Hacks, Hacking & Journalism
I’m sat in a room lined with row upon row of tables on the top floor of Felix Meritis, Keizersgracht 324 in central Amsterdam.
From the windows I can see the distinctive Amsterdam skyline bathed in sunlight. To my right far in the distance I can see wind turbines gently slicing through the bright blue sky.
It is the wrong day to be stuck inside sat at a computer.
And yet, here I am. Again. Hurriedly – urgently – wanting to describe what’s around me. Desperate to find the best collection of words (and order them in a reasonably coherent fashion) to give a taste of the experience I’ve had today.
I share the room with a collection of web developers. The hard-core bunch who remain in the room equally keen to finish off the challenge they’ve set themselves by attending the Next Web hackathon. And looking at them I realise my experience isn’t entirely dissimilar. There’s hunger in the room. A goal positioned squarely in their sights to the exclusion of all else. At least until someone says the beer has arrived.
Earlier on today the room was packed with people. Maybe 60 all in all. Representatives from Blackberry, Facebook and a handful of other web startups had ten minutes each to sell their ‘product’ (for anyone who’s not a geeky, that product is known as an API) to the assembled web developers in a bid to get them to team up with one another and write code using that API. And to do that in 48 hours. And then present the finished software to a jury. And then someone wins a prize.
The analogy I’ve had in my head all day has been typically ‘media’. Imagine a tired looking TV commissioner coming into a room full of scriptwriters and saying that he had a great idea for a new sitcom. The commissioner tells everyone present what the basic idea is before encouraging the scriptwriters to write episodes in 48 hours flat … for no money.
It’s a confusing notion. At least it’s confusing to me. Because I work in a world where cynical types turn their nose up at doing stuff for free. They overlook anything that they can’t measure impact with. If the audience reach is limited then the time taken investing in it is worthless. It would be seen as a cost. And if there’s no chance of renumeration at the end of it then why bother?
But here at this hackathon – just like any other I suspect – there’s an agreement. The transaction is simple. Set the developer a challenge to explore his or her imagination. Tell him or her to do it in the space of 48 hours. Make your basic code framework available and then sit back and watch as heads start getting buried in laptops and fingers tap on keyboards. Everyone basks in the reflected glory of their cleverness and openness. Nice.
Which is what has happened today. After the API pitches at the top of the morning, everyone started talking. Loudly. It was all quite animated. That was when I did most of the radio interviews I was doing for the BBC … when everyone was being quite loud. ‘It will be good for atmosphere,’ said one contributor before I pressed the record button. ‘It certainly will,’ I replied.
But what was noticeable was how when we returned from lunch that noise level dropped significantly. It was keyboards I could hear then. The sound of people focussed on what they had to do. If team members had to discuss things, they did it in hushed tones. Were they being respectful? Were they all in agreement they had to maintain the atmosphere? Or had the sense of competition kicked in? Were they being circumspect?
The sound has dropped to that same hushed tone I yearn for whenever I’m sat behind my desk in West London, staring at the pitifully depressing view of the A40 with all its traffic leaving the capital. The frenetic activity of earlier has been replaced by a much-needed sense of calm. People are talking about going to a nearby bar to all meet up and have a beer.
I know none of these people. I’ve talked to a handful for only ten minutes or so. But – unusually for me – I feel more than comfortable here. I’m actually looking forward to the possibility of going for a drink with a bunch of strangers because I’ve been stuck in a room doing my thing, observing them doing theirs.
And at some point, somewhere down the line I’ve got caught up in the atmosphere. Their productivity has fuelled my own. As the temperature drops and the sun prepares to set, so I want to finish something – deliver something – making my beer a deserved one.
And that – it strikes me now – isn’t entirely dissimilar from journalism. Geeks and journos both have an innate desire to do things quickly. That is the challenge. That is the art. That is the thrill. That is why geeks stay up late and do stuff like coding over the weekend. That’s why I do the same, constantly ‘tinkering’ on the internet with words and suchlike.
Hacking is addictive. Just like blogging. Just like journalism. And it’s brilliant. Especially when you’re somewhere like Amsterdam and it’s gorgeous.
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