Hack to Front

Image courtesy Hackers of NY

The founder of Hackers of NY tells us how the site became an international phenomenon

The Tumblr blog Hackers of NY launched in February this year and very quickly became a phenomenon, spawning spin off sites everywhere from Miami to Bangalore – there’s now a “Hackers of…” in 9 countries and 13 cities.

It was all the brainchild of NYU undergraduate Dani Grant, who created the site in an attempt to reclaim the moniker “hacker”. We talked with Grant, as well as Hackers of LA founding editor Terri Burns (also an NYU undergrad), about the sites’ runaway success.

The interview also reveals how the misogynistic behavior that’s plagued hacker and tech culture can infiltrate even the most uplifting of projects.

Wakefield: When you launched Hackers of NY, was it always going to be this kind of Humans of New York format, with a large image and interview text?

Dani Grant: You’re going to laugh – when I first started I thought it was going to be the first Snapchat blog. I wanted to interrupt people for ten seconds of their day and say “This is a person who is doing this right now, check them out.”

W: And how long did that last?

DG: Three posts. No one was happy with the information they were receiving… [laughs] It wasn’t working, and Tumblr is a great format for a blog.

W: What has surprised you about the community as it’s grown?

DG: We’re very lucky in that we get to see comments from people all over the world, talking about hacks and hackers. And recently, we noticed that we have to delete many of the comments made about women hackers. People say things like “I would hack her,” or “She’s not a hacker, she’s a stripper” which is not okay.

W: So as the site grew you found the Internet trolls kind of came out?

DG: Yeah, what’s interesting is how comfortable people seem to be making these comments with their names and Facebook profiles attached.

W: They’re not even anonymous?

DG: No, and I think it offers this really interesting insight into the tech world and something that not everyone gets to see everyday.

W: Is there a solution to all of this, aside from constantly policing the comments?

DG: I think every community has its problems, but the hacker ethic strives to solve problems. So I don’t think this is going to be a problem for long – the hacker community is working on it.

W: What was the first moment you realized that the site had reached this critical mass?

DG: It was the first TechCrunch article about us in June. It’s so funny, they never interviewed me, and I actually received an email afterwards from the woman who wrote it… It came as a total surprise. It was the best day.

Terri Burns: I remember that day really well. I remember waking up and I had a text from my friend that was like “Hackers is on TechCrunch!”

W: So how has the site suddenly exploded into this international phenomenon?

DG: When people hear about the hacker community being celebrated, they want theirs to join in. So, for example, in Romania hackers are known as this cheap labor that you outsource to, but they want their community to be celebrated for all the individual projects.

Another example is in Santa Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Last year, they had no startups, and this year they have twelve, and it’s someone in that startup scene, in that hacker scene that wants to celebrate those twelve.

W: How do you find your profile subjects?

TB: The tech scene in LA is definitely not as real as it is here, so I reached out to a lot of universities, and I was cold emailing people saying “Hey do you want to sit down for half an hour and just chat?” People got really excited about it and they would recommend their friends… so I was able to find out about people who were working on projects that I would otherwise have no idea about.

W: And what’s the future of “Hackers of…”?

DG: We’re planning something right now – it’s still super new and super in the works. The idea is a worldwide hack night, every hacker in their community gets together in their respective cities, and just hacks together for a few hours.

You can check out all the “Hackers of…” sites here.

Now go forth (and hack at it).

This interview has been edited and condensed