Notes from a Hackerspace Panel

Al Billings

at Noisebridge Nov 24 2008 1
Drawing by Suzanne Forbes

I attended a panel today at Defcon 20 titled, “Connected Chaos: Evolving the DCG/Hackspace Communication Landscape.” I’m not sure what I expected it to be but it wound up being a panel of some East Coast and Southern hackerspace folks talking about what had and hadn’t worked in running a hackerspace, based on their hard won experience over the last few years. It was none of the normal West Coast folks, which made it a bit more interesting to me. Much of it jived with my own experience as a hackerspace founder so I thought that I’d share some of my loose notes.

If all of the members of the panel introduced themselves, I didn’t hear it. According to Defon scheduling, they were blakdayz, anarchy angel, anch, Dave Marcus, Nick Farr. I think some of those may be pseudonyms but you never know.


Definition: “Hackerspace: A physical space where hackers gather to hack things together.”

In other words, no need to get fancy and argue about what the word means.

There are six common traps for hackerspaces:

  1. “We don’t do that here”
  2. Clubhouse/Partying
  3. Leader-with-a-vision
  4. Single-point-of-failure
  5. Tasmanian Devil Trap
  6. OMG Moneyz

Some details of what these mean:

“We don’t do that here” – Hackerspaces should be working outside their comfort zone. Don’t limit what people do just because people haven’t done it before. Software geeks should try some electronics or making things, etc.

“Clubhouse/Partying” – This is when hanging out becomes primary over actually hacking on things. This is a really common problem. This takes it from a hackerspace to just a bunch of geeks hanging out and isn’t very inviting to new folks (nor constructive).

“Leader-with-a-vision” – A strong founder with a vision starts the space and it becomes trapped by this leader’s vision. New people and new ideas are essential over time as things adjust and change. The founder should eventually step aside completely to just become another member.

“Single-point-of-failure” – Key leaders or admins are points of failure. If there are no backups or replacements for folks then the group can be limited by the loss of a person to the group. You should be finding and training your replacement if you are in charge of something. This is a variation of “Dave got hit by a bus” as a problem.

“Tasmanian Devil Trap” – If you’re not learning, teaching, hacking, or figuring out a problem, you shouldn’t be there. People should not spend all of their time talking or arguing about a person or thing, circling around and around. That person or thing should go and let people hack. Otherwise known as “Drama.”

“OMG Moneyz” – This is a hyperfocus on ways to make money for the space, to pay bills or otherwise. It can become a perennial distraciton. The solution to money issues is to attract more people and your money problems go away (because new people support the space, join, pay dues, etc.). Come up with classes, activities, and so forth to get people to show up and want to do things as a community.

Second commentor (whomever it was) said “Hackers are inherently lazy. You have to motivate people to want to do stuff.”

Dave said “Consistency.” You need to be consistent in the space. Have regular classes, a consistent schedule of classes or events. If you don’t have this, it becomes a clubhouse very quickly. He saw this happen at his hackerspace. He also says “Location, location, location.” Pick the right place for your space. This cannot be over emphasized. He also says that the financial model is very important for the space.

Another commenter says that there needs to be space to work. Don’t fill up the space with junk. Don’t become the final drop off point for other people’s crap. He related coming to the space one day to find racks and servers piled up to the ceiling, all useless. WTF are you supposed to do with useless junk? People want to bring stuff but it can’t sit around hoping for a project.

If you do have a big pile of junk, take it apart. You might learn something when you do. Pull out the useful parts and pieces, keep those, and get rid of the rest.

Dave also says that he thinks a good hackerspace starts more projects than they finish and that’s ok. People should be encouraged to be creative as long as the debris doesn’t take over the space. Better to create than to not do anything at all.

“You want to teach something? Get up and teach it.”

“What people do in the space sets the tone for the space and its future.”

There was advice, in response to an audience question on dealing with the press and local community – a few things that work well:

  1. Write Press Releases – reporters are lazy/overworked. Write press releases for them and they’ll often run with them. Make friends with the local journalists and editors. They are in your community.
  2. Get excited about projects at other hackerspaces – if you see cool things, reach out, tweet about them, blog about them, etc. Make connections with these spaces and support them and they will support you.
  3. Reach out to people at cons (like Defcon, I guess, meh.).
  4. Consistency in media/Internet publication: lots of tweeting, blogging, etc. on a regular basis. Don’t go dark. Put information out there and make your presence known.
  5. Get other allied groups to meet in your space – 2600 groups, Linux User Groups, etc. Give them space to meet and bring people in. They may join your community and are natural interest groups.
  6. Participate in your local community, not just in technical ways. Help with a soup kitchen, clothing drives, things like that. Interact with non-geeks.

That’s it for the notes. Maybe they’ll be useful to someone!