Why make a hackathon competitive?

I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my experiences observing, participating in, and organizing hackathons and hackathon-like events while writing an article for Interactions (forthcoming) with colleagues from Indiana University. In the article, we focused on an event that we organised with members of a local hackerspace. Our goal as researchers was to test out the adoptability of the prompt we designed, and their goal as hackerspace members was to demonstrate to the non-members who would be attending how much fun they would have if they joined the community.

One key criticism we raised about how we organised our event was that the competition framing—which we unquestioningly adopted from similar hackathon “models”—seemed superficial, unnecessary, and in some ways antithetical to our original goals. The participants were not particularly interested in “winning” the hackathon, but were much more interested in having a chance to collaborate with each other in a fun and engaging way, in a context where they had no obligation to organise or teach. This particular insight may be very contextually-dependent, as hackerspace members are often put in such obligating “authority” or “teacher” roles when visitors come to the space. While many members enjoy playing through these roles occasionally, constant interruptions can inhibit progress on their own projects, so an event where they could just get their hands dirty was appealing to them.

HackathonIn reflecting on their own hackathon, D’Ignazio et al. propose in “Towards a Feminist Hackathon: The ‘Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!’ Hackathon” that a feminist hackathon might foreground the value of stakeholder conversations and new social relations as a “more effective path to change than the production of objects (rewarding winners)”. While these authors find value in the competition framing as long as it is not what is foregrounded in the event, I would take this argument a step further and say that it seems likely that the masculine language of competition and productivity we often used to justify participation in a hackathon limits the kinds of interactions and relationships that can take place. In other words, if the framing of one’s participation in a hackathon is bound up in being competitive and having the best ideas/designs/products out of any other team’s, then relationships that could potentially exist between teams are stifled; nobody wants to “betray” their team’s chances at winning.

From my experience, it seems that framing a hackathon as a fun time to mess around with technology in a collaborative space is much more aligned to “hacker culture” goals. However, as hackathons have become more and more appropriated for different contexts, this kind of justification is becoming a much harder sell.

A couple of questions I will be exploring in future work in this area include:

How can we find ways to discuss the value of the relationships that are developed through these events without relying on the silicon-valley language of “networking”?

How can we ethically leverage the positive experience of participating in collaborative projects to attract hackathon participants without falling into the exploitation traps that the FLOSS/OSS communities are currently dealing with?


For more information contact Austin Toombs.


Author: Austin Toombs

One response to “Why make a hackathon competitive?”

  1. Helen Rice says:

    Interesting. I have been considering ‘the problem of hackathons’ from an accessibility perspective for some time. Who is able to participate in events that are constructed around a ‘work round the clock for two days’ model? How do those of us with health issues or caring responsibilities take part in these endurance tests? Do we really produce better ideas by concentrated intense activity over a short period of time or is this only true for some types of idea and some contexts?

    I spend the rest of my working week carefully pacing and coordinating activity around my chronic fatigue and life responsibilities – and encouraging others to do the same – so why would I jeopardise this for a weekend that might be fun but too often doesn’t ‘go’ anywhere?

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