Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

The Hacker Way

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On December 21, 2012, Blake Ross—the boy genius behind Firefox and currently Facebook’s Director of Product—posted this to his Facebook page:

Some friends and I built this new iPhone app over the last 12 days. Check it out and let us know what you think!

The new iPhone app was Facebook Poke. One of the friends was Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO. The story behind the app’s speedy development and Zuckerberg’s personal involvement holds lessons for the practice of digital humanities in colleges and universities.

Late last year, Facebook apparently entered negotiations with the developers of Snapchat, an app that lets users share pictures and messages that “self-destruct” shortly after opening. Feeding on user worries about Facebook’s privacy policies and use and retention of personal data, in little more than a matter of weeks, Snapchat had taken off among young people. By offering something Facebook didn’t—confidence that your sexts wouldn’t resurface in your job search—Snapchat exploded.

It is often said that Facebook doesn’t understand privacy. I disagree. Facebook understands privacy all too well, and it is willing to manipulate its users’ privacy tolerances for maximum gain. Facebook knows that every privacy setting is its own niche market, and if its privacy settings are complicated, it’s because the tolerances of its users are so varied. Facebook recognized that Snapchat had filled an unmet need in the privacy marketplace, and tried first to buy it. When that failed, it moved to fill the niche itself.

Crucially for our story, Facebook’s negotiations with Snapchat seem to have broken down just weeks before a scheduled holiday moratorium for submissions to Apple’s iTunes App Store. If Facebook wanted to compete over the holiday break (prime time for hooking up, on social media and otherwise) in the niche opened up by Snapchat, it had to move quickly. If Facebook couldn’t buy Snapchat, it had to build it. Less than two weeks later, Facebook Poke hit the iTunes App Store.

Facebook Poke quickly rose to the top of the app rankings, but has since fallen off dramatically in popularity. Snapchat remains among iTunes’ top 25 free apps. Snapchat continues adding users and has recently closed a substantial round of venture capital funding. To me Snapchat’s success in the face of such firepower suggests that Facebook’s users are becoming savvier players in the privacy marketplace. Surely there are lessons in this for those of us involved in digital asset management.

Yet there is another lesson digital humanists and digital librarians should draw from the Poke story. It is a lesson that depends very little on the ultimate outcome of the Poke/Snapchat horse race. It is a lesson about digital labor.

hackerMark Zuckerberg is CEO of one of the largest and most successful companies in the world. It would not be illegitimate if he decided to spend his time delivering keynote speeches to shareholders and entertaining politicians in Davos. Instead, Zuckerberg spent the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas writing code. Zuckerberg identified the Poke app as a strategic necessity for the service he created, and he was not too proud to roll up his sleeves and help build it. Zuckerberg explained the management philosophy behind his “do it yourself” impulse in the letter he wrote to shareholders prior to Facebook’s IPO. In a section of the letter entitled “The Hacker Way,” Zuckerberg wrote:

The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it – often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo….

Hacking is also an inherently hands-on and active discipline. Instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works. There’s a hacker mantra that you’ll hear a lot around Facebook offices: “Code wins arguments.”

Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win – not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people….

To make sure all our engineers share this approach, we require all new engineers – even managers whose primary job will not be to write code – to go through a program called Bootcamp where they learn our codebase, our tools and our approach. There are a lot of folks in the industry who manage engineers and don’t want to code themselves, but the type of hands-on people we’re looking for are willing and able to go through Bootcamp.

Now, listeners to Digital Campus will know that I am no fan of Facebook, which I abandoned years ago, and I’m not so naive as to swallow corporate boilerplate hook, line, and sinker. Nevertheless, it seems to me that in this case Zuckerberg was speaking from the heart and the not the wallet. As Business Insider’s Henry Blodget pointed out in the days of Facebook’s share price freefall immediately following its IPO, investors should have read Zuckerberg’s letter as a warning: he really believes this stuff. In the end, however, whether it’s heartfelt or not, or whether it actually reflects the reality of how Facebook operates, I share my colleague Audrey Watters’ sentiment that “as someone who thinks a lot about the necessity for more fearlessness, openness, speed, flexibility and real social value in education (technology) — and wow, I can’t believe I’m typing this — I find this part of Zuckerberg’s letter quite a compelling vision for shaking up a number of institutions (and not just “old media” or Wall Street).”

There is a widely held belief in the academy that the labor of those who think and talk is more valuable than the labor of those who build and do. Professorial contributions to knowledge are considered original research while librarians and educational technologists’ contributions to these endeavors are called service. These are not merely imagined prejudices. They are manifest in human resource classifications and in the terms of contracts that provide tenure to one group and, often, at will employment to the other.

Digital humanities is increasingly in the public eye. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Economist all have published feature articles on the subject recently. Some of this coverage has been positive, some of it modestly skeptical, but almost all of it has focused on the kinds of research questions digital humanities can (or maybe cannot) answer. How digital media and methods have changed humanities knowledge is an important question. But practicing digital humanists understand that an equally important aspect of the digital shift is the extent to which digital media and methods have changed humanities work and the traditional labor and power structures of the university. Perhaps most important has been the calling into question of the traditional hierarchy of academic labor which placed librarians “in service” to scholars. Time and again, digital humanities projects have succeeded by flattening distinctions and divisions between faculty, librarians, technicians, managers, and students. Time and again, they have failed by maintaining these divisions, by honoring traditional academic labor hierarchies rather than practicing something like the hacker way.

Blowing up the inherited management structures of the university isn’t an easy business. Even projects that understand and appreciate the tensions between these structures and the hacker way find it difficult to accommodate them. A good example of an attempt at such an accommodation has been the “community source” model of software development advanced by some in the academic technology field. Community source’s successes and failures, and the reasons for them, illustrate just how important it is to make room for the hacker way in digital humanities and academic technology projects.

As Brad Wheeler wrote in EDUCAUSE Review in 2007, a community source project is distinguished from more generic open source models by the fact that “many of the investments of developers’ time, design, and project governance come from institutional contributions by colleges, universities, and some commercial firms rather than from individuals.” Funders of open source software in the academic and cultural heritage fields have often preferred the community source model assuming that, because of high level institutional commitments, the projects it generates will be more sustainable than projects that rely mainly on volunteer developers. In these community source projects, foundations and government funding agencies put up major start-up funding on the condition that recipients commit regular staff time—”FTEs”—to work on the project alongside grant funded staff.

The community source model has proven effective in many cases. Among its success stories are Sakai, an open source learning management system, and Kuali, an open source platform for university administration. Just as often, however, community source projects have failed. As I argued in a grant proposal to the Library of Congress for CHNM’s Omeka + Neatline collaboration with UVa’s Scholars’ Lab, community source projects have usually failed in one of two ways: either they become mired in meetings and disagreements between partner institutions and never really get off the ground in the first place, or they stall after the original source of foundation or government funding runs out. In both cases, community source failures lie in the failure to win the “hearts and minds” of the developers working on the project, in the failure to flatten traditional hierarchies of academic labor, in the failure to do it “the hacker way.”

In the first case—projects that never really get off the ground—developers aren’t engaged early enough in the process. Because they rely on administrative commitments of human resources, conversations about community source projects must begin with administrators rather than developers. These collaborations are born out of meetings between administrators located at institutions that are often geographically distant and culturally very different. The conversations that result can frequently end in disagreement. But even where consensus is reached, it can be a fragile basis for collaboration. We often tend to think of collaboration as shared decision making. But as I have said in this space before, shared work and shared accomplishment are more important. As Zuckerberg has it, digital projects are “inherently hands-on and active”; that “instead of debating for days whether a new idea is possible or what the best way to build something is, hackers would rather just prototype something and see what works”; that “the best idea and implementation should always win—not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.” That is, the most successful digital work occurs at the level of work, not at the level of discussion, and for this reason hierarchies must be flattened. Everyone has to participate in the building.

In the second case—projects that stall after funding runs out—decisions are made for developers (about platforms, programming languages, communication channels, deadlines) early on in the planning process that may deeply affect their work at the level of code sometimes several months down the road. These decisions can stifle developer creativity or make their work unnecessarily difficult, both of which can lead to developer disinterest. Yet experience both inside and outside of the academy shows us that what sustains an open source project after funding runs out is the personal interest and commitment of developers. In the absence of additional funding, the only thing that will get bugs fixed and forum posts answered are committed developers. Developer interest is often a project’s best sustainability strategy. As Zuckerberg says, “hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete.” But they have to want to do so.

When decisions are made for developers (and other “doers” on digital humanities and academic technology projects such as librarians, educational technologists, outreach coordinators, and project managers), they don’t. When they are put in a position of “service,” they don’t. When traditional hierarchies of academic labor are grafted onto digital humanities and academic technology projects that owe their success as much to the culture of the digital age as they do to the culture of the humanities, they don’t.

Facebook understands that the hacker way works best in the digital age. Successful digital humanists and academic technologists do too.

[This post is based on notes for a talk I was scheduled to deliver at a NERCOMP event in Amherst, Massachusetts on Monday, February 11, 2013. The title of that talk was intended to be “‘Not My Job': Digital Humanities and the Unhelpful Hierarchies of Academic Labor.” Unfortunately, the great Blizzard of 2013 kept me away. Thankfully, I have this blog, so all is not lost.]

[Image credit: Thomas Hawk]

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Weekend Reading: Funding Higher Education Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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