Hackers and Makers: Language Matters

Saw this in my Twitter stream, thanks to Jennifer Pahlka, and thought, “Aha”:

Yes, language matters. Especially when we’re inviting community. What feels more welcoming to you: A hackerspace or a Maker Faire?

The hackerspace I know best is actually very diverse, incredibly welcoming, and an amazing place to learn new skills and share knowledge among friendly peers. But I might never have gone there if I hadn’t been invited by a friend, who explained what it was. So I find myself wondering: Who stays away because it’s called a hackerspace?

I’m not just talking about negative associations with the word hacker (although I do love how badass it sounds). I mean this: Who doesn’t consider themselves techie enough, l33t enough, outlaw enough to belong?

On a similar note, David Eaves asks in a recent post how the Quantified Self movement includes and excludes women – and in particular, how a longstanding data-tracking tradition among women (menstrual cycle and fertility tracking) relates to the larger Quantified Self trend. He suggests, “A rich and important history is not (sufficiently) reflected in the conversation and so important lessons and practices are potentially missed.” So how do we convene more inclusive conversations? I find myself asking: If it’s true that women are underrepresented in the QS community, is it because they aren’t drawn to QS practices (which feels hard to believe given the popularity of fertility charting and baby scheduling apps alone, just to touch on one area of primary interest to women) – or is it that the label “quantified self” doesn’t appeal to them?

To be clear, I’m not arguing that everything we do go through extensive focus-group testing and suck the life out of every naming process. Quantified Self, for example, feels entirely gender-neutral to me – and I consider myself a bit of a QS geek.

On the other hand, I don’t consider myself a hacker, despite 15 years in the tech industry – because to me, hacker means something specific. It means “hard-core coder.” And I don’t consider myself one of those. When I speak to serious coders, I’m quick to explain that my coding skills are limited to front-end web development – and that I’m more of a strategist, designer, information architect, and so on.

“Hacker” doesn’t include me. “Maker,” on the other hand, does.

This isn’t exclusively a gender thing – there are lots of men who I bet would relate more to “maker” than “hacker,” too. But when we post an invitation to makers, we include people who create handmade goods of all kinds; designers of digital and tangible artifacts; and just about anyone who considers themselves creative. That’s a much, much bigger pool.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s room for exclusive, tight-knit communities in the world. But let’s choose our language intentionally and carefully. When you’re designing for community, make sure to reach out to the people you want to include, and make sure they see themselves reflected in the name you’ve chosen.

Put another way: If you want women in your hackerspace, consider putting out a call for makers, and see who shows up.