On Hacks/Hackers, Google and community building

A few weeks ago, the US team of Hacks/Hackers announced their plans to turn the network of journalism innovators into a collaboration with Google News Labs, starting with an event in Berlin. I tweeted about this, and today, Phillip Smith wrote a thoughtful reaction titled What is Hacks/Hackers? Given this invitation to debate, I wanted to outline my criticism in more detail, too.

I’ve always found Hacks/Hackers to be a place of genuine community: whether in Berlin, Cape Town, London, Perugia or at the brilliant Media Party in Buenos Aires, I’ve always met people full of ideas, open to experiments and willing to share what they learned. Its simplicity has allowed me to propose the concept to nascent news tech communities in countries from Nepal to Botswana.

People in each of these places have made the idea their own, fitting it to whatever resources, needs and challenges they have. That is why the recent announcement that Hacks/Hackers would in the future have a different meaning struck me as very odd. Even more, the idea that a company would suddenly be at the core of what I had understood as a grass-roots, community-driven network, strikes me as wrong.

In part, this impression is caused by the style of the announcements: Hacks/Hackers replaced their entire home page with an announcement, implying that the very nature of the initiative had changed. Screw that community thing, let’s have Google buy drinks, and let’s be “catalytic”.

For the initial event in Berlin, what are the likely outcomes? Will a one-day event with cool speakers and a design thinking exercise convince the FAZ arts section editor to go rogue and build a drone army? Unlikely. Will the initiative’s involvement with Google - which plenty of German journalists see as the devil incarnate - make it just a tiny bit harder for Hacks/Hackers Berlin to convene a diverse community in the future? Probably.

When German hacks think of hackers, I want them to think of collaborations like those between Der Spiegel and Jake Appelbaum - which has produced the worlds most in-depth reporting on the NSA scandal. Not: Google, their pet villain, and the projection canvas for all of their fears about the future (last week’s gem: “Larry Page was born a technology freak”).

The world is littered with “one-day immersive, interactive experiences” (formerly: workshops) for media people. It is also full of organisations that conduct them, like GEN or … Google. An easy-to-adopt, re-mixable, widely replicated, networked and intuitive meme like “Hacks/Hackers” is much more rare, probably unique. The only reason to go from the latter to the former is a grant form.

Today, I learned from Phillip that Hacks/Hackers is registered as an American non-profit organization. Two reasons come to my mind for why a grassroots meetup network would need a legal entity (and, by extension, funding): scale and sustainability. But neither of these strike me as great challenges for Hacks/Hackers. The simple recipe seems to do much more for scale than an office ever could.

As for sustainability, I wonder: if, one day, people don’t show up any more - isn’t that a good thing? Perhaps the rift which Burt, Aron, and many others have set out to bridge will have closed. Perhaps Hacks/Hackers will live on at the office water cooler.