What is a hack party?

A hack party is simply a party where creative and curious people get together to hack and socialize around their projects and passions. They’ve been proven to build and strengthen communities around technology and innovation across the world.

A typical hack party goes like this. Guests gather at a location with wifi and casual atmosphere. They bring their laptop or something to “hack” on (invention, art project, or maybe just an idea). The event typically runs all day with an open format -- almost no schedule or agenda. Like any party, there are often snacks and drinks. During the peak of the event, guests are given the opportunity to share ideas and demos in 5 minute lightning talks.

Hack parties create an environment that facilitates a rich set of emergent outcomes directed towards hands-on learning and building, ideation and knowledge sharing, and developing social capital. However, actually being able to work on or start a project is a key component. There as an intentional tension and interaction between productivity and socializing.

The invisible “glue” behind hack parties is something we call the hacker spirit, or hacker way. This is a set of cultural values around passion, curiosity, and building. Hack parties amplify this quality in people that have it, and tend to infect it in those that don’t yet. Hack parties resonate hacker culture.

How is this different from a hackathon or conference?

Modern hackathons actually evolved from hack parties. The popularity of hackathons emerged from companies and groups that had a specific agenda and/or didn’t quite grok the value of hack parties. Hack parties were originally seen as hackathons until it became commonplace for hackathons to be about competitions and prizes around specific technologies that last 24+ hours.

Although the activities of hack parties and hackathons overlap, there is a useful way to tell them apart. Hack parties are primarily about people and hacker culture, whereas hackathons are primarily about producing software. The former implies the latter, but not necessarily the other way around. Ironically, hackathons also seem to have less focus on the hacker culture.

Hack parties may seem very different from conferences, but there are still functional similarities. Seasoned conference goers will recognize that often the real value of conferences are in the discussions outside of actual talks. In this view, talks primarily serve as the introduction to an idea and a prompt for discussion. The open-ended social nature of hack parties facilitates the same kind of discussions, often in greater variety. Lightning talks then provide a condensed venue for the one-to-many format of conference talks.

Meetups and user groups are often just mini-conferences focusing on one or two talks. Sometimes they’re purely social. They’re almost always focused on a particular topic. Hack parties tend to be more general, and again much more hands-on and action-oriented.

Those familiar with the hack party format tend to prefer it over these other kinds of events. Perhaps because there is a little of everything and more value on culture and community.

How do I throw a hack party?

Perhaps the most important part of hack parties is the culture and community. This is much harder to capture in words effectively while being flexible enough for interpretation, especially considering the variance in regional cultures. It’s very much a “you know it when you experience it” property.

This transfer of culture and spirit is essential to maintaining the integrity of hack party events. Over the years we’ve developed a simple way to help effectively make this transfer. We now have it encoded in a simple two-step social protocol we call Culture Clone Protocol.

  1. Attend a hack party and get authorized
    You have to experience a hack party for yourself before you can throw your own. Getting authorized means making your intentions to throw an event known to an organizer and getting their blessing. This is a first line defense where an organizer can suggest to you that you should attend more events first because they feel you might not “get it” yet. This would be rather rare, but it can happen. It also helps establish a relationship with an organizer, which is important for the next step.
  2. Pilot a hack party and get endorsed
    Now that you’re authorized and you’ve read up on best practices, you can throw a “pilot” event. A pilot event is like any other event, except you should have at least 2 existing organizers participate and assist you. It’s still your party, but they can act as advisors. If they feel like you’ve successfully cloned the hack party spirit, they will endorse your events.

Getting your hack party endorsed is official community recognition of you as a hack party organizer. Any future events you hold will also be “endorsed”. It’s a sort of seal of quality that helps maintain the integrity and culture behind the hack party pseudo-brand. An endorsed hack party can be listed on hackparty.org and benefits from some common infrastructure and marketing.

That said, anybody can throw a hack party, endorsed or not. A hack party is simply “facilitating hacking and socializing”.

If you do go the route of an endorsed hack party, there are only a few actual requirements, complemented by best practices and room for experimentation. For the essential qualities, we’ve put together three minimum conventions decided on from years of experience doing events around the world:

  1. Facilitate bring-your-own-gear hacking
    The common form of hacking involves laptops, which people should be encouraged to bring. You should then have everything for them to easily get hacking. That means a place to hack, power, and wifi. Even if a group is predominantly hardware hackers, not having laptops and wifi will limit spontaneous collaboration and generally diminishes the experience.
  2. Keep it casual, fun, and inclusive
    The environment should feel like a casual party that everyone is welcome to. Ways to achieve this include having couches around, providing snacks and drinks, and avoiding fluorescent lighting. It may mean having alcohol, being kid-friendly, or both. People should be comfortable, aware of bathrooms and people in charge of the home or facility. And everybody should be welcome.
  3. Always conduct post-event retrospectives
    At the end of the event, there should always be a gathering of guests and organizers to have and document a “postmortem” or retrospective on the event. Discuss how people felt about the event, what went well, what didn’t work, and what can be tried next time. Make sure at least one person is taking notes, and that they post these minutes somewhere other organizers can refer to later. This means events are always improving and learning. Even if you hold one event, everybody will benefit from reflecting on the event.

These qualities and the cultural and spiritual "vibe" are what endorsements are based on. Making sure you meet these standards and following the Culture Clone Protocol should ensure a great foundation for your own hack parties.

Once you're endorsed, if your hack parties ever seem to stray too far from hack party ideals, the organizers that endorsed you have the option to revoke endorsement. So it’s important to stay involved with the organizer community and share experiments and iteration so that we can strike a balance in helping evolve the hack party definition of hacker culture, and maintaining the current spirit of hacker culture.

Where did the term “hack party” come from?

The name “hack party” is new, but the idea has been around for a while. The largest and first well known hack party is SuperHappyDevHouse, started in 2005 by Jeff Lindsay and David Weekly at David’s house in Hillsborough, California. Hack party was coined to describe the general idea of SuperHappyDevHouse, as the term “hackathon” quickly became a poor description of what it was. The term “hack party” is based on the tagline description of SuperHappyDevHouse: “A party for hackers, thinkers, and makers.”

Defining hack party after DevHouse has been running for so long and has been duplicated a number of times (both successfully and not so successfully) gives those interested in organizing hack parties a wealth of knowledge in best practices from the beginning. It also provided an opportunity to formalize some of the ideas and experiences of what it is to be a hack party, and how one can best duplicate it.

Relative to DevHouse, the light social process associated with hackparty.org is somewhat similar to the way TED has franchised itself with TEDx. However, hackparty.org is run as an open-source community project. The use of “hack party” as opposed to “DevHouse” for this purpose was partly to relieve the general idea of DevHouse from the specifics of how DevHouse has evolved as an event and community over the years.