Sociologists Examine Hackathons and See Exploitation

As the gospel of Silicon Valley-style disruption spreads to every sector in the economy, so too have the industry’s favorite competitive ritual, hackathons. The contests, where small teams of “hackers” build tech products in marathon all-night coding sessions, are a hallmark of Silicon Valley culture. Recall Facebook’s most famous hackathon, thrown on the eve of its IPO to show the world that the demands of being a public company would not kill the “hacker way” at One Hacker Way.

Now, sponsors ranging from Fortune 500 conglomerates to conference organizers host them. Even New York Fashion Week and the Vatican have hosted hackathons. They’ve become part of a “toolkit” for large organizations seeking a veneer of innovation. Some organizers view them as recruiting opportunities, others as opportunities to evangelize their company’s technology platforms, and others simply want to be associated with something cool and techie. They’re so common that hackathon enthusiast Mike Swift started a company dedicated to organizing and building community around them called Major League Hacking. Last year the company provided services for more than 200 hackathons with more than 65,000 participants.

The phenomenon is attracting attention from academics. One pair of sociologists recently examined hackathons and emerged with troubling conclusions. Sharon Zukin, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, spent a year observing seven hackathons, mostly sponsored by corporations, in New York City, interviewing participants, organizers, and sponsors. In a study called “Hackathons As Co-optation Ritual: Socializing Workers and Institutionalizing Innovation in the ‘New’ Economy,” she and co-author Max Papadantonakis argue that hackathons create “fictional expectations of innovation that benefits all,” which Zukin writes is a “powerful strategy for manufacturing workers’ consent in the ‘new’ economy.” In other words, institutions use the allure of hackathons, with sponsors, prizes, snacks, and potential for career advancement, to get people to work for free.

To Zukin, this is a problem, because hackathons are making the “hacker subculture” they promote into the new work norm. That norm, which coincides with the labor market trend of less-secure employment, encourages professional workers to adopt an “entrepreneurial” career and market themselves for continually shifting jobs. The trend also includes motivating workers with Soviet-style slogans venerating the pleasures of work.

Zukin tells WIRED the unpaid labor of hackathons recalls sociological research on fashion models, who are also expected to spend time promoting themselves on social media, and party girls, who go to nightclubs with male VIPs in hopes of boosting acting or modeling aspirations. Participants are combining self-investment with self-exploitation, she says. It’s rational given the demands of the modern labor market. It’s just precarious work.

Zukin was surprised to find that hackathon participants almost universally view the events positively. Hackathons are often social, emotionally charged, and a way to learn. Swift says his company found that 86 percent of student participants say they learn skills they can’t get in the classroom, and a third of them believe skills they learned at a hackathon helped them get a job.

Zukin observed hackathon sponsors fueling the “romance of digital innovation by appealing to the hackers’ aspiration to be multi-dimensional agents of change,” she writes. The themes of exhaustion (participants often work for 24 or 36 hours straight), achievement, and the belief that this work could bring future financial reward, were prevalent at the events she observed.

To the tech industry and its imitators, these are normal ideas. To a sociologist, they’re exploitative. “From my perspective, they’re doing unpaid work for corporations,” Zukin says. (Even hackathons thrown by schools, non-profits, publishers, and civic organizations tend to have corporate sponsors.)

Viewed through a sociologist’s framework, Zukin says the events’ aspirational messaging—typical Silicon Valley-style futurebabble about changing the world—feels dystopian. Hackathons show “the fault lines of an emerging production system” by embodying a set of “quasi-Orwellian” ideas that are prevalent in the current economic climate, she writes. Zukin encapsulates those ideas in slogans that could be at home on the walls of a WeWork lobby: “Work is Play,” “Exhaustion is Effervescent,” and “Precarity is Opportunity.”

Zukin only examined hackathons that were open to the public. But many companies, like Facebook, host internal hackathons over weekends. Zukin notes that such events, in which employees may feel obligated to participate, are a form of labor control. “They’re just trying to squeeze the innovation out of [their workers],” she says.

Hackathons reflect an asymmetry of power between the hackathons’ corporate sponsors and their participants, the study argues. Their corporate sponsors outsource work, crowdsource innovation, and burnish their reputations while concealing their business goals.

I noticed this phenomenon while reporting on a dozen hackathons between 2012 and 2014. At a 2013 college-sponsored hackathon, it seemed that everyone involved wanted something from the participants: Sponsors wanted to lay the groundwork for potential investments, hire the hackers, convince them to use particular software to build tools and apps, and boost their own reputations by offering cash, snacks and other prizes.

Swift, of Major League Hacking, doesn’t think sponsor involvement is bad for participants. “The corporate sponsors enable these amazing experiences that the students have at these hackathons,” he says. Their sponsorship “demonstrates that the companies understand developers, care about their interest and goals, and are investing in this community,” he says. He notes that because of sponsors, participants get to work with tools they might not have access to, like VR headsets or expensive software platforms.

The irony is that, regardless of whether hackathon participants willingly participate in self-exploitation or are simply having fun and learning, they rarely produce useful innovations that last beyond the event’s 36 hours. Startup lore has plenty of tales of successful companies that were created at hackathons—a popular example is GroupMe, the messaging app created at a TechCrunch hackathon, which sold to Skype for $85 million one year later. But such examples are rare. “Hacks are hacks, not startups,” Swift wrote in a blog post. “Most hackers don’t want to work on their hackathon project after the hackathon ends.”

Hackathons are not particularly effective as recruiting strategies for large companies, either, the study finds. But they sell the dream of self-improvement via technology, something companies want to be associated with regardless of any immediate benefit to their bottom line. As symbols of innovation, they’re not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Hacking Away

  • More than 100 students recently coded for 36 hours straight at the Vatican’s first-ever hackathon.
  • Some participants in a federal government hackathon aimed at solutions to the opioid crisis had second thoughts.
  • A photographer documented the networking parties, hackathons and grubby crash pads where techies tap away at their laptops.

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