The internet is littered with how-to step-by-step guides for starting and maintaining your very own hackerspace. Don’t worry, we’re not adding to the pile. If you want a checklist, Eric Michaud’s got that covered. Adventures in Hackerspacing is different: epic re-tellings, anecdotes, and behind-the-scene stories that fill in the gaps for those fragmented, laundry-list requirements. Here you’ll find nightmare scenarios come to life, clever legal loopholes to save the day, and overhauls that helped a space “click”. Adventures in Hackerspacing has plenty of advice to share, but like every good adventure, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
First up, Freeside Atlanta Part I: Philosophy and Culture.
I sat down with directors [Alan Fay] and [Steven Sutton] on a quiet summer evening to discuss how the space found redemption and success with its philosophy of promoting diversity and embracing humility.
In 1999 when I was a freshman in high school and Flash animations screamed “This website is professional! Just look at those shape tweens!,“ my friend [Brian] introduced me to the wonder that is Zombo.com. If you’ve never visited, you should. It’s as hilarious now as it was in 1999. Now, fourteen years later, [Brian] is a member at Freeside. He also introduced me to [Alan], who admits that he completely reappropriated the hackerspace’s unofficial motto directly from Zombocom:
The only limit is yourself.
[Alan] explains that Freeside used to be disorganized, divided into individual workspaces that excluded new members from participating and prevented existing members from collaborating. Hackers are, despite their creativity and resourcefulness, typically introverted and reluctant to participate in such a space. Freeside needed an overhaul.
[Steven] and [Alan] spent nearly a year cultivating what they call a “culture of humility,” rallying members to embrace the philosophy above all else. It’s a model that promotes diversity—particularly diversity of skill sets—where each unique talent has value and members are encouraged to barter their skills.
[Alan] eliminated all claims to territories and replaced them with zones dedicated to a function rather than an individual. There’s a 3D printing area, a woodworking shop, and electronics stations. The zones exist based on member interest, and underused zones, like the former “video blogging” station, are killed off when interest wanes.
You might expect the Freeside directors to run the show, guiding members down different paths and making day-to-day decisions. You’d be wrong. As [Steven] puts it, the service at Freeside is terrible. He and [Alan] have transitioned to a custodial role, where they spend a lot of time taking out the trash. It’s their way of leading by example, and it allows them to inspire rather than enforce. This brings us back to the philosophy of Zombocom. If you asked [Alan] whether Freeside can have a biohacking zone, you’d get this response:
I’m in the business of saying ‘yes.’ I tell a member yes, but then I qualify it: it’s up to you…The way I describe the space is that it’s a bottom-up environment. It’s created by the people who build it. Most things in your life are top-down. Your office is designed by an employer for you. Your home, unless you are awesome rich, is designed by another person and you pretty much live with it. Those are kind of the only things you can hack: your home, to some extent that you don’t bother the homeowner’s association, and Freeside, where everything is possible.
And everything is, as long as you’re willing to do it yourself. Each new project is an experiment. The leadership’s goal is to empower members and to give them the tools to succeed while still allowing failure. Directors try not to interfere with projects or classes and work primarily to prevent confusing rather than to enforce limits.
Even the substructure of the leadership is its own experiment. As Freeside’s membership grows, different responsibilities are delegated to officers and teams. It’s a strategy aimed at distributing power to prevent a handful of individuals from having too much control while retaining a sense of hierarchy and responsibility.
It’s an experiment that seems to be working.
Join Adventures in Hackerspacing next week for Freeside Part II: Hacking the Hackerspace, where I’ll cover some of the space’s more interesting nuts and bolts and share some tips from directors [Alan] and [Steven].