What Happened To The Freehackers Union?

It looks like my Freehackers Union essay got some attention again on Hacker News and I thought it’d be a good time to figure out for myself what I did that made FU die out. It was a hell of a fun attempt at upsetting the status quo, but alas, it failed. Not miserably at least, since that essay and the website still get posted to geek websites sometimes.

The short version of this is basically that the purpose of FU was to fuck with the biz dude who was fucking with my culture, but then the economy fucked up the biz dude and hacker alike so things then seemed kind of pointless. Combine that with me trying to use the group to get a bunch of geeks to do public speaking and performance art as well as my way of dominating things and it just was kind of doomed already.

The fun thing about FU was that in a few days, it went from a rant to close to 200 people subscribed to the mailing list with about 20 cities looking to start FU locals. That was fun, and I really thank all the people who put even just a little time into getting things going. I’m sure if things were different it would have been great.

Failure Point 1.1: Me

Obviously, the first reason FU failed is just plain old me. I got it started, but then it was really bad timing on my part since I started music school shortly after. I really didn’t intend for the group to turn into an overnight international success. What I really wanted was to just have maybe 10 people come hang out with me once in a while in NYC and do some fun stuff.

But, things got way too huge way too quick and then I had to devote more and more time I didn’t really have. Add to that my desire to try and keep the theme on track by exerting too much control and it was just plain doomed.

Looking back, I should have put someone else in charge and just let the group do what they wanted. I didn’t have the time and what I wanted to do wasn’t what everyone else wanted to do.

For example: At one point, I asked people what they thought of some logos a designer friend of mine did, and nobody liked them. The irony of the images was mostly lost on them, and honestly the group was right that it should have been more serious and involve “art/wires/code”. However, somehow the group wanted to make the logo the lambda. If there ever was a symbol that symbolizes the inverse of getting geeks away from code and out using their hands and on stage then it’s the lambda.

But, if people wanted some lambda based logo, then I guess that’s what they should have got.

This quote however kind of makes me sad, and is also right:

It started out sort of vague (I joined the mailing list quite early), but as it acquired definition, it seemed to be ending up excessively concentrated in a “Zed”-like niche, i.e. the combination of scripting hacks and music / theatre-like performances.

So I drifted away and terminated subscription, and I guess many others did the same (and have had that impression confirmed from a couple of private emails).
– [barrkel on HN](http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=518094)

The major purpose of FU was to help geeks get the power. Pure and simple. One of the things that prevents geeks from having the power in the whole “founder + geek” dynamic is that they aren’t good at public speaking. They don’t know how to perform with their geekness. I felt I could teach some of that and maybe have some fun at the same time.

People aren’t like me though, and most programmers don’t want to get on stage and do anything. When I think about it now, this public speaking and performance part of FU is probably the piece that is the most anti-geek thing I could have come up with to help geeks. Instead of doing an event where people just share information and anyone can come with open arms, I made an exclusive clique that only guys like me would enjoy.

Really, the only rule should have been, “No fucking biz dudes.”

Failure Point 1.2: The Economy

I created FU partly to start making fun of and also challenging the whole business world’s mentality that geeks are beta-males, and MBAs are alpha-males. Founding FU on hatred of the biz dude was great, since even now people still hate that:

Nicely said. That very fact bothered me for a long time & now I’m happy there’s at least one in this universe who think like me.

I was unlucky that I was not there when “home brew computer club” formed. Dammit I missed the golden age. I regret that.I really do. – [chanux](http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=518156)

Well, FU was geared up to take out the douchebag biz dude, and then, the economy did it for me.

When it’s tough to find jobs you’re not going to find a lot of geeks willing to get up on a international stage and publicly announce that they’re in a group that hates business guys.

Yet, this still bothers me, because people have in their mind that there’s some special genetic difference between a “founder” and a “geek”. In my experience the only difference is luck and focus. Luck because most of these founders are just lucky enough to dupe someone else into giving them money for a stupid idea. But also I don’t think running a company is the focus for most geek’s lives. They’d rather work on technology and leave behind some new human knowledge than try to make ad revenue on a social network site.

Failure Point 1.3: Lots Of People Hate Me

While there’s plenty of people who like what I have to say, there’s probably an equal amount who just hate my guts. I mean, when I’m calling a guy like Bre Petis a dickwad it’s expected.

Why do I call out NYC Resistor’s hackerspace specifically? Mostly because NYC Resistor runs a group they claim is open, but it is actually closed to the public except for attending paid classes and events. Every other hackerspace is open and anyone can come join, but not NYC Resistor. Apparently, they went so far as to get on stage at Last HOPE and tell everyone this. I know this because a bunch of people from other hackerspaces sent me emails telling me the NYC Resistor are kind of dicks.

Now, I’d be cool with them being closed, if they actually said that. But they don’t because in order to attract attention they have to appear open, but in order to maintain the quality of their space they have to be closed. Nice trick eh?

Then, in the middle of FU’s short existence, one Leigh Honeywell got on the IRC channel and was hanging out, just like many others. Shortly after I joined back in, she laid into me about “fucking with her friends”. She went from calling me out, to denying that NYC Resistor is closed, to saying I could have found it on the wiki, to just out cussing and calling me names. It was really funny. The argument was long, and she was kind of a bitch for someone who’s supposedly running an open nice community up in Toronto, but really that’s when I saw that I wasn’t the guy to run something like this.

You see, people like listening to me, they like reading what I have to say, and they like hanging out with me, but I don’t think many people actually like me. If you want a group like FU to succeed you have to put someone in charge who’s much more likeable than myself. I can be a total hard ass when I think someone is an idiot or think they’re screwing people over.

Honestly though, Leigh was right. I can have my personal opinion of NYC Resistor, but I should have kept that out of the FU manifesto. Who gives a shit if they are closed, what was important is how FU could have been better.

Failure Point 1.4: Competition

I was kind of annoyed that there weren’t many other groups in NYC apart from dorkbot and NYC Resistor. When I started FU I thought there was plenty of geeks who would go…and were interested in art…and didn’t mind public speaking. Right, that totally is the case.

The fact that 12 people showed up for the first meeting is awesome. It’s available on archive.org if you want to check it out.

Then again, if there’s only 12 people in all of NYC, with only 6 regulars after that, then that means there really aren’t that many geeks in NYC willing to do this kind of thing. I think there’s really not that many geeks in NYC at all to be honest.

With only a few nights during a week that you can have events, and with other established events already pulling in most of the potential attendees, there’s really not much room for another event.

So, combine the very niche focus of FU with the competition from other established events and the limited number of people in NYC willing to even just go to those more general events and you’ve got nobody.

What Did Go Right

I’d have to say the server setup that let all those people from all over the world get involved was great. I managed to setup a web site, wiki, mailing list, and a icecast server so that people could attend meetings without physically being there.

How it worked was I plugged a little mixer board into my laptop, gave people a mic, and then I used icecast to realtime stream out the event. People would get on IRC and listen, and then shoot back questions for the presenters.

I also did a few music shows over this medium for some people, and definitely plan to do that again.

Another thing that sort of worked out was the space. I managed to find a space I could pay $30 for in advance and get it for 2 hours. It was at Thinkcoffee on Mercer street. They have a space in the basement with long tables, plugs, and it was a decent starter space for the event.

I also loved the discussions on the mailing list. Some very very smart people were there and we talked about deeper topics that most mailing lists cover.

What I Would Do Different

FU was a failure for sure, but it did succeed in getting people thinking at least. The fact that it gets published every once in a while says that at least there’s something there.

If I were to do it again I’d probably change things up quite a bit. Most of this is advice other people gave me so I’d like to thank them in advance.

First, I’d make it less fight club style, way more open, and with a lot less rules. I guess it’s from my days playing D&D where I come up with these bizarre ass rules for social events.

Second, I wouldn’t make it anti-something, but pro-something. Defining the group in terms of anti-business meant that when business went south there wasn’t anything to be against. Being pro-hacking is the way to go.

Third, I’d pick one particular niche art and one particular niche technology and start with that. Like right now I’d love to do a group of geeks making music tech.

Fourth, I’d remove the focus on performance and public speaking. Frankly, most geeks just aren’t into that.

Finally, I think I would need to devote my spare time to the group and not spread myself so thin. It’s not possible to work, go to school, write a book, and run a group like FU. To keep up the momentum you have to get involved, run meetings, and notify people of them in advance.

Thanks For All The Fish!

I’m probably going to take down the FU server and mailing list stuff soon. If anyone in the group wants to take it over let me know and I’ll help you get stuff moved somewhere and setup. If you do an event, I’ll even show up.

For now though, FU is dead. It was a blast and I really want to thank all the people who tried to make it happen. I learned a lot, and I hope you all did too.