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Are We Building or Hacking the Future of Journalism?

Language can be powerful, and sometimes the words we choose can frame the range of what is possible. This was the undercurrent of a Twitter debate around the terms for two very different kinds of events: "Barnraisings" versus "Hackathons."


  1. What follows is an illustrated look at both words, and the debate around them.

    Here is the Tweet that started it all and a comparison of the definition and etymology of both words.
  2. From Wikipedia: "A hackathon, a hacker neologism, is an event when programmers meet to do collaborative computer programming. The spirit of a hackathon is to collaboratively build programs and applications. Hackathons are typically between several days and a week in length. A hackathon refers not simply to one time hacks, but to a specific time when many people come together to hack on what they want to, how they want to - with little to no restrictions on direction or goal of the programming."
  3. From Wikipedia: "In earlier American rural life, communities raised barns because many hands were required. In areas that were sparsely settled or on the edge of the frontier, it was not possible to hire carpenters or other tradesmen to build a barn... Barn raisings occurred in a social framework with a good deal of interdependence."

  4. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the roots of build and hack describe two very different actions, one focused on constructing, the other on deconstructing:

    Hack: (v.1) "to cut roughly, cut with chopping blows," c.1200, from verb found in stem of O.E. tohaccian "hack to pieces," from W.Gmc. *hakkon (cf. O.Fris. hackia"to chop or hack," Du. hakken, O.H.G. hacchon, Ger. hacken), from PIE *keg- "hook, tooth." Perhaps influenced by O.N. höggva "to hack, hew" (cf.hacksaw). Slang sense of "cope with" (such as in can't hack it) is first recorded in Amer.Eng. 1955, with a sense of "get through by some effort," as a jungle (cf. phrase hack after "keep working away at" attested from late 14c.). Related: Hacked; hacking.

    Build: late O.E. byldan "construct a house," verb form of bold "house," from P.Gmc. *buthlam (cf. O.Fris. bodel "building, house"), from PIE *bhu- "to dwell," from base *bheue- "to be, exist, grow" (see be). Rare in O.E.; in M.E. it won out over more common O.E. timbran. Modern spelling is unexplained.
  5. But both words have been adapted and changed in the context of media and technology.

  6. From Prometheus Radio Project: "Barnraisings are our favorite way to build a radio station. In the spirit of the Amish barnraising tradition, in which an entire community gathers to support one family and build together, Prometheus holds radio barnraisings to build community along with stations. These events bring together local station volunteers with low power radio advocates from around the region and sometimes the world. Engineers, students, journalists, lawyers, musicians, activists and other folks gather to build a studio, raise an antenna mast, and put the station on air for the first time - all over the course of three days. Meanwhile, volunteer facilitators lead workshops on a wide variety of topics relating to new radio stations. Subjects include FCC regulations, radio engineering, citizen lobbying and media reform advocacy, programming, fundraising, and movement-building."

  7. From Hacks/Hackers: "Journalists sometimes call themselves “hacks,” a tongue-in-cheek term for someone who can churn out words in any situation. Hackers use the digital equivalent of duct tape to whip out code. Hacks/Hackers tries to bridge those two worlds. It’s for hackers exploring technologies to filter, visualize and distribute information, and for hacks who use technology to find and tell stories. Hacks/Hackers is a digital community of people who seek to inspire each other, share information (and code) and collaborate to invent the future of media and journalism. This group is to bring all these people together — those who are working to help people make sense of their world. It’s for hackers exploring technologies to filter and visualize information, and for journalists who use technology to find and tell stories. In the age of information overload, all their work has become even more crucial."

  8. In both the case of hacking and building we are starting with a set of materials, employing tools, and creating something new. And yet, the meaning and context of the two words seem very distinct. 
  9. What do these words look like?

  10. Interestingly, a Google image search for the two words produces images that are very different but share some similar characteristics. While the settings and the tools differ between the two sets, both highlight people coming together around some concrete challenge. 
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    Screen Shot 2012-01-21 at 11.54.12 AM
  12. Screen Shot 2012-01-21 at 11.53.46 AM
    Screen Shot 2012-01-21 at 11.53.46 AM
  13. Annie Shreffler noted how the idea of collaborative joint problem sollving connects both these ideas. 
  14. A quick Google search highlights how others have employed that metaphor as well.