Selling Out and the Death of Hacker Culture

We’ve sold each other for profit and lost what makes us happy.

Part I.

The very first hackathon I attended was back in high school. It consisted of me, a close friend of mine, roughly a dozen and a half 20- and 30-something programmers, and a box of muffins. Somebody had reserved a room or two at their church and posted about it on a local meetup group. We hung out all day, ate muffins, worked on whatever we felt like, talked with each other about our current projects, and helped debug things when we got stuck.

When I came to Berkeley, the OCF(?) threw a hackathon. They reserved a room, brought snacks. We worked on whatever we felt like, asked each other about our projects, helped debug things when we got stuck. Everyone was there for the joy of building things with technology. Nobody cared about anything else.

Later on, the CSUA had a hackathon. With sponsors. Yahoo! was there, and some other companies whose names now escape me. It was certainly more fancy than the OCF(?)’s event. Yahoo! bought us all dinner; there was now a judging process; there were now first, second, and third places, with associated prizes. I remember these prizes being alluring — people were less willing to talk about what they were building, less willing to help others debug, because that was time they could spend building their hack. And if they had the best hack, they could beat everyone else and take first place. Yahoo! might even hire them. All of a sudden, people cared about something else.

Flash forward to the present. Hackathons are now explicitly a competition, and it’s even a competition to attend and win as many as you can (thanks, MLH). Companies are everywhere — corporate recruiters are expected to sponsor hackathons as a standard part of their outreach expenses. Prizes, even for student-run events, have become astronomically large:

— $60,000 investment in the company you’ll create around your hack.
— Automatic interview with YCombinator.
— We’ll fly your team anywhere in the world and back.
— We’ll fly your team to space.

so large that people have begun making a living off winning hackathons; so large that people systematically game the system to win these prizes.

Thousands upon thousands of students rush to compete. Dozens upon dozens of companies attend as sponsors. Student hackathons raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships. Hackers are expected to listen to hours of company talks before being allowed (allowed?!) to hack. There is a clear contractual transaction of goods and supply: your time, your résumés, and your intellectual labor in return for their dinner, their cheap sunglasses, and their shirts emblazoned with corporate logos. Everything is big big huge giant at scale “unprecedented opportunity” the <adjective>est <noun> hackathon ~~EVER~~. Witness as we glorify our winners; shower them in praise and material goods. Losers get the consolation prize of form emails from sponsors who purchased the “contact information of attendees” package.

From: [Redacted]
To: Rodney Folz <greylock-hack@rodneyfolz.com>
Hello,
I hope you had a fantastic weekend! My team at [Redacted] would like to extend a huge congratulations for being accepted to and participating in the Greylock Hackathon a few weeks back. Everyone did an awesome job! It was great to see so much innovation, teamwork and out-of the box thinking in one place! We were incredibly impressed with the all the participants, however your work stood out to us as being particularly exceptional — both in the hack and throughout your college career.
[…]

(I signed up for, but never attended, that summer’s Greylock hackathon.)

Want to organize a hackathon? Good luck — acceptance rates (acceptance rates?!) for organizing teams run around the same as Ivy League schools. Unless you’re friends with the organizers, of course. Then nepotism trumps all. No better company to sell out student hackers than with your friends.


Part II.

We’ve told ourselves that since everything is bigger, everything is better. But we’re just sacrificing our community to the twin gods of commercialism and capitalism.

People are noticing, and they’re burning out.

When I was speaking at Battle of the Hacks, a hackathon for hackathon organizers, I asked the room “How many people have taken travel reimbursement to a hackathon just to meet friends there, with no intention of hacking?” Over half the room raised their hands. The rest were first-time organizers.

MHacks raised [some large amount of money] for their namesake hackathon this semester. They spent nowhere near that amount. The reason: “Winter is coming” — thanks to the outrageous returns on investment that hackathon sponsorships offer, corporations are systematically outbidding smaller companies, driving up the price until no community-involved startups can participate. When all sponsors are faceless monoliths, students hack less, foster connections with sponsors less, and expect more. There’s no longer connection with a community, so this behavior is expected, even encouraged.

This is why Walmart is MHacks’ title sponsor, and why Comcast (lol) was PennApps’ title sponsor. As hackers burn out, early adopters retreat, corporate giants advance, more hackers burn out, and repeat. Large corporations don’t care about community. They look for ROI and large reserves of semi-skilled laborers. They’re finding that in droves.

Today’s organizers have become cogs in a corporate machine. Student hackathons themselves have become corporate. Contractual obligations spell out the mutually agreed-upon worth of individual attendees. Applications and interviews reign supreme (there are even blog posts on how to ace an organizer interview). Hackathons lead dual lives as #brands that speak with the voice of some faceless organization. Major League Hacking, the self-proclaimed official student hackathon league, reserves the right to expel anyone it thinks might upset its corporate contracts.

Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.


Part III.

I’m close to burning out.

One explanation I heard for why Berkeley student groups rarely hold public-facing, non-lucrative (read: non-corporate) events is because we’ve collectively been conditioned to be entitled. Why attend one event when another offers free dinner? At least when corporations have infosessions, we’re guaranteed a meal. Maybe a shot at becoming a cog in a programming machine, too.

It used to be encouraging to watch people come to the Hackers@Berkeley events where we offered no promise of food, no internship application to some company. Then I made the mistake of asking people why they came.

“I don’t know how to Technology, but I need to know it to work at Company
“I don’t have any side projects, and I need them so Company will let me intern there as a freshman.”

Why do you want to work for Company?

“Are you kidding? Have you seen what they pay over there?”
“So I can work for Other Company. This is a good foot in the door.”

Oh.

(Other answers included that they thought they ought to learn this for class, or just in case, or to start their own company. Or “to learn how to talk to you CS people.” Ok.)

It’s so exhilarating to see so many different faces at events that I help make happen. It’s so depressing to realize that despite my best intentions, I’m just helping rush them into the arms of more and more corporations, instead of those of their fellow students.

But while I still have fire in me, I’ll keep running these learning workshops and student-focused events. Hearing just one person say “I’m able to build something I’d only dreamed of in the past” makes the rest worth it.


Part IV.

Hackers@Berkeley has fundraised enough money from other sources to throw HackJam — the learning hackathon — without needing sponsorship. We don’t have competitive applications, mandatory company talks or Sponsored API prizes. We can focus 100% on learning and building together.

HackDuke’s prizes were donations to charity and its theme was Code For Good. Probably not coincidentally, it was also the best collegiate hackathon I’ve ever been to. The atmosphere that was created when they emphasized community and eschewed (most) competition is one of the most welcoming things I’ve felt. I genuinely felt that no matter who “won” first, we all had won by virtue of being there and hacking together.

The framework is there. It is, believe it or not, possible to hack without corporate involvement. But running ethical hackathons is much harder and much less lucrative. As long as MLH pushes hackathons to go bigger and bigger so MLH can profit off students’ free labor; as long as individual organizers value throwing ~~the <adjective>est~~ hackathon over something that their community can enjoy — it won’t happen. We’ll continue selling out, burning out, and hacker culture will keep dying out.

MLH claims hackathons need to differentiate themselves, so that’s why they try to go bigger. But who are they differentiating themselves from? Other big hackathons? Don’t advertise to serial hackathon-goers, then. Focus on the community surrounding our schools, surrounding ourselves.

I know the hacker community can make the change. You can scale corporate contracts; you can’t scale culture. But we do things that don’t scale. It’s in our blood.

Don’t count us out.


Thanks to JB, Frank, Amy, and Maegan for reading drafts of this.

In Berkeley on Oct. 3rd and want to mentor at HackJam? Hit me up.

Questions about breaking free of the capitalist oppressors? I’m @rodneyfolz on Twitter.

P.S. Social proof is the lifeblood of the modern age. If you like this essay, you should recommend it ↓