A partial investigation written under the advisement of Michael Castelle. Open to suggestions.
The What and the Why
The word hackathon is commonplace today in America’s technological culture. The word is so common, someone well-versed in technological slang may not even realize that it is a portmanteau of the words “hack” and “marathon.” The idea of a hackathon, or creating a hack or project in a succinct amount of time (the marathon) is not unique to technology or computer science. Even at the University of Chicago, there are many competitions in film, theatre, and various other disciplines to create a project in 24 or 48 hours. However, the hackathon in tech culture has transcended from a mere competition to a staple of tech culture. This transition is worth exploring sociologically.
In this paper, I will attempt to debunk hackathon culture. I will do this through giving a brief history of the hackathon, as well as a sociological history of the hackathon’s evolution. My ultimate conclusion is that the hackathon is so prolific and successful because it has become an autotelic, liberal, and great production measure for people interested in building technological projects, commonly using coding practices to do so. However, the co-optation of the hackathon by major sponsors as well as the addition of prizes has modified the original purpose of the hackathon. I will argue this through books and articles, as well as interspersing my ethnographic study of the Major League Hacking-partnered hackathon Uncommon Hacks, which took place at the University of Chicago. (I was involved with organizing Uncommon Hacks, and therefore had a bias while performing my ethnographic study.)
What’s a Hackathon?
A hackathon is defined by Major League Hacking as, “as an ‘invention marathon’. Anyone who has an interest in technology attends a hackathon to learn, build and share his or her creations over the course of a weekend in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. You don’t have to be a programmer and you certainly don’t have to be majoring in Computer Science.” (MLH). Tl;dr, a hackathon is a fun, free (depending on travel costs) experience where you meet people excited about technology, build a project, and get a lot of “swag” from various sponsors of the hackathon (shirts, water bottles, the works). The relationship between the hackathon organizers and the sponsors will be discussed in more detail later on. The hype that the hackathon has today didn’t kick off until around 2013 (Gottfried). However, hackathons have been present for a while. The first hackathons started around 1999 with companies such as OpenBSD in Alberta and Sun Microsystems holding in-company hackathons. The name was coined by Niels Provos from OpenBSD. These localized, in-company hackathons were more common due to the fact that there was a high barrier of entry for easily developing somewhat complex software in a rapid period of time (Gottfried). The evolution of web development with services such as Amazon Web Services (a cloud computing platform for the web) as well as Ruby on Rails (a full stack Web Application framework) better allowed for people to build easily on these platforms (Gottfried). Furthermore, the evolution of the personal computer and the Internet allowed for people to bring their computers to different places and work together on projects online. It was only in 1998 when Microsoft, the pioneer of the personal computer, bundled Internet Explorer with Windows, its operating system. And keep in mind that computers, the Internet, and other technology were much slower then due in large part to limited power of the central processing unit. Therefore, the idea of building something in 24 hours was not necessarily possible, or the project that one made would not necessarily be as complex as you would have liked due to the capabilities of the computer at the time.
How does the Hackathon Exist Today?
There was not much innovation of the hackathon format until 2005, when Amazon Web Services and Ruby on Rails were shown to the masses. More in-company hackathons started taking place later in 2005 by companies such as Facebook and Yahoo. Then technology conferences such as BarCamp and companies such as TechCrunch started hosting larger and larger public hackathons (Gottfried). Hackathons are now a prevalent part of coding/tech culture. There is no way to tell how many hackathons are held a month or a year in the US or worldwide, but there were 91 Major League Hacking — partnered hackathons from the months of January — May of this year at both colleges and high schools (MLH). The typical MLH hackathon lasts around thirty hours, and the expectation is that you stay up most of the time building your project, while also participating in the many activities that are part of the hackathon “experience.” This experience includes, but is not limited to, interaction with sponsors, various events such as cup stacking or karaoke, and food. There is A LOT of food and a lot of snacks. Jon Gottfried, co-founder of MLH, has worked a classification of the hackathon. He argues that hackathons have five classifications: a startup hackathon (you pitch/develop an idea); an open source hackathon (you contribute to an open source community); competitive community hackathon (many prizes, doesn’t have to be practical); brand hackathon (company sponsored not community focused) and non-technical hackathons (business plan pitching, many slide decks). Uncommon Hacks, the hackathon I observed, was a competitive community hackathon. I will be focusing on the competitive community hackathon, as those are perhaps the most prevalent. Furthermore, I will be focusing on student hackathons, as those are the most prevalent competitive community hackathons and are the easiest to get information and resources about online.
Before delving further into hackathon culture, I will describe Uncommon Hacks as I will intersperse anecdotes from my ethnography to contribute and further strengthen my arguments. Uncommon Hacks was partnered with Major League Hacking, the pre-eminent hackathon league (comparable to the National Collegiate Athletic Assocation for sports), and was sponsored/supported by tech companies such as Twilio, J.P. Morgan Chase, Exis, 1517, Clean Coders, the Thiel Fellowship, and various UChicago funding organizations. It took place at the Chicago Innovation Exchange, a modern, two-story incubator and co-working space located on 53rd Street in Hyde Park. The structure of Uncommon Hacks was a 30-hour event from Saturday April 16 — Sunday April 17. People arrived at approximately 9–10am on Saturday, projects/coding started at 12pm, and projects were finished at 12pm on Sunday. Each team gave a 3-minute demo of their project at 1pm, and a judging/awards ceremony ensued at around 4pm. Throughout this weekend, there were events such as cup stacking, a pancake artist, yoga, a performance by a brass band, Family Feud activities, and a sponsor workshop about fundraising. Uncommon Hacks was intended to be a hackathon that celebrated the Internet, or a niche part of the Internet that loves memes, gifs, and vaporwave aesthetic. A Facebook group, “Cirque du Twerque”, best typifies this culture. A forum for anything silly, absurd, or dank about hackathon/technology culture, it is filled with the word dank, many memes, emoji pasta, and if you join the group, you “get cancer.” This group is emblematic of what the hackathon intended to be: a humorous, almost mocking perspective to a sometimes sponsor-heavy, competitive hackathon culture. Uncommon Hacks was marketed as such an event and therefore, many of the attendees were partakers in this culture. (4chan is also another example of a typification of this culture worth further exploring.)
From Counterculture to Cyberculture
The overarching culture that spawned the subculture prevalent in “Cirque du Twerque” is hacker culture. Hacker culture has been around much longer than the actual hackathon. It was established and has been prevalent since around the 1960s, as mentioned by Steven Levy in his book “Hackers” (Levy). The original hackers were members of the MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club who got to hack on the PDP-1, one of the first computers (Levy). The 1970s — 1980s saw the rise of hackers as a negative group as many “hackers” performed criminal activities. However, this word is now known as a cracker as opposed to a hacker. Hacking culture is described as people, stereotypically known as socially incompetent men, staying up in the wee hours of the night tinkering with computer-related devices to advance and contribute openly to the field of computer science (Levy). These “hackers” often are libertarian and therefore anti-establishment and anti-bureaucracy (Levy). These libertarian ideals are infused with neoliberalism and not only manifest themselves in hacker culture, but also manifest themselves in free and open source software contributions, as mentioned by Gabriella Coleman in her book, “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking.” Coleman believes that hackers may have multiple motivations for producing work, but that they are committed to productive freedom (Coleman 3). Hackers think of programming as a craft as opposed to a hobby or job. They want to build upon this craft, and also believe that working collectively is a great way to build upon this craft as. Furthermore, Coleman argues the hackers are strong proponents of the liberal tradition. She argues, “Free software hackers culturally concretize a number of liberal themes and sensibilities — for example, through their competitive mutual aid, avid free speech principles, and implementation of meritocracy along with their frequent challenge to intellectual property provisions.” (Coleman 3). Though a high-level statement, I will argue that this liberal tradition fused with a libertarian perspective prevails in hackathon culture. However, sponsors, who are bureaucratic and established (though they claim not to be), sustain many student-run hackathons. Therefore, are hackers truly being anti-establishment by taking a weekend off of school, off of homework, to contribute to hackathons? Or are they simply perpetuating different kinds of establishments including the companies that sponsor hackathons?
The Liberal Tradition
The liberal tradition manifests itself in different traditions in hackathon culture. Regarding Coleman’s first argument that competitive mutual aid is part of the liberal tradition, such competitive mutual aid tradition is further described by Coleman as a “competitiveness with at least a practical acknowledgment that one is bound to peers, often friends” (Coleman 29). At a hackathon, winning a prize or getting recognition that your project is awesome is the goal. However, a greater motivation may perhaps be the motivation to build something awesome, and to help others build something awesome. It is typical for a hackathon to have mentors and workshops to encourage learning of the participants. Furthermore, as I observed at Uncommon Hacks, it was typical for people to ask around if they had a bug or a specific problem to other participants, members of the organizing team, or even sponsors! Furthermore, meritocracy does indeed reign for the most part at hackathons. The best project, technically, is definitely recognized by the attendees of the hacker community at large. At Uncommon Hacks, a team of two built a sous vide cooker from scratch. This entailed sawing, building blocks of wood, and creating a mini-fridge to cook an egg. The judging of the prizes was not necessarily based on meritocracy but rather on criteria of presentation, applicability to the real world, and technicality; therefore, the sous vide cooker did not place. However, many hackers that I talked to discussed how amazing and incredible the sous-vide cooker was and how unfair the judging was, showing that meritocracy did prevail despite poor judging.
Another sociological aspect of the hackathon is that it is autotelic — in other words, the act of participating in a hackathon has an end or purpose in itself (Gottfried). Autotelic was defined by Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi “refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward” (87). Trying to debunk this phrase in terms of the hackathon is tricky. The way I interpreted this is that in hackathons, the project one produces is not intended to be the whole point of the hackathon. The point of the hackathon is to participate and experience that hackathon and get better at building projects. Csikszentmihalyi’s definition seems to refer to a self-activity; however, I argue the term autotelic is applicable to a community at large. The hackathon culture community has a drive to create hackathons to ensure that people, mostly students interested in tech, have an easy means to create and build something using their technical skills. This drive differs from being externally driven by grades, schoolwork, and homework, which are traditional aspects of school/college culture. The hackathon community and hacker community creates hackathons for people to be able to get better at technical skill and have fun, and the act of going to a hackathon is a reward in it of itself. This autotelic aspect of hackathons was ever present in the conversations I had with participants at Uncommon Hacks. The attendees see programming as a craft that requires more and more practice in short bursts in order to get better. By attending hackathons, not only are these hackers making themselves better at their craft, they are contributing something to the open source community. The act of producing a project in a hackathon is the reward, not the end result of the project. Furthermore, these hackers see themselves as “better” or more accomplished than their peers. People who just sit and attend their computer science classes in colleges, “normies” who are part of the mainstream, are not applying any of the information they are garnering. Hackers truly believe they are contributing and giving something to the world. This definitely was shown during the project demonstrations. Even after 24 hours of straight coding with scant sleep, too much food, and too much Soylent, the hackers were still very proud and excited to show their projects.
Hackathons as Creative
Hackathons are also a creative outlet for members of the field: a spiritual way to transcend the work that they produce in school or work. This is reminiscent of techies from San Francisco traveling out to Burning Man, an annual gathering in Nevada that is an experiment in community and art. As Turner describes in his paper, “Burning Man at Google,” techies’ head out to this weeklong experiment to create something and hopefully inspire their future computer science related projects. He argues, “This rearticulation of the practices that increasingly define project-based commercial labor in the high-tech world within an anti-corporate ideological register in turn transforms the work of engineering into a spiritual task, and for some on the playa at least, the pursuit of a kind of vocational ecstasy” (Turner 82). The work that hackers produce at a hackathon is not for a class, and is not for work. It is for themselves, a way to get better and transcend any establishment or bureaucracy, which brings back Gottfried’s idea that a hackathon is autotelic.
The Co-optation of Hackathons
This idealistic, spiritual, transcending view of the hackathon as a way to make your craft better based on true meritocracy gets a little bit more complex as you add in the competitive and sponsor aspects of the hackathon. My argument is that, as aforementioned, the hackathon was a subculture or counterculture that was quite underground and inside companies. People originally did hackathons or put together hacking groups for the love of doing it. However, technology companies started realizing that hackathons had something to offer to them: talent and products. These companies could recruit the talent they needed at the hackathon, or they could sponsor the hackathon and have people use and build projects using their products. The sociological term to describe this recruiting or adapting of culture is called “co-opting.”
This coopting of the hackathon has resulted in most student-run hackathons being more about the sponsor prizes as opposed to the actual creation of the products themselves. For example, Comcast is the main sponsor of the oldest student-run hackathon that still exists, PennApps at the University of Pennsylvania. Comcast is not even truly a “tech” company in the tradition that exists in today’s society. Why do they sponsor it? To get talent, or to get their name out so people who attend these hackathons will further apply to work at Comcast? Unfortunately, I was unable to get research from the sponsors themselves. However, I was able to find student articles online about sponsor co-optation about the hackathon as well as discuss this with participants of Uncommon Hacks.
In a Medium post entitled, “Selling Out and the Death of Hacker Culture” by Rodney Folz, he argues that hackathons have become less about the actual hacking itself, but more about the competition, winning as many prizes as you can, and getting as much free stuff as you can. He argues, “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.” (Folz). Hackers stop attending to build something awesome, but rather to simply experience all of the free things and get T-Shirts. And yes, this may be an incredible motivation for humans action, but this runs counter to what hacker culture is meant to be. Hacker culture is meant to be autotelic, liberal, and anti-establishment. Building a project to win a free iPad or Amazon Echo does not become the main motivation. So, what is the point of a hackathon if it becomes about getting free stuff? There are multiple possible answers to this question: some awesome projects are still being built by the percentage of hackers that attend hackathons to build something awesome, and companies still want to throw money at hackathons because they do get their name out, get talent, and get people building on their project. Gottfried argues that as long as the core values are consistent for a hackathon and the needs of the hackers are put before the sponsors, the creative hacker process can still exist (Gottfried). The hackers I spoke to at Uncommon Hacks believe that there are many hackers who still have pure intentions when attending hackathons.
In order to get an even better idea of what the hackathon community perceives of hackathon culture, I posted on the Facebook group “Hackathon Hackers” (HH) and my friend Angelo posted on the Facebook Group “Cirque du Twerque” (CdT). These Facebook groups are ways of members of the hacker community to communicate besides meeting at hackathons. CdT has around 5,352 members, and Hackathon Hackers has around 36,009 members. These online communities are filled with various advices from people, as well as a way for information to be shared between the community members. There are a minimum 30 posts a day on each of these groups, and there is always a response for each post. In other words, these Facebook communities are active and booming.
On HH, I posted the following status, “[serious] Hey — I’m writing a paper about the history/sociology of the hackathon. I’m looking for some anecdotes about hackathon culture! What do you think are some social behaviors that occur at hackathons? Or even better, what do you think hackathon culture is?” Here are some of my favorite/most relevant comments.
“well, I’ve seen people who talk to everybody on the event and I’ve seen people who walk in, open up their computers (filled with stickers), don’t speak to anyone and only shutdown the pc when the event is over”
“college, everyone’s friendly, minus the studying”
“spending 95% of the time figuring out an idea to hack on and 5% of the time actually hacking”
“The last Hackathon I went to I worked by myself on a personal project that I didn’t intend to submit for judging. I just like being around other people and activity while I’m programming, it helps me focus. In terms of the social evolution of Hackathons they may develop into something more than just competitive group projects, like a general social coding experience because there’s something appealing about programming around other people who are also programming”
The post was not as successful as I intended. I wanted to spawn a long discussion about hackathon culture. However, Angelo posted in another group, CdT on my behalf. He said, “/uj. Hey everybody, recently I have been talking to a few people about what does “hackathon culture” mean to them. Although I got the insights of organizers, I haven’t had a chance to hear from people who have been around or new to the whole system. I have seen some good /uj discussions here in the past, hopefully we can make this a good one. As an organizer of such events, I want to do what I can to make events be as attendee focused as possible.”
“To me, hackathon culture is working on side projects, learning new libraries, drinking free Red Bull, and eating free food.”
“soylent and mcdonald’s tier bathrooms”
“The point is to constantly be learning new things in the field and having fun sharing it. And then learn from your mistakes and work to improve. However, it has devolved into “I need to maintain my github streak and push out another shitty crud app so companies like me”
“Hanging out with friends that you have never met IRL before or rarely get to talk to, working on something rad with said people, pillaging sponsor booths for swag, and living like a nomad for the weekend. And probably most importantly: finding new interests and learning how to do new things. My last hackathon I made and iOS app but I seriously got interested in VR and wanted to make more for it. Messing with unity right now to make something for cardboard.”
“En sum: Hacker culture is about learning and having fun, and should be accommodating for all. And hence why I think most hackathons are fucking dumb trash”
“Hacking is also about making things; some hackathons, spurred on by efforts to include people from business backgrounds and give everyone a taste of the startup culture glory, have turned into pitch competitions where you can make a deck and win. Make it inclusive, make it a place that encourages learning, but make it a space where people MAKE.”
“Tbh, I’ve only been to two Hackathons so far and I think what really makes Hackathon culture is the cultivation of friendships as well as learning. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t; but, in the end, it’s the experience that distinguishes it”
“I love the idea of hackathons, but my limited experience has given me a bad impression. It annoys me when people win by targeting specific prizes when they have no more than HTML and CSS, while I have something cool that works, but does not use an API that the organizers are pushing. However, this also means that I should focus more on the process and less on the prizes. The most important thing is that there is no impediment to the process of creation.”
Overall, members of the community that participated in these discussions have a problem with sponsors co-opting the format of the hackathon. This being said, there is still hope for the format of the hackathon. As long as creation is possible, as long as building awesome projects is possible, the hackathon should and will be perpetuated in whichever future form it may be in. Hacker culture and hackathon culture seems to have the same intentions as when it started: to create. As Jon Gottfried put so eloquently, “TL;DR Cultures change, they evolve, but make sure you keep your core values consistent and don’t corrupt them (open-ness/creativity of ideas, lack of requirements on what you build, focus on mentors/learning/experimenting, etc.) — encourage people to be autotelic and you’ll do well.”
 A sous-vide cooker uses vacuum-sealing to cook food and cook it in a temperature controlled water bath.
 I would have liked to describe the hackers’ projects, but didn’t think it reflected my main focus or answered any relevant questions to my ethnography.
 Comcast is not a startup company their technology is providing Cable TV, Internet & Phone services. Most companies that sponsor hackathons provide a platform to build on, such as Twilio (https://www.twilio.com/).
 The [serious] tag is a code on HH to indicate it is not a joke post.
 /uj is a tag for Facebook posts on the CdT group that are serious.