About hackers and journalists. Or what does "hacker" actually stand for?

I've often wondered before why hackers avoid journalists, even the ones with the most positive intentions. I wonder no more. Seriously.

I was interviewed by a young journalist recently - curious, interested, open minded. She knew little about hackers and hacktivism, but wanted to write an article for the Special issue of the Link newspaper, whose topic was "Nerds", and the article "Hack to Basics". I took the necessary time to explain the sensitiveness of the issue around the negative vision of "hackers in mass media", some nuanced ways of dealining with certain questions. Edited her article in the end. And then - when it was published, it came out that the story looks like any other stereotyping story over the media. My edits were ignored, and typos appeared on the URL of the hackerspace name, and even on the street name on which it is located.


Shall I be mad about it? Or shall I let it go? My name is quotes on things I didn't say. Words are turned upside down, concepts are mixed up.

A few months ago, I actually wrote a whole piece on hackers and hacker spaces: published online here. I refered the journalist to the already written article to ensure a proper quoting. But no! Journalists know better. It's an academics' thing to quote other people with their original words in the original publication. Journalists say it in their own words. They master the art of plagiarism, in their own way, believing they can do it better.

I wish there was a guide for journalists when they write about things they know little about. Now I understand when politicians “cultivate” and “educate” the journalists that write about them: this is an ongoing issue, and not a random interest.

Let me clear up a few concepts related to hackers, hactivism, and the whole movement. This is not me representing the hacker movement, but rather my own personal perception on what a "hacker" is, what "hacktivism" means, and what journalists should learn to start up with.

First of all, read the Jargon File, as well as Eric Raymond's "How to Become a Hacker". A friend from Foulab last night mentioned, journalists who are interested in writing about hackers, should stay around for a couple of weeks or months, learn a little on the things we are doing, how we are doing them, and also find out about hackers from their own experience. And not just show up for an hour, interview a couple of people, and leave. Deadline in 3 days, no time to ask for a feedback from the movement. In a week time the article is published, with a mass of error statements: factual, cultural, politically incorrect.

1. What is a hacker?

Hacker is a person who has a profound interest and affiliation with exploring technical issues, enjoys solving problems and experimenting, learning from such an experience.

Here is the Jargon File's definition(s):

  • a) "A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary" and the even broader one
  • b) "An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example," or even
  • c) "One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations."

This includes people who are interested in other types of electronics, such as arduinos, maker bots, etc. They can be computers, but of a different kind.

The "hacker" could also be a state of mind thing, in which one strives to learn how things are made, and learning to improve, repair, reuse their devices. I prefer this larger definition that includes not just programmers, but also some other geeky creatures. I've heard speaking of travel hacking, radio hacking, bike hacking, and other types of hacking.

2. Free Software is different from Hacking and Hacktivism

While there are a number of hackers associated to the Free Software movement, the movement itself does not consist of hackers only. The hackers are the ones who like to experiment by programming free software programs. But there are many other contributors to free software that are not hackers necessarily. Nor all hackers are free software fans.

Looking to define Free Software? Try the GNU.org definition and philosophy.

3. Hacktivism

Hacktivism is a term appropriated by me and others to indicate a mix of hacking and activism. The Hacktivist provides a 5-page documentation on the topic, called: "What is Hacktivism 2.0?".

In a nutshell:

"Hacktivism is the fusion of hacking and activism; politics and technology. More specifically, hacktivism is described as hacking for a political cause. In this context, the term hacker is used in reference to its original meaning."

"A clinical definition of hacktivism is: Hacktivism: a policy of hacking, phreaking or creating technology to achieve a political or social goal."