When Hackerspace Directors Burn Out

A friend of mine once suggested that there should be a support group for burned-out former hackerspace directors. We could have our own Village of the Damned at summer camps, where we’d sit moodily in the gathering twilight sipping our bourbon and Club Mate and decrying whatever misfortunes came to our space to leave such visible mental scars, or gazing hollow-eyed into the laser-tinged haze and moving gently to the pulse of the chiptune music. “See that’s Jenny over there, she don’t say much“. Hackerspace noir, where the only entry criterion is being crazy enough to stand for election to your space’s board.

You can tell [Dr. Seuss] is thinking about his next volume: <em>How The Grinch Stole Whoville Hackspace</em>. Al Ravenna, World Telegram [Public domain].
You can tell [Dr. Seuss] is thinking about his next volume: How The Grinch Stole Whoville Hackspace. Al Ravenna, World Telegram [Public domain].

There must be spaces somewhere that live in such perfect harmony, in which a happy membership support a board for whom everything falls into place. Maybe the makerspace in [Dr. Seuss]’s Whoville would have that kind of atmosphere, but the reality of life is that every group is made up of both Grinch and Who. Keeping a diverse group of people harmonious is a huge challenge, but that’s what hackerspaces are really about — the people make the space.

There are several defined periods in the gestation of a hackerspace, and at least from where I’m sitting they relate to its member count. Some spaces pass through them all as they grow, while others are lucky enough to reach an equilibrium and spare themselves some of the drama.

If you recognise yourselves in some of the following then you have my commiserations, while if your space hasn’t got there yet or has managed to dodge some of the bullets then consider yourselves lucky.

In The Beginning, You Are a Tight Group of Friends

When a space or indeed any other community group first starts, it often does so through the hard work of a close band of friends. Ten or so people can achieve miracles, and many a small hackerspace has reached its first incarnation in this manner. If you are a member of a space at this level it is likely that you are strongly committed to its successful establishment, and you and your friends achieve much in reaching that aim. You establish your founding principles, which in many traditional hackerspaces include a very flat management tree in which transparency and openness are the key, with decisions reached by consensus because you are but a small group of friends who share a common aim.

As your space grows into the tens of members the initial spirit and camaraderie survive. Being a member of a space at this stage is fantastic, because with twenty or thirty members everyone knows each other and the group is small enough to work out any differences. Many smaller spaces never grow beyond this scale, and retain some of the best experiences in our sphere as a result. If you have one of these spaces in your area, join it. (But not too many of you, because of course if that happens the space will outgrow this happy state.)

I have no idea whether Electrolab as shown through [Mitch Altman]'s lens is the kind of harmonious space I wish I could be a member of, but seeing their members happily collaborating on a project fair brings a tear to my eye it does. [CC BY-SA 2.0]
I have no idea whether Electrolab as shown through [Mitch Altman]’s lens is the kind of harmonious space I wish I could be a member of, but seeing their members happily collaborating on a project fair brings a tear to my eye it does. [CC BY-SA 2.0].

At some point, usually around the fifty member mark, something changes. The original highly motivated group becomes diluted, and as the numbers increase a point is reached at which not everyone knows each other. It’s not that fifty people are not a number that you can know personally, simply that with the membership of a space all having their own timetables it is inevitable that after a while there will be people who will not be in on the same evenings as you.

Evolving Into An Organization

Your community starts to become broader, and somehow the space loses momentum, as the enthusiasm of the tight-knit group of early members is diluted. The ratio of active contributors to passive members plummets, while at the same time the number of loud voices who contribute little climbs inexorably.

If the space is lucky enough to have a good location with a ready demand for its services, it is inevitable that it will attract a steady stream of new members. Among them will be a number of motivated people who will put in the work required to make things happen, and eventually as the space moves into a three-figure number of members they replenish the hard core of net contributors until it moves into a second wind and becomes self-sustaining again. The doldrums have passed, and the future looks great. Well done if you are a member of a space in this position.

This piece is not however about that hackerspace in Whoville where everything goes well, instead we are more interested here in those spaces that falter along the way. What forms the battle scars of our burned-out directors from the Village of the Damned, and what can other members learn from their experiences? In exploring this particular avenue we aren’t even looking at the problems of a hackspace as such, instead since we are looking at the dynamics of a community. A lot of the lessons can just as easily be drawn from almost any club, society, or group.

Are You Building Stuff, or Building a Perfect Government?

One way in which you might classify members of any given group could be in terms of their motivation in being a part of it. Are they interested primarily in the purpose of the group, or in the way it is run? So in a hackerspace, are they focused on learning things and building stuff, or is it the ethos of the movement or the space’s management structure on which they focus?

This is an important classification to make because it encapsulates the purpose of a hackerspace. The hackerspace should exist to provide its members with facilities. Where a group starts to get into trouble is when focus is turned to making the group a perfect example of whatever political power structure floats their boat. If the membership becomes more interested in maintaining or tinkering with the structure of the organisation rather than providing its core function then it is inevitable that cohesion within it will fall down.

Power to the people! Wait, aren't we all the people? Che Guevara picture from Jgaray, after Alberto Korda [Public domain].
Power to the people! Wait, aren’t we all the people?
 Jgaray, after Alberto Korda [Public domain].

When the structure and ethos of the organisation becomes more important to a section of its members than its core service it often puts that section at odds with the board of directors. This can feel like a group of rebels who see themselves as the Popular Liberation Front against the Evil Tyranny of the board or committee or whoever is running the show.

In hackerspaces these groups inevitably coalesce around an ideal of an entirely consensus-driven hackspace collective, against which the board is portrayed as distant and dictatorial. The reality is that with growth, the consensus model is not longer feasible and the board are simply trying to get some work done.

This type of strife threatens the stability of the organization. As volunteers thrust into a stressful situation, the directors may begin to lighten their work load — the business of keeping the space functioning. It is easy to sound sane and reasonable when you are in opposition and have little work to do, but very difficult to get to grips with the job in hand when you achieve a position of power. The would-be [Che Guevara] is revealed as having more of the [Wolfie Smith] about them.

What Happens If No One Leads?

A hackerspace that has gone sour in this way will have an embattled and burned-out directorship under constant attack from a membership faction who believe themselves to be holding their executives to account. Sometimes this behavior crosses the line into outright harassment, and other times it just serves to wear down the energy of what is a volunteer board of directors. The organization may pull through and survive to fight another day with the arrival of those motivated new members mentioned earlier, but it may equally cave in as the embattled board gives up and the freedom fighters prove to be more adept at rabble-rousing than dealing with arcane questions of tool insurance. If this has happened to you then I know your pain, and rather than feeling bitter it is of more value to look at how such things might be avoided.

The consensus model can be a relatively successful one in a small-to-medium sized space, but it is noticeable that larger spaces have invariably set their early ideals aside and adopted a more top-down structure. If you are happy sitting through a six-hour meeting in which your resident pedant and idealogue slogs out the minutiae of an inconsequential point relating to your ethical doormat policy then perhaps your space could stay true to its early ideals, but for most members that rapidly gets old. For the most successful large spaces, well thought-out bylaws specify how decisions are made in a fair an equitable way that includes input for members without getting bogged down in endless bureaucracy.

Managing Hackerspace Leadership

So your organisational structure has become more top-down, you have a board of directors, and you’re ready to run your space. How do you ensure that your board is effective in its work? You’ve ensured that your director’s terms are staggered, you have just the right number of them, and you hope that your directors are proven contributors to the space. You can get down to meeting, right? You can deputise everything, hand out tasks which can then be project managed.

Don't tell me you've never been tempted during a hackerspace board meeting. BrokenSphere [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Don’t tell me you’ve never been tempted during a hackerspace board meeting. BrokenSphere [CC BY-SA 3.0]

One of the most unproductive things I have ever taken part in as a member of a hackerspace was over-frequent and regular board meetings. My and the other directors’ week became one of working towards things for the meetings rather than getting things done, so of course the board’s efficiency dropped like a stone while we were pursuing that course. You might be asking why we couldn’t manage to do such a straightforward thing, and you’d be perfectly correct to do so.

The answer lies in the nature of hackerspaces. The directors are not professional directors but everyday members who are trying to make their space better. They are giving up their limited time for free and like amateurs at any job, they sometimes make mistakes. And if the directors are volunteers then the members are doubly so, they haven’t made the same time commitment to running the space and neither should they be expected to unless they want to. Any idea that the board can simply deputise everything to members thus starts to fall apart when those members are found to have lives outside the hackerspace and thus little extra time in which to be given work.

In a company where there is funding to pay employees to do the board’s bidding this is a very successful model, but not in a voluntary organisation. The body of work falls upon the directors, the small number of members prepared to put in the time, and inevitably a member or two who volunteers for the work but doesn’t deliver. Because the directors are busy preparing for meetings most of the time they don’t have the time for everything though, so things start to slip and the members become upset That’s when you start your slide towards burn-out and a date with a bourbon and Club Mate in that village I was talking about.

Find the Right Balance for Your Hackerspace

As a member of more than one space and friend to members of many others I’ve watched the progress of more than one burned-out board. It’s not inevitable for this to happen by any means, but since hackerspaces can sometimes be prone to unfeasible levels of drama then it remains a distinct possibility. Given my outlook then, what would I wish for from my perfect hackerspace? Probably a smaller space, with decent local amenities, in a place that can draw members over a wide area. The more diverse the membership in age, gender, and background, the more experiences come together to make a better whole.

There’s one thing though, when I find my perfect space, would I stand to be a director again? After reading this I doubt my fellow members would vote for me anyway, but maybe not. Someone must do it for the good of the space, will you answer the call?

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