In last week’s SEC filing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg poked a huge hornet’s nest when he referenced “The Hacker Way.”
Some of the pioneers of the hacker ethos and culture have previously defined hacking as having strong connections to tinkering, “playing” with code and systems, and most importantly, absolute freedom.
The kind of freedom those earlier hackers talk about is the freedom to inspect, to look under the hood, to break, to tamper, to share, to fix, to modify, to copy, and to redistribute.
But while Facebook participates in some parts of the larger hacker culture — including using and writing free and open-source software, hosting epic hackathons, and encouraging dissident thinking and individual contributions — it might have been a mistake for Zuckerberg to refer to Facebook as a company that embodies the hacker way.
To dive into this reference, which itself speaks volumes about Facebook’s own culture and agenda, we contacted a handful of well recognized hackers, including PHP creator Rasmus Lerdorf; Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman; and Eric S. Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar and editor of The Jargon File (warning: don’t click that link unless you have some serious time to kill).
We’ve also got commentary from the real hackers at Facebook, the team that works on the social network’s open-source projects, from HipHop to the Open Compute Project.
PHP creator Lerdorf: Facebook should be doing more
The social network was built with open-source PHP, a language created by Rasmus Lerdorf in 1995. Because so much of Facebook’s backbone is fortified with this and other open-source projects, Zuckerberg and the Facebook open-source team in particular have long stressed the importance of giving back to the developer community in kind.
In an email exchange with VentureBeat, Lerdorf said that while Facebook’s efforts are not negligible, the company could and should be doing more open-source work, especially within the PHP community.
“Generally, Facebook is a good open source citizen,” Lerdorf said. “They occasionally contribute to the projects they use, and they have open-sourced some things.”
But this reserve praise was tempered by equally reserve criticism.
“We would always like to see more, of course,” he continued. “Specifically I would love to see more direct contributions from Facebook engineers to PHP and perhaps even have an engineer or two assigned exclusively to work with the PHP project.”
Given Facebook’s huge success and heavy reliance on PHP, not only are we certain the company has the talent to spare; it almost seems inappropriate not to give a more substantial offering of time and effort to PHP.
Eric “esr” Raymond: Does Facebook maintain too much control?
While esr chooses not to use Facebook as an individual, he poses some good critical thinking questions for VentureBeat’s readers. In an email conversation, he conveyed his desire for readers to think about these questions and apply the results for themselves:
“As a Facebook user, do I have control of the data Facebook keeps about me?” he wrote. “Concretely: can I examine and modify that data using tools of my choosing which are built for my needs?”
He continued, “Does Facebook act as though I own my online life, or as though it does? Concretely: Can I control what data it shares with other users, with advertisers, and with business partners?”
Clearly, users have relatively little control over their own Facebook profile data; most of how that data is used constitutes Facebook’s competitive advantage as a business, so it doesn’t behoove the company to say exactly how, why, and with whom information is shared. The company does say that most profile data is only used in an anonymized, aggregate form, but that’s about it.
“Does Facebook behave like a tool in my hand, or a firehose designed to spew at me in accordance with other peoples’ agendas?,” the hacker continued. “Concretely: can I write my own client to present a filtered view of the Facebook stream, or have other people do that for me?”
Ultimately, Raymond points out, the true hacker way means “to give control to the individual, to respect his or her privacy, to create tools for autonomy and liberty, and to encourage creative re-use of software” — only parts of which make it into Facebook’s product.
“And yes, one of the most basic questions is ‘Does Mr. Zuckerberg publish the source code of his software in a form that can easily be understood, modified, and reused?” Raymond asks. “Because if the answer to that question is ‘no,’ it is very unlikely that users will or ever can have the control of their online lives that they deserve.”
These questions and their inevitable answers formed the foundation of Diaspora, 2010′s open-source answer to Facebook’s handling of user data, privacy, and its own codebase.
Although the Diaspora userbase doubled during 2011, the service is far from mainstream and still constitutes a single tool for the privacy-oriented fringe. Facebook still maintains control of a majority share of the lives of online people.
Richard “rms” Stallman: Facebook’s hacking is not good hacking
“I define ‘hacking’ as ‘playful cleverness,’” said legendary hacker Richard Stallman in an email conversation with VentureBeat.
Stallman has spent the past few decades preaching on freedom in software — not just the freedom to use it, but the freedom to examine it, modify it, and make copies of it, as well. And as the guy who bears the title “The Last True Hacker” — and as a longtime hacker at MIT, where the term was coined in the 1950s to mean “one who creatively tinkers to improve performance” — he’s also been working to reclaim that term from the media.
“I’ve been campaigning since the ’80s to correct the mistake, made by some journalists, which took ‘hacker’ to mean ‘security breaker,’” Stallman said. “I appreciate Zuckerberg’s support for this campaign.”
Stallman continued, “As [Zuckerberg] noted, hacking is not good or bad in itself. It can be done in activities that are good and in activities that are bad. In the case of Facebook, it is bad.”
While Stallman said he believes sharing is good, he doesn’t limit this belief to sharing social updates and photograph; he believes the freedom to share should also apply to copies of published works, including software. “Facebook is no help there,” the hacker wrote to us.
“Facebook is only interested in encouraging people to share their personal data — sometimes with each other, but always with advertisers and Big Brother. Facebook collects lots more personal information than users give it, through surveillance. For instance, every time you look at a web page — on any site! — that shows a Facebook “Like” button, Facebook knows your IP address visited that page.”
In fact, Stallman finds such surveillance so perturbing, he said, “I plan software in the GNU system to block this particular kind of surveillance by blocking ‘Like’ buttons.”
Facebook’s real hackers: the open-source team
Facebook does have a great deal of developer street cred for its participation in the free and open-source software movement.
Today, David Recordon heads up Facebook’s open programs. In the recent past, we conducted a longer interview with Recordon on Facebook’s open source efforts and philosophies.
Due to SEC regulations, Facebook employees are prohbited from discussing the contents of the company’s S-1 filing, so Recordon was unable to talk about Zuckerberg’s “The Hacker Way” comments. But in that last interview, we talked a lot about what it means to be an open-source engineer and advocate at a proprietary software company.
“We release far more of our infrastructure that we develop than any other company like us, Recordon told us in that meeting. “And it’s hard. It requires effort to take software for your own environment and make it something that’s useful to others, too.”
Within Facebook’s engineering team, Recordon described the culture as “very entrepreneurial. We value the impact a single person or a small team can have. Video calling was built by one engineer and one designer. The messenger app was done by a few engineers. Those groups have a huge impact.”
Recordon also told us that the company’s contributions to open-source software are a big part of its recruitment process.
“Engineers enjoy working on open source,” he said. “Culturally, it allows engineers to talk about what they’re working on publicly. Open-source software also allows people to see the kind of infrastructure we build. It gets people in some areas a taste of the code we’re running in production.”
Around the same time, we also talked to Amir Michael, who leads Facebook’s work in open-source hardware hacking via the Open Compute Project.
“It’s natural in an environment where companies are trying to remain profitable to keep some pieces of innovation to themselves,” he said, noting that because Facebook’s advantage lies in its users, not its infrastructure, it was able to be more transparent about certain projects.
“We’ve contributed back a lot in the software world, “Michael said. “If we share these best practices [in the hardware world], we’re hoping that other people can adopt it and have an impact on the environment as well.”
Why Zuckerberg’s “hacker” comment has some positive effects
Still, with all the semantic discussion over what constitutes “the hacker way,” we should note that Zuckerberg made use of this controversial term in his company’s most public and permanent document to date. In doing so, he is at least helping software developers to reclaim an oft-abused term that has long been misunderstood by mainstream media and appropriated as a synonym for “criminal.”
We’re glad to see hackers portrayed by the young CEO as heroes rather than criminals.
Also, Facebook’s special strain of hacker culture is worth examining in its own right. The company is famous for prizing the iconoclastic work of small teams, for valuing the best solution regardless of provenance, for moving quickly, and for fearlessly building new systems and features from the ground up.
While Zuckerberg’s hacker ethic lacks the purity of its philosophical forebears, it marries some of the principles of hacking with the competitive advantage of a huge, global business. Whether the hacker ethic itself demands purity is another discussion for another day.