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Hackathons: Self-Exploitation and the New Economy

Are people who take part in hackathons having fun and building careers? Or are they being exploited?

These were some of the questions explored in a study of seven hackathons conducted by Professor Sharon Zukin (Brooklyn College, The Graduate Center, CUNY) and Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Max Papadantonakis.

Hackathons are events, sponsored by companies, universities and sometimes nonprofits, where computer programmers collaborate around the clock on building new apps and competing for prizes. Zukin and Papadantonakis published their observations in the journal Research in the Sociology of Work, but the findings also made a splash in tech circles after a write-up appeared in Wired with the headline Sociologists Examine Hackathons and See Exploitation. “We are really writing about self-exploitation,” said Zukin, who is writing a book about New York’s tech sector.

Participants “truly enjoy going sleepless for 36 hours to write computer code,” she told SUM. “They enjoy seeing their friends, some of whom they don’t get to see in their ordinary work lives. They enjoy the excitement of what Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence.’ They get this high from participating in a very high-pressure, overnight event.” Interviews with participants also showed that they are “very conscious of building their resumés … investing in their careers while having fun.”

What do sponsors get out of hackathons? Ironically, Zukin said, most apps and ideas produced at hackathons “are not usable, not even as prototypes.” But hackathons do help companies and schools promote their brands, products and reputations as “cool, hip and successful.”

There’s another aspect to hackathons, though, that tells a bigger story about “jobs in the new economy,” where “people in many occupations are being forced or persuaded to work outside of normal work space and work time,” Zukin said. Hackathons normalize “quasi-Orwellian precepts that have practically become axioms of the new economy,” like “work is play,” as the article put it.

“This is not just about tech,” Zukin said, adding that sociologists like to explore “the dark side of things. We go into the plumbing of events rather than what the event appears to be on the surface. Our take is always going to be different from the way participants and organizations understand events.”

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work
“Hackathons as Co-optation Ritual: Socializing Workers and Institutionalizing Innovation in the ‘New’ Economy”

Work By
Sharon Zukin (Professor, Sociology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2</a >
Max Papadantonakis (Doctoral candidate, Sociology) |
Profile 1

Colleges and Schools
Brooklyn College
The Graduate Center

Bonus Content
“Sociologists Explore Hackathons and Find Exploitations” (Wired)
“Hackathons: Innovation or Exploitation” (GC News)

Related Terms

Beyond SUM