A Very Personal Ramble Down Hackday Memory Lane

Some weeks ago, my colleague, the amazing, globe-trotting Sophie Major, who heads up YDN International, asked me to do a post about hack days at Yahoo!. We wanted to share some thoughts about the concept of an "Open Hack" event as tool for collaborative web development, and to raise awareness of London Open Hack 2009, a Yahoo! hack day weekend that takes place tomorrow and runs through Sunday. You may have seen our our Open Hack mascots. They've been spotted now on several continents:


Photo credit: Jinho.Jung on flickr

Today, here I am, a jetlagged, wide-eyed Yankee in London, ready to experience Open Hack London 2009, writing a blogpost that's long overdue. Honestly, I can't think of anywhere I'd rather spend Mother's Day weekend. I'll be covering the scene, watching hackers present "appropriate applications of ingenuity" -- feats of coding that happen over a 24-hour period, often accompanied by vast quantities of pizza and beer, followed by snacks and caffeinated beverages (or sometimes sausage and mash). Developers from the UK and beyond will come to Congress Centre, Covent Garden, to explore Yahoo!'s tools and open platforms.

Day 1 consists of talks and sessions, followed by entertainment and a marathon night of coding. Coders will be able to spend time with the Yahoo! developers who wrote the APIs, libraries, SDKs, and services that can serve as the building blocks for their interesting applications -- clever things that are built to scratch an itch, test an idea, steal attention, impress the judges (and the audience). On Sunday, Day 2, hackers will have a chance to present their handiwork. I can't wait to see what's created and what happens along the way.

Prelude to a culture of hack

Less than a fortnight ago, I noted the 11th anniversary of my start date at Yahoo. I was hired as a web-surfer, cataloging websites for the Yahoo! Directory. In the spring of 1998, the web was growing at a phenomenal pace, and we still believed that human curators could keep up.

Back in that golden age of librarians, the surfers at Yahoo! were a village of artisans -- cathedral builders, each of us with our own specialized knowledge, crafting categories, extending taxonomy. Parent and child, leaf and node: our web-driven hierarchy of information seemed sensible, and endlessly extensible. We shared each new category amongst ourselves, we argued over top-level taxonomy changes. After all, the directory was the front page of Yahoo!. At first, we believed that nothing was miscellaneous, that there was a place for everything, and that order would prevail. At first, we didn't quite see the bazaar that was springing up around us, out beyond the cathedral square, down unmarked pathways and unruly back-alleys, out past the gates of what was becoming more than a marketplace, more than a village -- an endless megalopolis of the flattening world.

By late 1998, by the time Viaweb had become Yahoo! Store, and plans were laid for building Yahoo! Clubs (a precursor to Groups) and Yahoo! Shopping (an aggregation engine for e-commerce), it was obvious that the world was changing. Much of this transformation could be attributed to the energy and passion of everyday HTML hackers, cut-and-paste JavaScript junkies, and a new cadre of web design aesthetes and shameless online marketers and disruptors riding the WWW racehorse.

?There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members of this culture originated the term ?hacker?. ? Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're a hacker.

The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics or music ? actually, you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art. Software hackers recognize these kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them ?hackers? too ? and some claim that the hacker nature is really independent of the particular medium the hacker works in." --Eric Raymond

In those days I read Eric Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. I noted the passing of Jon Postel, and created a page in his memory. Words like globalization, monetization, and noosphere entered my vocabulary. I moved from web-surfing to Yahoo!'s tiny editorial team. We wrote Yahoo! Picks: getting picked by Yahoo! then was like being slashdotted. Around this time, I began to notice a new genre of personal homepage (as we used to call them) -- the weblog. The genre name was famously shortened to blog, and I created the dir.yahoo.com/News_and_Media/Blogs.

The bust... and back

In 2000, the dotcom bubble burst. We all read F*cked Company. The freeway traffic was lighter that year in Silicon Valley. Then 9/11 happened. The world changed. Yahoo! survived. A year past.

In 2002, Yahoo! decided to build an online memorial on the first anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. In many ways, remember.yahoo.com was a hack. A small, volunteer team of engineers, designers, writers, and execs worked tirelessly during the week leading up to 9/11/2002. This would be a place where anyone on the web, anywhere in the world could express and share their sentiments, their memories, their grief. This would also be Yahoo!'s first public implementation of PHP. Several weeks later, PHP programmer Rasmus Lerdorf began to work at Yahoo!. That unfortunate acronym, UGC (for user-generated content), didn't exist yet, but there we were, with an outpouring of emotion and expression created by tens of thousands of people from all over the net. The bazaar was not just for commerce. It was social. Expressive. Dynamic. It was a big deal--and it was by and for and about anyone and everyone.

By early 2003, I'd discovered RSS. I began to read dozens of blogs daily, and around this time became aware of fellow Yahoo bloggers like JR Conlin, Jeffrey Friedl, and Jeremy Zawodny (the hacker-blogger first wave at Yahoo!). My first RSS reader was called Amphetadesk, and I was very much a tweaker for feeds, moving from the relatively civilized cluetrain conversation to the runaway train of "continuous partial attention" (although I wouldn't hear that term for a couple more years).

In the meantime, Yahoo! and the web were growing and changing. Google search and the principle of pagerank were making information access ad hoc, instantaneous, and limitless. The walls of taxonomy were tumbling down, giving way to a serendipitous new form of information disorder that Thomas Vander Wal famously dubbed folksonomy, and that David Weinberger celebrated a few years later in Everything is Miscellaneous. In 2003, Yahoo announced its intention to acquire Overture, an interesting company originally called goto.com, which had pioneered the idea of commercial search, an idea that Google was extending through the evolution of AdSense.

A renaissance of exuberance

Time marched on. At Yahoo!, I began to hear more talk about social software and social networks, about blogging platforms and network graphs. Yahoo! launched its own search technology in 2004, and later that year, Yahoo!'s first official corporate blog, the Yahoo! Search blog was born. People I'd thought of as inaccessible web aristocracy began turning up as Yahoo! employees--an eclectic mix that included danah boyd, Jess Barron, Randy Farmer, Marti Hearst, Christina Wodtke, and Eric Wu.

By 2005, this trend had picked up pace -- Yahoo! acquired Flickr, and around the company, product development teams were asking themselves "what would Flickr do (wwfd)?" Company leaders spoke about Yahoo! 2.0. I wrote my first bylined blog post for the search blog in February 2005, although I'd been writing for Yahoo since 1999. I felt like I'd really arrived. That same month, Yahoo! Search launched a developer network (and the YDN was born).

Then in December 2005, our first hack day happened. Jeremy blogged it. I stood in the back of the room that dark winter day and watched the presentations. Shivers went up my spine: the camaderie, the humor, the spirit of play, the energy of creative mischief afoot. I had the exalted sense of Havi Hoffmanng witnessed something important. It was the first of many quarterly hack days. I remember one where we sat for hours and hours on a sunny summer Friday afternoon, watching nearly one hundred hack demos.

Going public (with puppets)

Great brainchildren have many parents. In 2006, Chad Dickerson began to run Yahoo!'s hack day program. Yahoo! had become a mecca for creative coding. We had our mojo back, and by autumn 2006, even Beck knew it. September 29-30, 2006 was the Woodstock of hack days. People who were nowhere near Sunnyvale, California testified later that they had seen the puppet show, drank the Red Bull, eaten the donuts. Hundreds came. People fell in love, changed career paths, started businesses, made great connections, or went home and slept it off. Many outside the industry finally understood the difference between hackers and crackers. Many were inspired to create hack events of their own. I was one of those.

In November 2006, we produced a small event called TimeCapsule camp, a day of digital media creation facilitated by the folks at the Go Game and some other hacker-collaborators. We invited maker Bre Pettis and a buddy of his to do kite aerial photography over Yahoo!'s campus, but on that warm still November afternoon there was no wind, no hope for kite-flying. "Balloons," said one of my resourceful colleagues, "I know where to find the helium tank." We were back in business. The business of balloon aerial photography. The hack was with us.

The beat goes on

In early 2007, we invited the winners of Open Hack Day to participate in Yahoo's Maker Faire pavilion. We asked Uncommon Projects, designers of the ybox -- a set-top box for RSS feeds that fit into an altoids tin, to design a kit and present ybox-building workshops for Maker Faire attendees. We invited the creators of the winning blogging purse to bring their blogging-in-motion purse for photowalks around Maker Faire.

A year or so later, in a juxtaposition of these two winning hacks, the guys from Uncommon Projects were commissioned by Yahoo! to design and build some very special purple bicycles, a fleet of ybikes that geotag and upload photos to Flickr. (One of that fleet of purple pedals will be in London tomorrow. If you're here you can ride it. )


Photo credit: jaygooby on flickr

In 2007, amazing hackdays came to London, then Bangalore. In 2008, I joined the Yahoo Developer Network to work on YDN content and event strategy, and was charged with planning Sunnyvale's second Open Hack Day. It was an exciting time. We pre-released the Yahoo! Open Strategy platform, including our social platform, application platform, and YQL. We invited our friends from Uncommon Projects to bring back a couple of the purple bicycles they'd built. And then we took the show on the road. The second Sunnyvale Open Hack was followed by hackday events around the world: Taiwan, Brazil, back to Bangalore in January, and now back to London. Because, it turns out, the habit of hack is hard to kick, and I believe that's a very good thing - for Yahoo! and for you, dear reader.

Havi Hoffman
Yahoo! Developer Network