The Media at NYC2600

or Observing Hackers in the Wild For Fun and Profit

by Rob T Firefly
Started March 15, 2007, updated frequently

Please note: the following editorial is a work-in-progress based solely on the personal opinions and experiences of the author, a longtime NYC2600 attendee. It does not propose to reflect the opinions of anyone else who attends the meetings, any 2600 staff member, or any other contributor to this site.

Are you a journalist, researcher, author, or student who wants to do a story, report, or similar regarding this whole “hacker culture” thing, wondering if you would be welcome at NYC2600 meetings?

Anyone is welcome, and that includes people who just want to observe. Although there are no hard and fast rules about anything, I do have a few suggestions which I believe will help you use your time with us to its fullest, and help us to help you with your project.

Please educate yourself on basic information beforehand.

If you come all the way to our meetings just to ask “why do hackers break into stuff and insert viruses?” or “how do I hack my girlfriend’s Gmail?” all you’ll get in return are some well-placed groans and eye-rolls. We are not at the meetings to do anything illegal or immoral, and (believe it or not) many of us are even law-abiding citizens in private. Despite what Hollywood may have taught you, breaking stuff and scamming are not what being a hacker is about. I highly suggest you read the links given below regarding what hackers and the hacker community actually are.

If you’re there to observe, don’t forget to observe.

You’ll obviously make people uncomfortable if you run into the crowd with notebooks blazing and cameras flashing. Take some time out first to simply observe. You will gain a feel for the meeting and what it’s all about, and we’ll do the same for you. Being friendly and courteous will make a good first impression and allow people to get comfortable with you.

If it helps, you can pretend you’re a nature show host hanging out with wild silverback gorillas, albeit ones with laptops and mobile phones.

The best “observer” experiences we have had were ones who didn’t expect to get everything done in one meeting. If you have the time, take the first meeting, or at least half of it, to hang out and get comfortable. Any hacker will tell you that you’ll learn much more by listening to the background noise than by following a strict line of prepared questions. The more time you take to learn about us, the better your project will turn out.

Please be honest about your reasons for being there, and your project.

Few things are more upsetting than finding out after the fact that the person you’ve been talking to for an hour is actually collecting the data for a project they neglected to mention, or even worse, not finding out until the article appears. Being honest about yourself from the beginning will save everyone a lot of grief, which can lead to those of us who are best able to help you being much more willing to do so now, and in the future.

Please ask permission before taking someone’s photo, name, or pseudonym.

This is more of a favor we’d ask of you than the previous common-sense points. You’ll probably find many people who will be open to helping you with your project, but the fact is there are many who would not wish to participate, or at least not be personally identifiable from your work. Respecting the wishes of those individuals will probably earn you much more help from the rest of us.

Realize that we have had experience with the media before, good and bad.

Being among what may be called one of the most visible hacker gatherings in the public eye has brought interested parties to our meetings countless times. Some of these experiences have been good, but unfortunately some have not been good. Please be advised that our particular community has been “burned” before. While media representatives won’t be automatically shunned, you won’t be surrounded by thrilled people dazzled by ace reporters and eager to get “on the teevee” or whatever either.

One incident in particular that sticks in many of our minds is generally referred to as “the MTV fiasco.” (That’s one of the more polite terms for it.)

The Bad

In 1998, Serena Altschul of MTV news began showing up at our meetings. She seemed friendly and honest enough, and she ostensibly wanted to do “a special” on us. The Free Kevin movement was in full swing, MTV had been in touch with the folks at 2600 Magazine about this special, and we had all been hopeful that they would help us get the word out about Kevin and the movement. We were actively courting media attention to Kevin’s case, and at the time MTV seemed something of a good fit. Many attendees and 2600 staffers were interviewed for the special, both on and off camera, at the meetings as well as away from them.

When MTV True Life: I Am a Hacker finally aired, pretty much all our worst fears were realized and then some. To put it simply, what we got was a total slash job, almost entirely free of facts, and without a single mention of what we were led to believe the whole special was going to be about; the Free Kevin movement. Instead the show focused on a few people saying ridiculous things. Emmanuel of 2600 reviewed the show succinctly here. The impact on the community, both locally and around the world, was such an uproar that some participants and a former MTV employee ended up doing a panel at the 2000 HOPE convention in an attempt to explain how the whole sorry mess had happened. You can download or stream the audio of that panel from this page (scroll down to the panel entitled “MTV – How Did It Happen?”) or watch the presentation here on YouTube.

That single event had done more to damage our community’s view of reporters than pretty much anything else in recent memory. Later panels at hacker conventions even included advice on how to talk to the media to avoid such a mess happening again.

The Good

We’ve had many positive experiences with the media. People from our meetings have been willing participants in many news broadcasts, newspaper articles, and more school reports than we can count. There have also been some higher-profile encounters that have turned out well. Journalists, novelists, sociologists, filmmakers, actors, and all sorts of other interested parties from the obscure to household names have shared in our meetings, with those concerned being happy with the results.

All in all, many of us would love to help in the creation of more honest stuff. We have open meetings in public precisely because we want to share what we do with anyone interested. If this catches your interest, on personal or professional levels, please don’t hesitate to stop by!

Recommended reading, listening, and watching material:

  • What is a Hacker? – Computer security and cryptography expert Bruce Schneier gives a quite sensible explanation of the term.
  • The Conscience of a Hacker, aka The Hacker Manifesto – Written by Loyd Blankenship in 1986 shortly after his arrest, this is the text file that continues to inspire generations of hackers.
  • Wikipedia articles of interest: hacker, phreaking, 2600 Magazine, Emmanuel Goldstein, Kevin Mitnick, and even the goofy “white hat,” “black hat,” and “grey hat” labels
  • 2600: The Hacker quarterly – Check out the computer section of your local chain bookstore for this. Even if the more technical stuff makes your head explode, the editorials and letters may catch your interest.
  • Off the Hook – A weekly talk radio show by people from the 2600 staff as well as some NYC2600 meeting-goers. It provides a pretty good snapshot of what our community is dealing with at the time of broadcast, and on that website you can listen to episodes from last week all the way back to 1988. You can also listen in podcast form by searching “Off the Hook” in your choice of podcast directory or listening app.
  • New York City Hackers – A half-hour-long documentary made in 2000 by Norwegian filmmaker Stig-Lennart Sørensen, filmed in part at our meetings of the era. You can stream and download the film from the filmmaker’s Vimeo.