I Am A Hacker

3696386615_19c3c56b23In light of recent events, I’ve heard the word “hacker” (and permutations like “hacktivist”) used by the mainstream media more than I ever have.  Despite its near ubiquitousness in any story mentioning technology and social activism, the term “hacker” still, by and large, has negative connotations.

Most people think of someone like our friend pictured here, a ne’er-do-well who exists to steal the credit card and personal information of good citizens.  At the very best, maybe they think of someone that breaks into government computers “just to look around.”  Now, to be sure, there are hackers that are Bad People Doing Bad Things.   And quite a few are doing illegal things with no ill intent – just curiosity.  But a large number of hackers are people that just like to tinker around with electronic information and materials.   Remix, reuse and recycle the work of others and add to it to make something useable.

I am far from an expert in the history of the hacking scene.  Or even of technology.  (I’m already bracing for the corrections that will be commented or emailed to me – and that’s fine.  Law school destroyed any ego or self esteem that I had. Please don’t hesitate to correct me.) However, I do have a degree in anthropology and like to think I’m a pretty good observer of technology and its place in our society.  So I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain some background and why I call myself, along with many of my professional colleagues, a “hacker”.  And hopefully, afterwards when you hear about “hackathons” or “hackivists” etc., you won’t immediately assume something nefarious is going on.

For the first 20 years or so of the web, it was mainly the domain of geeks, nerds and other people who wanted to take the time to learn some basic code and had the hardware to do it.  Sure, there were bulletin boards and usenet groups, but to get your own personal web presence took a little effort.  Time rolled on and by the early years of the 21st century, consuming information on the web was easy but that’s it.  Then something called “Web 2.0” showed up and things got really interesting.  Because, thanks to sites like blogger and flickr and wikis, Jane and Joe Average were able to get on the web and start producing content without too much technical know-how.   People + Platform = Content.  I refuse to make a judgement call about the quality of the content at this point.  (It’s the anthropologist in me)  To me, uploading a picture of your cat to Flickr is just as valid as writing a 1000 word blog post on why you love your cat.  The similarity is that someone gave the average person a platform that they then could use to publish their content to the Internet without having to know a lick of code.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has tried to maintain a blog or wiki or even a photography project on Flickr knows, the creation of content is difficult.  It requires creativity and time, two things in short supply for most people.  It also requires everyone to reinvent the wheel each time they begin a creation.  You want to talk about a current event?  You need to create a blog post and write about it.

Content creation is hard.  No platform is going to change that.  But fortunately, in the past 5 years we’ve entered into a period called Web 2.5.  And it’s currently going like gangbusters.  The main reason Web 2.5 services (think Tumblr, Pinterest, and to a lesser extent Facebook and even lesser extent still Twitter) are so wildly successful is that they allow for easy sharing of the content of others.   Content + Easy Sharing Capabilities = Building Block.  Web 2.5 provides building blocks.  Think about it: without the reblog or repin buttons, Tumblr and Pinterest would just be another Blogger.  Same with Facebook and Twitter with their share/retweet functions.  These, as well as the ubiquity of “add anywhere” type buttons on content all over the web allows people to take building blocks of content from all over the web and easily assemble it and share to their connections.

Connections? Ah yes. I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment and point out another reason for the popularity of the Web 2.0s is the connections you have with other people via friending, following, or whatever other terms they use for it.   Web 2.0 allows for you to push your content at others as well as receive it in a one stop shop that allows for passive consumption as well as passive and active communication.  Personally, I find that this more often than not gives the illusion of human interaction rather than true connection, but that’s another essay for another day.  Anyway….

Assembling the building blocks of others + new content (optional) = Curation  Ah, curation, the buzzword du jour!  It gets mocked a lot, but using the building blocks of others isn’t without an intellectual component.  People just don’t blindly reblog things.  From the 13 year old on Tumblr that loves Justin Bieber to the Wedding Planner that uses Pinterest to collect ideas to the Right Wing blogger that selectively sends out tweets, these people are all curating the content that they find on the web.  All of these people likely look at similar sources (e.g. the blogger probably reads Fox News and Drudge), but he or she has cherry picked from that content to find the ones that they think are the most interesting, possibly adding their own original content in the form of commentary or entirely new content and then share it with their audience.  They maybe even go so far as to add a folksonomy (“Justin Bieber” “Bieber” “Beliebers” “Bieber Fever”) to their curated content so it can also be found by others not in their content push streams.

But even with the new technology of Web 2.5, many people are still content to just consume the content or curations of others.   Here’s my completely unscientific breakdown:


So, what of hacking? You know, the original topic of this post?   In my definition, hacking is more like “curation plus”  While with most curators, the old content/new content ratio is 80/20, with hacking there is a larger emphasis on the intellectual contribution of the curator, so the ratio is more flipped of 20 percent old/80 person new contributions.   And often, the new whole is greater than the sum of its parts.   Have another chart:

triangle2Or maybe this one makes it easier to understand:

hackrsThis blog post is a bit of a hacking operation – it start out life as a email to my boss and I’m using part of that email content here as well as in a blog post I’m co-writing with my colleague Elmer Masters.  I can do that because it’s mine.   I wrote it, I own, it’s  mine mine mine.  Because, of course, the big looming problem with hacking and curating is Intellectual Property law.  You know, copyright.  I work in education and legal information – two areas where theoretically most things are either in the public domain or should have a license that allows for free re-use. (Note that I have a Creative Commons license on this blog.  Go wild, kids.)   However, there are still many roadblocks in the way of hacking the information in these areas (and there’s a WEALTH of it) which prohibits people from properly accessing and manipulating it.

Lest you think that professors wouldn’t dream of hacking, I submit to you that they already are.  How many of your classes used a single text book that the professor used from start to finish without skipping any chapters, jumping around in the text or adding any extra readings?  Yeah.  Exactly.  Professors take extra readings and put them on reserve in libraries or have students buy course packs or sometime two or three books for a course.  By doing this, the professor has curated a selection of information and hacked it into a new course.    With the technology platforms available, there’s very little stopping professors from distributing these hacked course materials at a significantly lower cost to student except for….the licensing fees for the intellectual property that they want to distribute.  I am not a copy-leftist.  I do believe that content creators have a right to be compensated for their work.  However, when they have already been compensated for it or the content was paid for by the government, that’s enough compensation.  But that, too, is another blog post for another day.

When you think of it, hacking is all around.  You might even be a bit of a hacker yourself.  So take pride in the word and open yourself to the work of other hackers.

Photo Credit: Stian Eikeland via Compfight cc

Bad graphs by me. 


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