Adventures In Hackerspacing: Freeside Atlanta, Part I


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 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].

12 thoughts on “Adventures In Hackerspacing: Freeside Atlanta, Part I

  1. I visited Freeside a few times, within about year of when it was established. Although I don’t live in Atlanta anymore, I’d be curious to see what it’s like now.

    “Freeside used to be disorganized, divided into individual workspaces that excluded new members from participating and prevented existing members from collaborating.”

    I definitely felt that this was true when I visited. It seemed like they may have been unprepared for the rapid growth rate that they received. By the time I started going to meetings, it seemed like they were more eager to turn away new members, and the lack of organization was starting to breed hostility.

    I think at some point, every successful hackerspace (perhaps even any community workspace) experiences this. It’s good of them to share their experiences, so that other spaces will at least have an idea of what to expect.

    1. While I understand it’s all relative and YMMV, etc. I was on the BOD of an incorporated Federal 501(c)(3) amateur radio club where the implementation of organization seemed to have breed hostility. Formal organization anyway, although I’m unsure membership that can’t handle formal organization could handle informal organization. In either there has to be someone there pushing to see that thing get done.

  2. Here you’ll find nightmare scenarios come to life, clever legal loopholes to save the day, and overhauls that helped a space “click”.

    Except none of that appears to have been posted?

    1. It’s a new, recurring column. I was stating it’s goal and purpose for the future. You’ll definitely read about clever legal loopholes in Freeside:Part II, and I’d argue this entire post concerns the latter of those points: “overhauls that helped a space ‘click.'”

      It’s akin to saying “The 3D Printering Column will address Makerbots, Lulzbots, Resins and Filaments,” then presenting the first post that focused on say, ABS vs PLA.

      Give it time!

    2. Most likely it’s going to take time for those who have anything to contribute to find this “recurring column” I suppose in the mean time it couldn’t hurt to post a question on might as a comment while ticking the appropriate boxes below the comment field

  3. Hey,

    very interested to hear details about the actual tools and software used to manage memberships and membership dues. I’ve found that most organizational software is not equipped to handle minimally hierarchical, bottom up organizations. I would love to hear how other spaces have bodged together membership systems to make sure the bills get paid and the tools get looked after.

    Great start!

      1. Yeah we are pretty much %100 google docs. One master document contains everything, and lots of pushing data and formulas from one page to another. Our membership dues page pushes the monthly total income to the overview, same with the events income page, etc.
        Not pretty, but it gets the job done.
        We have 3 members that actively maintain the data and collect memberships.

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