Anyone who has seen the movie, The Social Network is familiar with how in the early years, Mark Zuckerberg pitted young students against each other in a heated competition as to who could "code" the fastest. The most savvy cognoscenti won a chance to join Facebook's start-up team back in 2004. On a recent installment of 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl noted that "Hacker" posters papered the walls of FB's HDQ. Which begs the question - what determines whether hackers are heroes or villains?
The common denominator for all hackers is figuring out the puzzle. While hacker culture is based on the disruption of the status quo, this is not always a bad thing. Honing one's digital engineering and developmental skills is not motivated by money but rather ability. In it earliest forms, the word 'hacker' entered our lexicon to describe those that used computers as instruments of innovation and creation, not for distruction, surveillance or thievery associated with today's malware.
In Steven Levy's book "Geek Power" he describes 'hacker heroes' as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who were motivated by a desire to learn and build, not steal and destroy. "On the positive side of the ledger, this friendly hacker type has also become a cultural icon — the fuzzy, genial whiz kid who wields a keyboard to get Jack Bauer out of a jam, or the brainy billionaire in a T-shirt — even if today he’s more likely to be called a geek," notes Levy.
In Ben Mezrich's Book "The Accidental Billionaire," Zuckerberg defended 'hacking' Harvard's computers as a means to show the administration the flaws in their computers' security system. In a grand Machiavellian gesture of the "ends justify the means," Zuckerberg was able to crash the University's entire network. Yes, he had an ulterior motive, but he was also able to point out Harvard's deficiencies - that allowed him do so.
While 'privacy' is still a very controversial issue today, when Zuckerberg first incubated his social network he was guided by the principles of 'freedom,' 'transparency' and 'openness' on the Web. And true 'hacking' is a means to that end. Freedom to open and transparent access is Zuckerberg's worldview.
Napster was less a company than a revolution. When hackers Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning made music downloads free, they awarded every kid with a computer real power to get exactly what they wanted. Napster was the "ultimate geek banner, a battle that had been fought by hackers on the biggest stage of all," noted Mezrich in his book. Subsequently, the hackers lost, "but that didn't matter (because) - in a way it was the biggest hack in history," and the reverberations are still felt to this day with the founders of The Pirate Bay be marched off to prison on charges of music piracy.
Flash forward six years, in response to Lesley Stahl's question of 'hack's negative connotation,' Zuckerberg responded, "When we say hacker, there's this whole definition that engineers have for themselves, where it's very much a compliment when you call someone a hacker, where to hack something means to build something very quickly, right? In one night, you can sit down and you could churn out a lot of code, and at the end, you have a product."
To that end, Zuckerberg has announced a first time event called the "Hacker Cup." which will occur throughout January 2011. The worldwide programming competition is an opportunity for Facebook to surface the best digital engineers in the world.
As FB's Tim Stanke notes on Facebook's blog, since "hacking" is a central part of Facebook's culture - "whether we're building the next big product at one of our Hackathons or creating a smarter search algorithm, we're always hacking to find a better way of doing things."
Seeking hackers that know how to solve puzzles, contestants will have to successfully solve algorithmic-based problems with speed and accuracy to advance and win the top prizes. As Stanke notes, "thousands will enter, but only one will emerge as world champion." Presently, there are over 16,000 people who have LIKED the "Hacker Cup" fan page on Facebook.
So in Facebook's world, hackers are definitely heroes. Whether the same can be said about those that are involved in the DDoS attacks of Visa's and PayPal's Web sites - in support of WikiLeaks Web site and founder - is under present debate. See my recent post, "Social Media Payback Can Be A Bitch Sometimes," for an analysis of the pros and cons. And let us know readers, where you stand on the issue of Internet Hackers. Heroes or Villains?