Would the real hacktivist please stand up?

Professor Peter Ludlow wrote of “lexical warfare” over the term “hacktivist” in a recent New York Times blog post. Unfortunately the war that Ludlow observed has been long over for at least 10-20 years now, and what might have once been a reasonable analysis of the meaning of the word is today simply wrong.

Ludlow’s Position

Ludlow depicts the war as tug-of-war between two ends of the spectrum. On the one end is what we generally call cyber crime, the sort of “hacking” portrayed in movies. The other end, in Ludlow’s description, is a “less sinister” and more generic activity. An example he gave is putting wool sweaters on trees, whatever that is. Ludlow also indicates that he believes this form of hacktivism has no “positive affect.” Ludlow’s analysis is fundamentally incorrect. There is no spectrum on which a war is occurring. And the other sort of hacktivism most certainly has a positive affect.

The Meanings of Hack (n.)

“Hack” has two at least three distinct meanings as a noun. It’s a homograph. Just like “mouse” and “keyboard” are (think rodents and pianos). A lot of jargon is like this. And “gay”. “Gay pride” is not an attempt to tug the definition of “gay” away from “happiness”. Maybe decades ago it was. It isn’t today. “Hack” is the same way. One meaning is more or less the same as cyber crime — that much Ludlow got right.

Another meaning is the sense of hack in “party hack” or “hack journalist.” (A hack journalist is someone who takes the side of whoever their employer is at the time.) There is no “hacktivist” in this sense, but this meaning demonstrates the plausibility of the argument that I’m making: that “hack” isn’t the object of lexical warfare but instead has multiple unrelated meanings. (Thanks to Neville Ryant for reminding me of this meaning.)

The Good Sort of Hacking

The last meaning of hack is hard to pin down, and I can’t claim to define it, but it’s roughly the perverting of something’s original purpose to solve a new problem. Rube Goldberg machines are hacks. The use of the lunar lander to bring the Apollo 13 crew home was a hack. Putting folded-up newspapers under table legs to stop tables from shaking is a hack. Hacks are often creative uses of technology. Hacks are usually applauded. They’re positive, creative, even artistic. This is how the word was first used around the 1970s (but how it was used in the 1970s is besides the point — I’m talking about how the word is used today).

In my neck of the woods, “civic hacking” is a term for creative, often technological approaches to solving civic problems like how to get more people to register to vote or making beautiful city maps. It has nothing to do with crime. Sometimes it has nothing to do with computers. It’s about solving real world problems.

Hacking is by no means some sort of jargon specific to the tech-nerd culture either. There’s a website devoted to hacking IKEA products called IKEA Hackers. Its creator defined hacking too:

IkeaHackers.net is a site about modifications on and repurposing of Ikea products. Hacks, as we call it here, may be as simple as adding an embellishment, some others may require power tools and lots of ingenuity.

An example is turning a pillow into a child’s Haloween custom. (Cute, and of course not criminal!) In June 2013, The Home Depot used the hashtag #HDHacks to promote DIY projects. In 2014, the New York Times ran a piece titled, in part, “Hacking Sexism,” about fixing sexism in the workplace. In each of these examples there is a shared hacker culture around repurposing, creativity, and solving problems.

If you’re a journalist writing about hacking or hacktivism, take a moment to think about which type of hacking you mean.

Is It Warfare?

So let’s compare now: cyber crime and solving problems.  This is not a natural spectrum. Not that there can’t be overlap. That’s how historically the words are related (to the best of my knowledge), like if you look back in the 1980s when the term was first coming into mainstream use. There’s a reason the two meanings shared a single word: Using technology for unintended reasons is often illegal. But it’s not because it’s hacking (in the positive sense of hacking) but because technology can do so much that it’s easy to run up against the boundary of the law. God forbid you use a copy machine (or ipod?) to copy something without permission! Stuff like that.

Is there a case of lexical warfare here? Ludlow defines what he means:

“Lexical Warfare” is a phrase that I like to use for battles over how a term is to be understood.

If lexical warfare is a battle over the single meaning of a term, that is not the case here. Civic hackers don’t particularly care that “hack” is used to refer to cyber crime. We lost that battle before I was born a long, long time ago. And cyber criminals don’t care about what civic hackers are up to, so far as I have seen.

There’s more evidence from how the verbs are used. You can “hack a server” (i.e. break in) and “hack the weather” (solve weather-related problems), but while one “hacks into” systems, one “hacks on” problems. “Hacking into voter registration” and “hacking on voter registration” mean something different. The choice of preposition (“into”/”on”) depends on which type of hack you mean, and it is evidence that the two meanings are distinct. (As a verb, by the way, “hack” has even more meanings, some totally unrelated to any of the meanings of the noun so far. Related to the problem solving meaning, some use “hack” to mean the same as to do computer programming.)

“Hack” is a case of peaceful coexistence. Problems only arise when reporters confuse the two groups. They misunderstand how the word is being used. Journalists, not only should you be clear to yourselves about which “hack” you mean, but also be clear in your writing. Us hackers — the civic hackers and others like us — don’t want to be indicted for other people’s crimes. “Criminal hacking” and “problem-solving hacking” might be a good way to be clear in writing.


The words “hacker,” “hacktivist,” and “hacktivism” all share the same ambiguity that derives from the meanings of “hack.”

A “criminal hacktivist” is roughly someone who does “criminal hacking,” like denial of service attacks, for political purposes. But a “problem-solving hacktivist” is roughly someone who builds tools to motivate the public toward a public policy goal. The IT guys at nonprofits are problem-solving hacktivists (among many other groups of people). “Hacktivist” was coined in 1995, the meaning was somewhere between the two.

In one of the articles Ludlow cites, the one in Infosecurity Magazine, hacktivism is said to be defined by Wikipedia as “the use of legal and/or illegal digital tools in pursuit of political ends.” This conflates the two meanings into one. This definition incorrectly includes anyone who emails their representatives in government, for instance. Such an action is not hacktivism because it is neither criminal hacking nor a creative or technological solution to a problem.

A “hackathon” — a hacking marathon — for the problem-solving type is when a bunch of optimistic people gather in a room and try to solve some problems.  Often with computer code. Often open-source and for the public good. Not always.

For “civic hacking,” see the discussion here by Jake Levitas. But I stand by the definition I wrote earlier: creative, often technological approaches to solving civic problems. (I’m not going to define civic…)

If you don’t know me, I’m a civic hacker and I’ve got a degree in linguistics. The title of this post of course refers to the famous Eminem song.

On 1/19/2013 I updated the post to include a third meaning of hack, “party hack.” Thanks Neville. On 1/20/2013 I added an the examples “hacking into” and “hacking on” and discredited the Wikipedia definition. On 2/28/2013 I added the section on IKEA Hackers.

On 6/5/2013 I added the paragraph containing the link to Jake Levitas’s discussion on civic hacking.

On 7/1/2013, I added a link to Home Depot’s #HDHacks promotion.

On 5/12/2014, I added links for the history of “hacker” and “hacktivism”.

On 10/30/2014, I added the link to the New York Times Hacking Sexism in the Tech Industry piece.

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