused on my professional reality. It’s not by accident that I’ve gone to every ONA conference since 2014.

There, too, the talks were terrific:

ONA was as great as ever for networking, I had more than my fill of delicious tacos, and I got to hear Dan Rather give a brief talk at an evening event and then shake his hand afterwards.

In retrospect, XOXO is an expense I wouldn’t repeat–although I’ve yet to go to that festival in consecutive years anyway. My takeaway from this year’s version is that instead of flying across the country to get these different perspectives, I should try harder to find them around D.C.

ONA, however, is pretty much guaranteed to be on my schedule next year–the 2019 conference will be in New Orleans. How can I not do that?

Advertisements

Weekly output: IFA oddities, Windows laptop trends

PORTLAND–I’m nearing the end of one work trip, after which I’ll get to spend a whole 40 or so hours at home before heading out for a second. No, I’m not heading to the Bay Area for Apple’s new-iPhone event Wednesday (I haven’t gotten an invitation to one of those occasions since 2010, which is fine); I will instead spend that afternoon flying to Austin for the Online News Association’s conference.

Like XOXO here, ONA is an event that has me paying for the conference badge. In a few days, I will try to write why I think it sometimes worthwhile to put this kind of dent in my business model.

Yahoo Finance IFA-oddities post9/4/2018: The weirdest, most interesting, and most unavailable gadgets from IFA 2018, Yahoo Finance

This illustrated recap of the oddest hardware I saw at IFA, including a robot dog and a “Solar Cow,” ran a couple of days after my return from that gadget show in Berlin. This sort of listicle has become a staple of my tech-trade-show coverage, because the gadget industry doesn’t seem to be getting any less weird. And after I’ve filed a few thousand words from a faraway city, stringing together a post from 200-word chunks feels exponentially easier.

9/7/2018: Laptops get thinner, lighter, more secure – and, in one case, audio-hostile, USA Today

This overview of laptop-design trends seen at IFA–most of which I like, one of which I absolutely hate–took a few more days to appear online. I can’t say that any of these changes made me feel bad about my almost-year-old laptop… which is fine! Most people should not buy a new computer every year.

 

Weekly output: XOXO, iPhone Upgrade Program (x2), phone ownership, iOS 9 transit navigation

I owe a large chunk of this week’s work to Apple.

9/15/2015: Rob Pegoraro (USA Today & Yahoo, AppleCare for iPhone) 9.15.15, WRKO

The Boston news station’s Financial Exchange show quizzed me about the pluses and minuses of Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program.

Yahoo Tech XOXO post9/16/2015: Creatives Ask: What Kind of Web Do We Want, Anyway?, Yahoo Tech

I struggled to write this on the flight back from Portland, thought about scrapping the draft, then pounded the keys over most of Tuesday to yield this. I still don’t know if this post did justice to the conference. I do know it stoked some outrage from Gamergaters who don’t seem to have learned much about advancing a persuasive argument.

9/16/2015: Could the iPhone Upgrade Program save you money?, WTOP

D.C.’s news station had its own questions about Apple’s bid to push the wireless carriers into the background of the smartphone-procurement transaction.

9/18/2015: Who Really Owns Your iPhone? It May Not Be You, Yahoo Tech

An e-mail thread between a couple of my editors and me finally led to this post about changing notions of smartphone ownership. The argument over GM claiming ownership of a car’s embedded software influenced this.

9/20/2015: Why an old iPad can’t get iOS 9 transit directions, USA Today

I thought this weekend’s USAT column should cover an iOS 9 topic, and then Apple left a pitch right over the plate by failing to document that iOS 9’s transit navigation doesn’t work on older devices. It’s appalling how Apple keeps its users in the dark… a practice I will “punish” at some point by buying an iPad mini 4, because as a tech journalist, I can’t not have an iOS device.

Weekly output: UHD + HDR, Apple TV, Apple news, iPhone Upgrade Program, Nextbit Robin

PORTLAND–I’ve just spent two mind- and heart-expanding days at the XOXO festival here. I don’t know if it was quite as inspirational as two years ago, but I still think the things I’ve heard and seen from the speakers and other attendees will be leaving little ripples in my life for some time to come.

In other news, it’s going to be so great to come home tomorrow.

9/7/2015: Are 4K Televisions Finally Ready for Primetime?, Yahoo Tech

I wrote one last post from IFA Friday evening that didn’t get posted until Monday. My own answer to that headline is “not yet”–at least not until the wider color and brightness of “HDR” isn’t confined to expensive, reference-line UHD TVs. I also want to see a next-gen HD/UHD broadcast standard supported in affordable sets.

Yahoo Tech Apple TV post9/8/2015: Can Apple Save Apple TV?, Yahoo Tech

Since this ran, Apple has announced that the new Apple TV’s remote will feature volume buttons ( It’s weird when Apple does something I ask it to do!) and Plex has said it’s working to bring its app to the new model.

9/9/2015: Apple’s news, WTOP

I had a quick chat from the CTIA pressroom with WTOP’s anchors about the new iPhones, iPads and Apple TV.

9/12/2015: Can Apple’s iPhone upgrade deal work for you?, USA Today

My editors and I had originally thought of using this week’s column slot for a look at the fading fortunes of CTIA’s event, but they asked me to explain Apple’s new iPhone-upgrade program (so instead you read about this trade show’s travails here). Note the presence of a T-Mobile publicist in the comments; I invited him to leave that comment after he asked if we could revise the piece to note that that carrier’s trade-in option.

9/12/2015: Nextbit’s Android Phone Puts Its Faith—and Your Data—in the Cloud, Yahoo Tech

I had a demo of this upcoming Android phone Wednesday evening in Vegas and wrote it up over the course of Thursday. I doubt I’ll buy it myself–I’m going to need a new phone sooner than next year–but they’ve got an interesting concept and design.

Weekly output: mobile device management, XOXO, iOS 7 visual effects, Android permissions

After a week out of town, I have seriously enjoyed waking up in my own bed and cooking my own meals.

9/24/2013: Mobile Device Management, IDG Enterprise

My sideline as an occasional Twitter-chat host led me to this discussion of ways to secure large numbers of smartphones and tablets–a business-focused topic with more than a little relevance to the consumer.

DisCo XOXO post9/26/2013: There’s More Than One Way To Do It, And Other XOXO Lessons On Indie Creativity, Disruptive Competition Project

This recap of the XOXO conference was written from about the same perspective as July’s  DisCo post about developments of online journalism: You’re better off judging the health of a market by its compatibility with middle-class business models than by how many superstars it spawns.

9/27/2013: How to adjust visual effects in iOS 7, USA Today

I set aside another column idea to write about user complaints about the sometimes shifty visual effects in iOS 7. The tip part of the column, about one way to decide if an Android developer is being upfront with you, came out of a discussion I had at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference two weeks ago.

The week’s Sulia topics ranged from the official debut of a CableCard bill that I’d previewed for Ars Technica in August, surprising sales figures for Chromebooks, RealNetworks’ re-emergnce with an interesting cloud-based video service that may suffer from being saddled with the RealPlayer name, how many people pay for ad-free versions of mobile apps, and a time when paying with a credit card entailed more hassle than paying with my phone’s NFC wireless might have been.

A love letter to XOXO

PORTLAND–If you write for a living, hope and fear are part of the deal. Hope, because you believe your ability to make words appear on a screen in a pleasing sequence will lead other people to give you money. Fear, because you worry that other people will realize you are not all that good at that work, and that other writers can do it for less anyway.

XOXO badgeI spent three days here last weekend at XOXO, a conference staged to lend hope to independent creativity. That was a fairly abstract concept to me three years ago; I was approaching my 17th year at the same employer and had (fraying) ambitions of retiring there.

Then other things happened, I didn’t get another job as I’d expected, and after two and a half years of freelancing full time, my indie existence no longer feels like a fluke.

But it can still feel lonely. So it was tremendously empowering to commune with smart, talented, hard-working people who had taken a similar course, then see some of them testify about it. I kept finding myself nodding vigorously at things I could have said, or wished somebody would have told me a couple of years ago.

Co-organizer Andy Baio opened the event with an introduction that was part release notes explaining how he and co-conspirator Andy McMillan had designed XOXO to function unlike the average corporate conference, part pep talk for those assembled. “It’s about making new things and putting them out in the world,” he said. “That takes a unique kind of bravery.”

Cartoonist Erika Moen evocatively recalled her own I-think-I’ve-gotten-somewhere moment: “I’m self-employed. I’m creating. I’m in love. I’m happy.” In my notes, those sentences are set off with one all-caps prefix: THIS.

Musician Jack Conte provided a succinct description of the basic business problem for any freelancer–or, for that matter, any newspaper: “You have to make good stuff and convert it into money.”

One of my favorite talks came from musician Jonathan Coulton (longtime readers may recall his guest spot on my Post podcast, the audio of which has apparently gone down the bit bucket). He spoke bluntly about his moments of self-doubt–“there are times when I say to myself, I wonder if I have ever done anything that’s really good?”–but also showed a cheery defiance of standard-issue career advice.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that there’s A Thing you have to do to make this work,” he said before a slide reading “Be a Snuggie,” “You’re doing it right,” and “Fuck ’em.” Instead: “Here is the only metric you need to care about…. Is what you’re doing making you more happy or less happy?”

And Cabel Sasser, co-founder of the Mac software firm Panic, Inc., gave a wonderfully human recounting–who among us has not sometimes thought, “I needed to file a bug report on myself”?–about what it meant to keep his company independent.

What if it fails spectacularly after he’d passed up a lucrative exit? What if it slowly sputters out? I liked his answer: “You won’t know the end until it ends, so let’s fill the middle with as many amazing plot twists as we can.”

The other part of XOXO that lit up my brain was the other people I was able to meet there. Baio and McMillan’s attempts to limit the audience to people who made things, their  exhortations to say hi to whoever’s next to you, and the inevitable random conversations while waiting in line at the food trucks outside the Yale Union building all made this one of the more welcoming spaces I’ve occupied.

Many Internet-famous individuals are jerks, but I did not meet any jerks at XOXO. I was particularly delighted to meet people I hadn’t seen in months or years, or had only known as usernames in Twitter, e-mail addresses in my inbox or a remote voice on the same radio show. You know who you are; hope to see you again soon.

Weekly output: digital privacy, smart-home privacy, NetNames piracy study, mobile privacy, privacy lessons, wireless broadband, broadband map

PORTLAND–I’ve wrapped up three educational, inspirational and sometimes deeply moving days at the XOXO conference here. I’ll have more to write about that later on.

9/17/2013: Digital Privacy, IDG Enterprise

This week’s Twitter chat focused on workplace privacy, which got us into some fundamental trust issues between employers and their employees.

PII 2013 home page

9/17/2013: Home Smart Home: Living with Connected Devices, Privacy Identity Innovation

I moderated a panel at this conference in Seattle about the privacy risks of webcams, connected appliances, and home-automation systems with SmartThings co-founder Jeff Hagins, Forbes writer Kashmir Hill, Life360 Chris Hulls, and Gartner research director Angela McIntyre. Despite the dreaded post-lunch time slot, I didn’t observe anybody in the audience nodding off. I’ll add a link to video of this if/when it’s available. 10/19/2013: Watch our discussion on PII’s site.

9/18/2013: NetNames Piracy Study Yields Same Lesson As Old: Legal Options Shrink Infringement’s Share, Disruptive Competition Project

I unpacked a study financed by NBC Universal that reported a growing problem with copyright infringement online–except the actual numbers in the full report did not quite make that case. This post may remind longtime readers of something I wrote for the Post two years ago.

9/18/2013: Developing Better Mobile Privacy Notices, Privacy Identity Innovation

My second PII panel featured Mark Blafkin, executive director of the Innovators Network; Justin Brookman, who directs the Center for Democracy and Technology’s consumer-privacy project; and Dona Fraser, vice president of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board’s Privacy Certified program. There is a certain art to managing an onstage discussion; this time, it seemed to go really well. I’m not quite sure how I was that “on,” but it felt great. 10/31/2013: Video is up, so I’ve changed the link accordingly.

9/20/2013: Ways to Pivot Privacy From Pain to Something That Might Pay, Disruptive Competition Project

I wrote up this recap of PII’s discussions and how they caused me to look at some issues I’ve covered many times before–for instance, privacy policies–from a slightly different perspective. The opportunity to learn continues to be a pleasure of this line of work.

9/22/2013: Cut the cord for home broadband? Not so fast, USA Today

A reader’s query about broadband options in Naples, Fla., gave me the chance to make some broader observations about the state of broadband access and competition in the United States–and to share a tip about a database and map of Internet-access options maintained by the Federal Communications Commission.

On Sulia, I shared my first impressions of iOS 7 after several frustrating hours of unsuccessful download attempts, was once again somewhat puzzled by Apple’s choice of which news outlets got early access to new iPhones, and posted a round of updates from XOXO: why Marco Arment is bullish on podcasts, a site that makes it rewarding for fans to support artists they like, Chris Anderson’s sales pitch for agricultural drones and more.

Update, 9/29: Added a link to the Twitter chat I forgot to include in my haste to get this written before I missed too much of XOXO’s closing party.