Hackerspaces & Money: The Board

Nick Farr | Posted 2009.10.20 at 10:00 am | Perma

Note: This is the second specific installment of a five part series on Hackerspace organization called “Hackerspaces and Money: Five Approaches“.

One point I glossed over is why I believe that money and organizational forms are so intertwined when it comes to hackerspaces.  This series could have been called, “Hackerspaces and Organizational Forms: Five Approaches.”  Admittedly, I’m not talking much about money, how to find it, raise it or spend it.  I haven’t talked much about fundraising, accounting or project management, though I plan to in the future.  In my observation, what happens in Hackerspaces doesn’t need to be managed or carefully organized.  Once Hackers gather in a space, they’ll begin creating and collaborating in ways that are remarkably similar regardless of culture, language or organizational form.  Projects and programs that happen in one space can easily happen in other spaces, only marginally constrained by the organizational form in practice.

I believe the “magic” that happens in Hackerspaces is universal, as are the two necessary evils:  Money and how to manage it.  Being physical spaces, Hackerspaces have real costs and real opportunities for meeting those costs.  Being collaborative spaces, the procedure for paying the bills involves some kind of relationship among the collaborators–that relationship is what we’re looking at when we discuss organizational forms.  Failing to understand this relationship among the collaborators makes any discussion of funding very difficult.   At the same time, carefully understanding these relationships as they’ve happened elsewhere gives future Hackerspaces the best chance of finding the right form for their own effort.

These forms are also heavily tied to the core source of income for each space.  The Anarchy form, for example, implies that the rents for a space are essentially appropriated.  The Angel form implies that they’re donated.  The Owner form implies that they’re taken care of by a single participant, who generally subsidizes them.  Both the Board and Membership forms implies that these costs are paid collectively by the participants, most often through membership dues.  Hackerspaces, regardless of form, can solicit donations from the public, host classes for a fee, throw rent parties, sell shirts online, or Club-Mate in the space.  However, each of those activities is handled differently depending on the form.

The Board Form

The Artifactory, Kwartzlab, Collexion, and Revelation Space are all different examples of the “Board” form.  While each space heavily relies on its membership, each space has an involved subset of members that makes decisions.  In a way, the “Board Form” is the least well-defined of the five forms and most prone to combination with other forms.  Founder Todd Wiley describes Collexion as a hybrid of the Angel and Board forms:

Our board consists of people from our local chamber of commerce, universities, and higher ups at the local big-name tech companies (Lexmark & HP).  This helps give us the legitimacy we need to raise funds.  The board likes that they are fostering innovation, and see it is an economic development boost, because Lexington loves brains more than zombies do.  The board is glad to help us organize things, find money, and host events, but most ideas come from the membership, where there isn’t a set hierarchy…By relying on outside sources we’re going to make membership as accessible as possible ($5 / month for students).  The less barriers there are to experimenting the better…I think it will be successful, and free up hackers to hack, and those that are interested enough can take the reins and try to find monies.

This series was inspired by Koen Martens, who also describes Revelation Space as a hybrid of the Membership and Board forms:

As you might remember, we from revspace (den haag) were in doubt about the structure to choose. In the end we settled for the ‘stichting’, basically number four, mixed with elements of a ‘vereniging’, number 5. The board is ultimately responsible, however we define ‘participants’ that have the right to install and deinstall the board, as well as advise the board.

In many cases, a Membership space will have a Board of Directors.  However, this doesn’t mean the space is taking on a Board Form, especially when a Board is required by corporate law.

The functional power that board has is the determining factor.  If the Board is essentially a paper tiger, with the membership in functional control of affairs, the space is probably best suited to the Membership form.  Punkin describes Kwartzlab as an example:

Legally, we’re Corporation Without Share Capital (Not-for-Profit), which matches “The Board”. We opted not to register as a Co-operative (which would more closely match “The Membership”), because the laws  governing Co-operatives are more restrictive, without offering us any useful benefits. But the Co-operative or “Membership” philosophy closely matches our vision for the space, so we borrow heavily from it in our bylaws, policies, and procedures…We are 100% member funded (with all members paying the same level of  dues), which was also very important to our initial membership. Any of the big decisions (like how much dues will be) are subject to a member vote, and all members-in-good-standing get an equal vote.

So, for lack of a better definition, if your space is primarily controlled by your members, it follows the Membership form.  If the members leave most of the decisions and money matters to a subset, it probably follows the Board form.  Landing firmly in one category or another is not necessarily that important, as long as the relationships of each are well understood.  Some Membership spaces may functionally slip back into a Board form, just like Board spaces often migrate into Membership spaces, or use the Board form as a bootstrapping step.

Bootstrapping

David Cake describes how the Artifactory is using the Board Form to bootstrap their way into a Membership Hackerspace:

Our brand new Perth space is a board elected by the membership, and so far while the board has been doing a lot of the work and taking the lead on a lot of the decisions, meetings with the entire members are making most of the major decisions. So I guess we fit into the membership category really, even though the board are making a lot of important decisions in the process of getting us up and running.

Raymond describes how Makers Local 256 used the Board form to bootstrap their effort:

Makers Local 256 is a non-profit 501c3 and would be considered “the membership” based, but I guess started out as “the board” based since the board is the original 10 members (changing soon given new bylaws and elections).

Makers Local 256 followed the critical mass pattern in establishing their hackerspace, with their original 10 members fulfilling the role of the 2+2 model.  Their unique dues model describes how a Board can help build membership in the early stages:

The original 10 pledged a monthly donation that they could afford and we found a space that fit within that budget. We decided that extending this to new membership was a good idea and so we don’t have to turn away someone who might offer a lot but might not have a lot of money.   A monthly pledge doesn’t have to be monetary but does fall under board discretion to ensure that said pledge benefits the space.

Martens has this to add:

Especially when bootstrapping, a board can bring the agility needed to get things off the ground. Especially in the first weeks/months a lot of decisions need to be made, while at the same time the membership is still getting used to each other and the whole idea. Having to discuss all these decisions with the membership at large (apart from the fact that we currently have no actual membership defined as we are still in the process of forming the legal entity) will slow down the process of setting up the space a lot.

Of course, we, as a board, are listening closely to what the potential membership wants, and actively seek the opinion of everyone involved in the space. In any volunteer-driven organization you will see different levels of commitment. In my experience, those that become part of the board have a high level of commitment, and don’t mind pulling in a few extra hours for the greater good.

Advantages

The notable advantages of a Board space are formal organization with less administrative overhead from the participants, as well a greater degree of formal control vested in fewer people.  In most cases where there isn’t a hybrid form with another style of organization, the advantages are remarkably similar to those of a Membershp organization.  Here, I’m looking at advantages of a Board form

  • Anarchy: Board spaces are (generally) official legal structures with explicit expectations and guidelines for operation and more stable bases of operation.
  • Angel: Most Angel arrangements take on some kind of Board form.  As in the case with Collexion, these Angels offer advice and consult with the organization through their board.  The advantages of having a board include greater independence.  In the hybrid form, the advantage of having a board generally involves a defined role for the Angels and the ability to swap or separate Angels if need be.
  • The Owner: Sometimes an Owner space will have a small, informal group of advisers.  However, the purpose of a Board is to have a group of people who make decisions as a group on behalf of the stakeholders.  In this case, the Board is somewhat accountable to its stakeholders whereas Owners may not be as accountable.  Board spaces generally offer greater freedom and flexibility and rarely exercise a kind of  “veto power” that Owners have by default.
  • Membership: Board run organizations tend to mediate disputes and prevent certain routine issues from getting to the Membership level.  Generally, this means more time for members to enjoy their space.

Disadvantages

The notable disadvantages over alternative forms are also similar to the Membership form:

  • Anarchy: Board spaces must periodically file paperwork, support the space through dues, stay on top of other legal requirements and fulfill their stated obligations.  This leaves less time for projects, hanging out, etc.
  • Angel: In the non-Angel form, Board members are often saddled with the heavy burden of coming up with the funds to run the space, and make tough calls on funding issues.
  • The Owner: Instead of having an owner to rely on for collecting and paying the rent, easily making special arrangements, mitigating disagreements among participants and having one “final say” on matters, Board members must come to agreement on certain issues or figure out ways to work around issues.
  • Membership: Ultimately, the Board is responsible for issues and decisions that otherwise might have been made by the membership.  While the Board can occasionally punt, even a routine decision may run afowl of the membership and lead to difficulties.

Another disadvantage cited by Martens is what he describes as an anti-pattern of complacency:

…some members may fall into a consumer-like attitude. Expect the board to do the heavy lifting, and merely consume what the spaces makes available. The board members, by nature, will have a tendency to pick up work that is left undone, because they have a strong drive to ‘make it work’. That might lead to overworked board members, an apathetic membership, and failure of the space. That’s a doom scenario, and normally there will be someone to pull on the emergency brake before this happens. But still, something to be aware of I think.

Conclusion

The Board form is good for Bootstrapping, and depending on the environment, a next best form to the Membership model.  Hackers are generally bad at paperwork and group dynamics, so having a Board to take care of the administrative overhead and mediate disputes can help ensure continuity and sustainability.  It also works well as a hybrid with other forms, or as a means for acting as a firewall between Angels, Owners and Members.  But beware of complacency!

As always, feel free to ask questions on the Hackerspaces Discuss list, or reach out to these spaces directly.

Categories : organization  people  theory

Hackerspaces & Money: The Membership Form

Nick Farr | Posted 2009.10.06 at 3:00 pm | Perma

Note: This is the first specific installment of a five part series on Hackerspace organization called “Hackerspaces and Money: Five Approaches“.

C-base. Noisebridge. C4. HacDC. They are officially recognized and organized as independent entities.   These spaces are funded, operated and controlled as directly as possible by their members.  They open their spaces up for events, classes and social gatherings, and eagerly invite new members to join.  These spaces are good examples of the Membership form of organization, the style of organization that most directly inspired the wave of spaces that began to form in late 2007, after Hackers on a Plane and that year’s Chaos Communications Camp.

While these spaces may make it look easy, bootstrapping a space under the Membership form of organization is often far more difficult than pursuing other forms of organization, especially when starting from scratch.  There are also other ongoing organizational challenges.  Ultimately, if something fails, members can only blame themselves.

Bootstrapping

Unlike Anarchy, Membership spaces require an official form of organization with explicit expectations, rights and responsibilities of members.  Unlike Angel spaces, Membership spaces require their members to contribute the bulk of what it takes to rent and operate the space.  Unlike Owner spaces, Members have an equal say in where to locate, how much to pay in rent and what projects to pursue with group funds.  While spaces run by a Board and spaces run by Members are largely similar, the degree of difference in control and responsibility can be substantial depending on the situation.

Following this formula, the first step in bootstrapping is officially forming an organization.  Incorporating is usually the first place where the 2+2 model from the critical mass pattern comes into play.  The 2+2 group is usually the first to sign the paperwork and contribute the startup funds necessary to secure and rent a space.

Even while the 2+2 group has an implicit authority by virtue of being founders and visionaries, all they can do is set an example, work on the tasks at hand and inspire others to help.  Without a space, these membership groups recruit others by reaching out over e-mail, attending conferences, dropping by local events such as DorkBot and Maker Meetups, and hosting their own workshops in shared spaces.  More members means more dues and resources, but it also means more opinions and potential for disagreement.

In some areas, the 2+2 group will often contribute a substantial boostrapping funds to execute a lease, after which the usual rent and expenses are paid for by member dues.  In many ways, it’s easier to “sell” potential members on the value of a space once it’s actually leased.  Some hackerspace efforts began collecting dues long before a space was leased, making the process of executing a lease a shared effort from the beginning.  In any case, once a group is large enough to pay the expenses, it’s safe to call the bootstrapping process over.

Advantages

The notable advantages over alternative forms are largely ones of legal compliance, independence and true democratic control:

  • Anarchy: Membership spaces are official legal structures with explicit expectations and guidelines for operation and more stable bases of operation.
  • Angel: While Membership spaces can generally collect donations from outside the group, core expenses are paid for by members and function entirely independently.
  • The Owner: Members are not accountable to the concerns of an owner, the nature of their business, living situation or other concerns.  As a group, members are free to use the space as they see fit, negotiate changes as a group of peers and have discussions where everyone is on equal footing.  There is no “veto power” in a Membership group.
  • The Board: Members generally stay informed to all operations of the group and generally participate in any discussions that make a substantial change in the group.  Instead of changing decisions made by a board, or waiting for a board election to intervene, decisions are made as a group from the beginning.

Disadvantages

The notable disadvantages over alternative forms require more work from the members and more time spent on administrative matters and potentially distracting disagreements:

  • Anarchy: Membership spaces must periodically file paperwork, support the space through dues, stay on top of other legal requirements and fulfill their stated obligations as members.  This leaves less time for projects, hanging out, etc.
  • Angel: Members are generally constrained by the resources they can obtain themselves.  Instead of having the space and cool projects paid for, members must assess dues and raise money to pay for rent and expenses.
  • The Owner: Instead of having an owner to rely on for collecting and paying the rent, easily making special arrangements, mitigating disagreements among participants and having one “final say” on matters, members must come to agreement on certain issues or figure out ways to work around issues.
  • The Board: Instead of electing someone you like to make decisions for you, members must spend time on an ongoing basis meeting to discuss issues and working to solve problems collectively.

Other observations

Talk of a fully democratic membership organization may be a bit misleading.  In any group, leaders will generally emerge.  Those founders who start spaces naturally fill a leadership role by guiding their space from nothing to existence.  Sometimes, in the best interests of getting the space going, founders will gloss over underlying issues within the group that form from differences of opinion.  Failure to resolve these in time usually results in group fragmentation that can lead to a group’s demise.

If the founders or other leaders who emerge exercise too much power, or hold onto it for too long, they can alienate others in the group or possibly even default in practice to another form of organization.

Another problem with fully democratic organizations is that members can always vote with their feet!  Failing to attract new members or high membership turnover is also a big problem with membership spaces.  Unlike Owner or Board spaces, every member is inherently responsible for creating the conditions that attract and retain members who help support the space.

Conclusion

While I strongly believe this form of organization is the best and most closely aligned with what hackers look for in a space, it’s not without its problems.  Hackers are generally bad at paperwork and group dynamics, so sometimes an alternative form of organization is the best course of action to pursue.  Sometimes ceding a little bit of control for the sake of having a space or keeping it open is the best thing to do.

However, if you’re serious about building a dynamic, sustainable space, you should consider following this model!  It’s worked throughout the world and with the right energy, it can work for you too.

Categories : organization  people  theory

Hackerspaces and Money: Five Approaches

Nick Farr | Posted 2009.09.13 at 7:04 am | Perma

You got hackers. They want a fixed space. Now what?

The next question probably comes down to money.  The biggest hurdles to bootstrapping and maintaining a Hackerspace involve the management of resources that have actual value.  Physical places, even ones which are “free”, require the payment of rent somewhere along the line.

A recent post on the Hackerspaces Discussion list points to the need for the right structure for organizing and managing the finances and resources of a Hackerspace.  It’s a question each Hackerspace effort needs to consider carefully and resolve for itself.  An organizational structure needs to accomodate each space’s unique culture and reconcile it to the various laws and conditions in play at the time of formation.

The five approaches I outline should be a good starting point for a discussion on the theory of Hackerspace organization.  When I look at how Hackerspaces have functioned in the past and how they function today, this framework of five categories seems to make the most sense to me.  That being said, odds are good that many spaces will not fit “cleanly” into any of these five categories.  Categories are clean, nature is messy.  We have to start somewhere.

So, the Five Types of Hackerspace Finance:

  1. Anarchy
  2. The Angels
  3. The Owner
  4. The Board
  5. The Membership

Anarchy

A few spaces have functioned quite well without an explicitly organized system for managing money.  Anarchy, as I use it, doesn’t mean the absence of order or even the absence of money.  In this context, I’m describing spaces where needs were met on an ad-hoc basis by those involved.  There may not be official dues, but a clear expectation that everyone involved needs to contribute something to make the effort work.  Certain Hackerspaces in squats, temporary spaces, basements and other places that can be had for “the taking” are the most common.  These efforts tend to prefer completely voluntary contributions and eschew explicit expectations.  Some spaces that are officially organized on paper prefer to operate as close to Anarchy as possible, preferring overarching concepts (i.e. “Be Excellent to Each Other”) to specific policies.

It is possible to run a very good hackerspace without any kind of official organization.  Were it not for legal matters, liability and a need for explicit order and hierarchies, it might be the preferred choice.

However, lots of reasons make Anarchy very difficult and unwieldy.  Often, when dealing with lots of different hackers who have lots of different ways of doing (especially hackers who prefer structure and order) Anarchy just can’t work.  There’s also the matter of accommodating new folks who may not share the viewpoints and collectivist spirit that otherwise make this style a possibility.

It’s worth noting that spaces in this category tend to have a strong political nature to them.  While this is not an inherently bad thing, spaces that are intensely political tend to alienate or divide people who “just want to hack”.

The Angels

For me, this is the most difficult category.  Angel spaces are ones that rely on outside sources, those that aren’t direct participants, for the vast majority of their support.  Hackerspaces in Universities, sponsored by Governments or ones that operate in other businesses without an explicit lease tend fall in this category.  Other spaces that may have their own facilities, but could not pay their bills without outside “Angels” fall under this heading.

The natural advantage of an Angel space is that they allow Hackers more time to hack and less time layering on and cutting through red tape.  In a perfect world, we’d all be able to rely on Angels to find spaces for us and stock them with all the parts and tools we need to make really cool projects. Of course, we aren’t living in a perfect world.

To be clear, I believe every space should attempt to seek some outside support, either through donated materials, equipment, special project grants, etc.  Most spaces do this, but only a handful I know of rely on Angels for ongoing support.  As a boostrapping step, calling on Angels is great idea.  Recruiting members is often difficult unless you have a space they can see and get excited about, and sometimes you need some help from above to get going.

However, relying on Angels can tend to make groups lazy about their finances, collecting dues or taking other steps to ensure continuity if the Angels pull their funding.  Spaces subsidized by Governments or Foundations tend not to plan for crises like what we’ve recently experienced and end up scrambling to survive when the funding comes to an abrupt end.  For example, what would have happened to a space funded by a Foundation that fully vested in Bernie Madoff?

The other big problem is that Angel spaces are almost always more constrained in their activities than truly independent ones.  Spaces in Universities in the US, for example, are often unable to host parties with Alcohol or make an effort to recruit those who aren’t students or somehow officially affiliated with the host University.  There’s also the matter of spaces constraining themselves and their activities so they do not anger or alienate the Angels that support them.

Because my theoretical focus is on continuity and inclusiveness, I’m naturally going to be more critical of Angel spaces.  If you’re part of an Angel space and see nothing wrong with it, speak up and say why it’s an ideal situation!

The Owner

Spaces of old like New Hack City and the Walnut Factory and current spaces like Hackerbot Labs fall under this category.  This category might also be called “Single Center of Gravity” because matters of signing the lease, collecting money for the rent and being accountable for liability concerns generally rest on one person’s shoulders. They usually have help and receive funds from those involved, but the money and legal recourse ultimately flows through them.  Otherwise, the advantages and disadvantages of spaces run by “The Owner” are largely the same as those for Angel spaces, except the owner is involved and generally the recognized leader of the Hackerspace.

Owners tend to be the de-facto financiers of the space by virtue of being the landlord, responsible for improvements and manager of any activities to raise money.  The first Hackerspaces in the US were traditionally founded and managed by one strong personality who probably found it easier to “just do it” than make an effort to start a separate organization and go through the requisite motions to keep it going.

Explicitly for-profit spaces, ones designed to make a profit, are also often started and financed by single entrepreneurs who are ultimately responsible for their operation.  These business owners that self-identify their shop as Hackerspaces and make an effort to cultivate community (as opposed to purely customers) are a relatively new thing that warrants close examination.

As far as traditional, non-profit Owner spaces go, the continued success of Hackerbot Labs speaks to the viability of the model.  I used to be a much harsher critic of these kinds of spaces, having seen owners get frustrated, give up and call people like me in to help clean up and wind down their space.

However, we need to look at all the models that work.  It may just be that your local crew of hackers needs a solid focal point and a single leader in lieu of a more collective form of management.

The Board

Most spaces based on the Design Patterns will fall in to either this or the final category.  Almost every Hackerspace that takes a corporate form will have a Board of Directors of some kind, as corporate law throughout the world generally requires it.  The Design Patterns suggest that Hackerspaces start with a small core of persons who usually comprise the first members and, by default, become the first Board of Directors. 

If this small core of persons continues to effectively own and control the Hackerspace, it falls in this category, However, if a space takes the suggestion of the Design Patterns, and hands over effective ownership and control to all those who support the space equally through dues or other means, it falls into the last category,

Sometimes, this isn’t always what you want to do. The question Koen posed in his post is one worth exploring and involves matters of law that differ across borders. Koen’s example cites Dutch law, where a stitching is a board and a vereniging is a membership organization:

“The difficulty is in judging what is right. On the one hand, the democratic principle of a ‘vereniging’ is very much compatible with my idea of how a hackerspace should operate. However, a ‘stichting’ is a safer keeper of things like money and equipment. This might be especially relevant if said money and equipment are injected by external parties. However, the ‘stichting’ can not have members, thus there is no ‘membership fee’: any money asked for usage of the facilities will to the tax office look very much like an entrance fee for a commercial service.”

And herein lies one of the biggest critical distinctions between these last two categories. Do you give members certain administrative control in exchange for their membership dues? Or do you end up paying taxes or losing potential revenue to keep closer control over resources?

Of course, the specific matters of law and taxes and their inherent advantages and disadvantages vary depending on the jurisdiction.  In general, the key advantage to a Board is the safety of having more control in the hands of fewer people.  The disadvantage is potentially marginalizing those participants who support the space and aren’t on the board. They might lose out on a certain sense of ownership that comes with being a fully member-controlled organization.

The Membership

Most Hackerspaces based on the Design Patterns fall in this category.  Generally, the space is run by members who each a specifically defined contribution in exchange for the benefits of having an equal say in the space’s operation and special privileges like a key, locker, etc.  They decide how much to pay in dues, who gets a key, where to locate and so on.

While these spaces will still have a Treasurer to handle the finances, a Secretary to take notes, a President to preside over meetings, etc. what these officers do is ultimately determined by the members.  Ideally, every member supports the space equally, through work or dues and gain a sense of equal ownership over the space itself.  The members set the agenda, make informed decisions on how to handle administrative matters and give specific direction to the officers.

Of course, there are disadvantages to having a membership organization.  What happens when you can’t get a quorum of enough members to make decisions?  What if your membership is apathetic to administrative concerns?  What if organizing is seen as too burdensome a requirement?  Sometimes, as through the first example, the benefits of membership can be effectively conveyed through means other than establishing an official membership organization.

As a quick side note, there are some spaces that are technically organized under one category and functionally operate under another.  The classic example is NYCResistor, which is formally organized as a for-profit Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) comprised of the original founders of the space.  Legally, they’re an entity run by a subset of the members, putting them in the previous category. Functionally, the larger and ever changing dues-paying membership has an equal say on each issue and they meet every Tuesday to discuss business.  The decision to become an LLC ultimately ended up being one of convenience and expedience.

The example of NYCR highlights two things.  First, each space may fall into several categories for any number of reasons.   (I could make a case that the Metalab falls into all of them!)  Second, this is a theoretical construct designed to help illustrate similarities in forms of organization. It’s a starting point for a conversation, not an explicit means of dividing Hackerspaces into groups.

Conclusion

I believe every place where Hackers go to make things and socialize is a valid Hackerspace.  Building Hackerspaces that last and are inclusive is a particular emphasis of mine, as I feel every hacker should have a nearby place to go, make, learn and socialize with kindred spirits.

Hackerspaces.org is about bringing all these spaces together and inspiring people to build their own.   The aim of this theoretical discussion is giving people the tools and background required to make more Hackerspaces happen.  Our emphasis in discussion should be on finding ways to work together, using criticism as a means for identifying pitfalls rather than a blow to the hard work of fellow hackers.

As always, this is just my own milepost in a much larger conversation meant to keep Hackerspaces going throughout the world.  Please take it and run with it! The spaces need your thoughts too.

The Rights and Obligations of Hackerspace Members

Nick Farr | Posted 2009.08.19 at 2:25 am | Perma

With Hacking at Random now behind us, giving us a fresh supply of hackers excited about the Hackerspaces movement, it’s worth noting that the “Design Patterns” by Ohlig and Skytee are now two years old. Initially presented after the first Hackers on a Plane, and later revised for the 24C3 and other conferences, the patterns are still the best guiding theory behind the global Hackerspace Movement.

Of course, the theory must keep up with the practice of Hackerspaces. One of the things I enjoy most about Defcon, HAR and the other conferences I attend are the intense discussions on Hackerspaces and the theory behind them. One of the biggest points of contemplation in the discussions I have are the differences between members, non-members and other casual visitors to local hackerspaces. Many in the community don’t have the time or resources to build a hackerspace or become a member. However, it is these “casual users” that help breathe life and vitality into today’s spaces, the ones that ensure the success of this global movement and the ones I believe we have an obligation to support and encourage to make this movement sustainable.

In an interview for HAR FM, I noted my belief that Hackerspace members do in fact have obligations that come with the rights and benefits of building and sustaining a Hackerspace. While the rights of membership are clear, such as having a key, a place to build and store projects and other special privileges, the obligations of membership are something not often discussed or even consciously realized.

Since each Hackerspace differs slightly on members and the issue of membership, I choose to define a member as a person directly involved with the upkeep and governance of a Hackerspace. Most members pay dues to cover rent and expenses and share the obligations of administration, publicity, documentation and other duties essential to keeping a space open and flourishing. Without these members, the Hackerspace itself would cease to exist.

It’s worth noting that Hackerspaces have been around for quite some time, the most notable being the L0pht in Boston. Founded in 1992, the L0pht began life as a storage space for Oblivion’s electronic and excess computer junk and, as he describes, “turned into quite a presence”. The wikipedia article on the L0pht shows how its members functioned in a role similar to those in hackerspaces today:

As L0pht occupied a physical space, it had real expenses such as electricity, phone, Internet access, and rent. Early in the L0pht’s history these costs were evenly divided between L0pht members. In fact, L0pht originally shared a space with a hat-making business run by the spouses of Brian Oblivion and Count Zero, and the rental cost was divided between these.

The key distinction between a space like the L0pht and a “Design Patterns” Hackerspace is that the latter actively engages those outside their direct membership and the former exists primarily to serve its members and their interests. Spaces like c-base and the C4 that inspired the Design Patterns exist as a venue for the local hacker community, in sharp contrast with spaces like the L0pht and spiritual successors like New Hack City (San Francisco). The distinction is very well put in an article about the hacker documentary Disinformation, and the challenges the filmmaker had shooting NHC and Cult of the Dead Cow members who built and sustained the space:

The hackers are seen chatting, goofing around, and demonstrating their break-in skills at one of their said-to-be San Francisco-based hangouts, the so-called New Hack City hacker social club. “Said-to-be” because the whereabouts of the clubhouses that host the spare-time activities of the Cult of the Dead Cow is a well-guarded secret.

That secrecy made life difficult for director Backer, who was constrained by time, money, and few opportunities to interview his subjects.

“They were very strict,” Backer said. “They blindfolded us and drove us around for a couple days, going in circles. Finally we got to their secret location, and I had no idea where I was. They said we were in San Francisco.”

Nearly a decade later and just down the street from where New Hack City existed, Wired wrote about Noisebridge, quoting founding member and TV-B-Gone inventor Mitch Altman who explained how Noisebridge operates on an entirely different philosophy inspired by the Design Patterns:

“In our society there’s a real dearth of community,” Altman says. “The internet is a way for people to key in to that need, but it’s so inadequate. [At hacker spaces], people get a little taste of that community and they just want more.”

Noisebridge even welcomes non-members to come use the space, and Altman says non-members can do everything that members can (except block the consensus process). The community governs itself according to the guiding principle expressed on a large poster of Keanu Reeves hanging from the loft: “Be excellent to each other, dudes.”

The spirit of excellence from Noisebridge not only covers how members must treat each other, it extends to how members should treat the community outside their membership, those that benefit from having a space nearby. This obligation is not a static one, as new members are almost always casual users first. There are also many casual users that spend a lot of time in hackerspaces, perhaps making more significant contributions than regular members, but decline to officially join for many different reasons.

Without these casual users, hackerspaces run the risk of disappearing like the L0pht and New Hack City did. Being welcoming to the outside world helps ensure our collective success and sustainability, helps show the world what hacking is all about and helps feed and cultivate projects and activities going on locally and globally. It leads to more hackerspaces and more resources for existing hackerspaces. It’s the kind of thing we should keep in mind when we build and maintain our spaces, that we’re not just in it for ourselves, we’re in it for our neighbors and our world.