A Writer’s First Hackathon

I discovered the CODEX Hackathon in a way that seems very fitting in hindsight: a girl I knew in high school (but was never friends with) posted about it on Twitter.

I am a playwright, an occasional poet, and a dabbler in other media. I applied for CODEX because I had heard the MIT Media Lab was cool and I thought it might be fun to stretch my brain for a winter weekend.

The following morning, I was accepted.

In the theater, you spend hours (or days) writing an application and if you’re lucky you get a rejection letter 6–9 months later. So this seemed like an auspicious start.

When I told (non-tech) friends about this literary hackathon I was attending they were immediately skeptical.

Them: “What’s a hackathon?”

Me: “Uh…. It’s like a weekend where you code and solve problems?”

Them: “Do you code?”

Me: “No.”

Them: “So why are you going?”

Me: “I’m a writer! I worked in publishing and for an independent book store. They also want people who are book people, not just hackers.”

Them: “Huh. Ok.”

I arrived at the MIT Media Lab (early) on Saturday morning with no plan. I did not know what I could offer this hackathon, but I was game to try anything. I whipped out my MacBook Air and sent some work emails so that I would look like I fit in, but when people started trickling in they were not hiding behind laptops, they were actually talking to one another. My attempt to fit in was perhaps misguided. I closed my laptop and talked with the women at my table. One was studying Computer Science and Journalism at Columbia. The other works for the Digital Public Library of America. They seemed like exact embodiments of this hackathon. Unlike me.

After morning presentations and pitches from other participants I still felt at sea. Words I didn’t know and couldn’t define were bandied about like I was in a foreign country and I had no idea how my skills might help anyone. No project seemed to need the expertise of a playwright/publisher/shop girl. Perhaps I should just pack up my computer and pretend I never showed up in the first place.

Brainstorming!

Luckily there was a design meeting for other stragglers, where we did some brainstorming and landed on some possible lines of inquiry related to books and reading. My group didn’t initially have one sole shared passion, but we had good group chemistry and were able to come up with a series of questions that felt like a statement about what we were interested in. Simply put, we wanted to make an Instagram for books, a way for people to discover books through a means other than reviews and Amazon. A way for people to use their own creativity to share feelings about a book. We first dubbed our project “meme girls” and then settled on “bookstagram” and got to work.

We decided our app’s target audience was teenagers and thought about all the ways teen readers might use images and text to share a book they had read with friends and strangers. I created “characters” who might use the app (Ana, Morgan and Maddie). I did research on books and found images and quotations. I had finally found a use for my skills. If there’s anything I’m unequivocally good at, it’s internet research.

Around dinner time we learned that a similar app already existed (not to be named here) and we lost a bit of steam. All four of us were surprised not to know about this app already, but eventually let the knowledge of the “competition” fuel us through to the end of the night. By 10 pm we had the structure of a PowerPoint presentation, the beginnings of a demo and front-end design (I am pretending to use these phrases correctly). Our bookstagram programmer, Chris, asked me if I felt like I worked at a start up as we walked to the T.

I responded, “It’s a lot like theater.”

Team Bookstagram

The next morning, as travel plans were thwarted by an impending storm, we made finishing touches on our demo, PowerPoint, and design. We talked about books and our jobs and other hackathons. We laughed a lot, followed one another on Instagram, and casually sidled up to the swag to check it out.

By the end of the weekend we had spent almost 20 hours together, eaten four meals together, and presented something we were proud of and (somewhat) invested in. I cannot imagine a better experience at a first hackathon.

I rode the Red Line across the Charles to catch a bus back to New York (with banned book socks and a new book!) amazed at what I had learned and what we had accomplished as a group. Monday morning, after seeing my posts on Instagram and Facebook, a friend from London sent me a WhatsApp message to ask if I was leading a secret life working for a start-up at MIT.

I wish.

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