I apparently managed to ruffle some Twitter feathers yesterday with my post about the overloading of the word hacker. One of the most common complaints was that I didn’t address white hat hackers.

It’s flattering that people took the time to read my post and then respond. But I think that they might have missed the bottom line.

It’s not really a problem that the word “hacker” has multiple meanings. It’s a polyseme, and this happens all the time in language. The many meanings of “hacker” include people who break into systems (whether white hats or black hats) as well as coders who work fast and make things happen. If I were trying to give a comprehensive definition of hacker, I’d have to cover all of these meanings. But that’s not what I’m trying to do.

What bothers me, in it’s simplest form, is this: It’s that the interpretation of “hacker” in popular culture (and in the mass media) is fundamentally negative. For the sake of this argument, it doesn’t matter than white hats exist, because most people don’t know that.

From the first page of Google Image search results for "Hacker."

One of the PennApps organizers told me today about a response he got from a company when he contacted them about sponsoring. They declined. “In this day and age, we don’t really want to be associated with hackers,” they said.

I’m pretty sure that they weren’t concerned about white hats.

Edit: It’s also been brought to my attention that there are a number of advantages to choosing a word that also has negative connotations. Maybe I’ll post about these later. 

Also, one amusing solution to all of this is not to stop using the word “hacker,” which isn’t really what I’m advocating, even–and to instead institute a “Hacker Awareness Day” to inform the general public about what hackers “really” are. I’d be down.

And, one last aside–I’m well aware that this is a very small issue, all things considered, and I would never try to stop PennApps from being called a “hackathon.” But it’s still worth discussing, I think.



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