There is not one single identity that describes a hackerspace member. Making such a claim would be to disregard how these are loose collectives of highly iconoclastic and individualistic personalities who give respect mostly on proven expertise and skills. The formal rules to these spaces are very few. As mentioned in my last post, the one rule of NoiseBridge in San Francisco is “be excellent to one another (dudes)!” Although there are typically several tiers of membership, this doesn’t equate to a formal management structure – authority and credentials are still treated with suspicion. Hackerspaces are viewed as vessels to attract and serve the needs of its members; like many freeform online groups such as Anonymous, there are no rules on who can claim to be “part of” a hackerspace. Regular members pay monthly dues (typically $20-40 for the lowest donation level), but there is no set number of visits that one must go through to establish one’s self. The everyday community in hackerspaces is embodied in the physical proximity of members to one another, as devoted to projects that also define their role in the spaces. Often members also speak of the freedom they feel to visit hackerspaces anywhere in the world and be welcomed.
A hackerspace is thus a part of at least two types of community, one constituted locally through everyday practice in physical spaces and another simultaneously imagined at a larger (international) level. Mitch Altman of Noisebridge made a physical expression of this feeling of share culture when he created a DIY passport to hackerspaces. Hackerspaces are an idea that lives “out there” in the world and “right here” in the one you are a member of. The two meet in national and international conventions, such as the Chaos Communication Camp, which helped spread the idea of hackerspaces to the United States in 2007.
On the local level, Hackerspaces are informal collectives of individuals who visit the space at varying frequencies, lured by the promise that they can tinker and rub elbows with like-minded people. Maffesoli has referred to such loose affiliations of urban collectives as Neo-tribes. The attraction to individuals to certain groups is, “more to a certain ambience, a state of mind, and is preferably to be expressed through lifestyles that favour appearance and form” (Maffesoli, 1996, p. 98). Bennett advocated viewing informal groups under modernity through Maffesoli’s concept of neo-tribes rather than subcultures, which the Birmingham school has characterized as relatively coherent by looking primarily at cultural forms. However, He criticizes them as less pragmatic, focused on cultural artifacts, and more distanced from alternative interpretations as constituted through social interactions in everyday life; Hebdige and others “concentrate on symbolic aspects of sub-cultural consumption at the expense of the actual meanings that young consumers have for the goods they consume” (Miles, 1995, p. 35 in Bennett, ). Bennett also implies that larger cultural forces under modernity set the scene for acceptance of certain culture, using his example of underground dance music: “when the first urban dance-music tracks began to appear there seemed to exist a ready-made audience” (p. 610). Much in the same way, I believe that the downturn in public education, lack of formal apprenticeships, demise of user-fixable commodities, and fewer groups for youth to interact in has led to the increasing popularity of hackerspaces.
The way spaces grow is probably comparatively straightforward. A space gets a reputation through online forums, offline media, and word-of-mouth through the people that become regular members. Collective identities snowball and attract similar-minded others. Potential members can easily keep appraised of what’s going on in spaces across town by monitoring google groups/mailing lists and wiki of other hackerspaces, and try out the spaces with a first visit. This snowballing is related to culture of the spaces as well as the specific types of activities that happen in them. For example, once a location becomes “known” for doing DNA analysis or laser cutting and acquires the equipment to conduct it, it naturally attracts others interested in the same activity. An investment in equipment is a symbolic gesture to expanding an area of focus in that space, as well as a practical set of resources. Hackerspaces are basically a meritocracy, often overlaid on what is basically a benevolent dictatorship (a few founders/key holders tend to bear the brunt of financial responsibility and power) that unfolds over time. Older members naturally have more control over the shared history of that space and its goals than new arrivals.
Flavors of Hackerspaces
Members are highly heterogenous in their motivations for coming to these spaces to work on projects and get advice, and come and go freely without trappings of most offline “organizations.” Yet, not all hackerspaces are the same, and they take on certain flavors that relate to their shared culture. Flavors refer to differences between spaces that are meaningful to their members and prospective members. A collective identity is forged from the shared histories of members, their current interests, and shared activities/events. I would argue that the differentiations between hackerspaces can be more accurately said to exist between groups, rather than between any two individuals from different groups. A basic flavor is for-profit/non-profit, as some hackerspaces are interested in entrepreneurial activities, while others are content to just pay rent. The spectrum would be all the inbetweens: hackerspaces that have online storefronts, accept fees for speaking, create custom devices to sell at conferences, and so on. Hacker/maker is another flavor,
The next post will talk in-depth about one particular flavor of hackerspaces: that of hacker/maker.
Bennett, A. (1999). Subcultures or Neo-Tribes? Rethinking the Relationship between Youth, Style and Musical Taste. Sociology, 33(3), 599-617. doi:10.1177/S0038038599000371
Hebdige, D. (1988). Subculture : the meaning of style. London: Routledge.
Maffesoli, M. (1996). The time of the tribes : the decline of individualism in mass society. London ;;Thousand Oaks Calif.: Sage.
Miles, S. 1995. ‘Towards an Understanding of the Relationship Between Youth Identities and Consumer Culture’. Youth and Policy 51:35-45.