Thursday, December 9, 2010

Some thoughts on hackerspaces

Of course, the world is replete with articles like this but I recently had cause to write down my thoughts on the issue and I feel like a little more on it couldn't hurt.

Why did I get involved in Twin Cities Maker back in 2009, before there was a space?  Simple- I wanted to be part of a MEATSPACE community of people that likes to make stuff.  It didn't exist, so when I found the group, there was no way I could NOT get involved.  I think people who worry too much about virtual space replacing "real" interactions should look at hackerspaces as a dynamite counterexample.  By definition, the people who are involved in these groups are the most likely to be tech savvy, the most likely to participate in online communities of informational interchange about their hobbies, the most likely to be creative basement hermits, AND YET, increasingly, they are seeking out face-to-face interaction as an adjunct to their online work.

The tools, the workshop space, the raw material bins: these things, alone, aren't enough.  Oftentimes, I've given people a tour of the Hack Factory and, at the end, they'll say "that's great, but I have most of these tools in my garage.  Why should I pay $50 a month to use them here?" (usually, the touree has an "I-can't-believe-you-haven't-thought-of-this" smirk when they say that).  And I usually say to them, "if that's how you're going to look at it, the Hack Factory probably isn't the right place for you."  They see an underfunded, understaffed, under-equipped TechShop, but a hackerspace collective requires a different mental model than a TechShop, in much the same way as a farmer's market is from a grocery store.  Sure, the superficial trappings are similar (tools for use/food to purchase) but if you've shopped at a farmer's market, the difference is immediately apparent- people sitting, having coffee, chatting with the vendors and one another.  In a word, community, which is the key to a hackerspace being successful- and it's what those people with the spiffy garage workshops don't understand.  

TechShop is, in a way, a cargo cult realization of the concept- a belief that if you put a bunch of tools in a building and charge admission, people (and money) will show up.  The Hack Factory is, in fact, a building wrapped around a community, and tools and materials have shown up- the community created the value of the space.  I'm not knocking TechShop; in a place that's flush with technical types and cash (Silicon Valley), it's a great idea, and I have no doubt that a lot people who go to TechShop feel a sense of community there, as well.  But in most places, the dedication of the individual to the community is more important than the willingness to pony up $100 a month, because you'll find more dedicated amateurs willing to pay $50 (and a parcel of their time) to support a community they believe in than you will to pay $100 for a little extra workshop space and some fancy tools.

Chris Anderson talks a lot (in his book, Free) about these dedicated amateurs, and the value of recognition to these people (us, I should say) as a compensation for their work, and why a lot of online communities attract people to do really high quality work for recognition rather than cash (Wikipedia).  Hackerspaces attract the same sort of person that will spend hours writing and researching a Wikipedia article- they get a charge from the pride of producing a fine piece of work and knowing people appreciate it.  The hackerspace, of course, puts it into meatspace, which (for some folks) increases the relative value to a point where people are not only willing to do the work for free, they are willing to PAY to support the community that enables that appreciation.

In the end, I suspect it's all about finding "your" people- people who understand the motivation behind making something that you could buy, buying something perfectly usable just for the parts inside, people who not only don't mock your three-story mobile toolkit, they think it's pretty cool.  $50 a month seems like a bargain.

1 comment: