Tl;dr I fear that the rapidly rising popularity of hackathons might have a side effect of mislabeled (intentionally or otherwise) activities.

General Assembly hosted REDESIGN, a UX hackathon, this past Sunday at its Santa Monica location. I was absolutely excited to get in on this and was ready to apply the lessons I learned from my last hackathon to REDESIGN. I’m happy to report this was a great experience and would gladly do it again if General Assembly holds another hackathon (UX or something else). There were some quirks about this hackathon — it was the first UX one I’d ever seen or attended — and my fellow USC Trojan and hackathon teammate Sara Clayton covered our team’s trials and tribulations pretty well here. She hits all the major points for me: being a college student in a crowd of more mature and employed industry workers; the difficulties of cultivating members for a harmonious team; and some confusion over the hackathon rules.

That night after REDESIGN was all done with and I was speeding away on the Expo Line back home, I reflected on hackathon culture and the word “hackathon” itself. It’s made me fear that event organizers might start slapping “hackathon” on everything willy-nilly (because it’s so hip now) without realizing its potential consequences.

One of the problems that came up with my team at REDESIGN was that our idea was that we initially focused more on the “hackathon” part than we did the “UX” part of this UX hackathon — Sara expands on this in her writeup. And while this General Assembly event was officially called REDESIGN: A UX Hackathon, most people were calling this the UX hackathon and the REDESIGN name just got lost in the mix. It was as if the hackathon overshadowed everything else about the event (including the main point, which was to redesign a digital product).

“Hackathon” is becoming a buzzword that’s more suited to describing a culture and sentiment (a visceral feeling of working hard and playing hard) than an actual type of event and its mechanics. For example, consider the word “marathon”, a parent of “hackathon”. A marathon (as a sport) will always be a 26.2-mile running race wherever you go, and a half marathon is naturally 13.1 miles wherever you go.  But what does a “half hackathon” entail? There’s no regulatory body for hackathons the way marathons do. (MLH is closest.) I’m not saying hackathons need to be regulated. What I am saying is that hackathon organizers and organizers of competitions should be careful when having “hackathon” in the names for their events because this nascent term is highly malleable and can give off the wrong impression to those looking into your event. 

The difference between using “hackathon” (and anything ending in “-athon”) and more generic terms (e.g. “competition”, “race”, “showdown” etc.) can make a big difference in attracting the types of people for your event. Hackathon comes from a very technical, innovative, Silicon Valley geek/nerd culture. Often the end goal is to create something new and awesome and meet fellow hackers. Competition on the other hand has a more, well, competitive connotation. The end goal is to win. There are definitely tons of overlap here; it must seem like I’m splitting hairs to some of you. But as I’ve written before (see “Obamacare“), word usage can have a subtle but powerful influence on whatever you’re trying to convey. “Hackathon” can be used for good and evil; anyone looking to organize a competition should be cognizant of the power they hold in their hands.

I’ll be at HackSC in March. Come by and say hi if you’re in the area!