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Online hackathons usually suck

I’ve been to dozens of hackathons as an attendee, judge, & mentor, organized several events, & previously written about organizing. Since COVID hit, there’s been an explosion of online hackathons. But I’ve been skipping nearly all of them.

The reality is, most online hackathons just aren’t very good.

Organizing an in-person event is really hard—if you want to do it at any scale or quality, it takes dozens, hundreds, thousands of hours from organizers who really need to be invested for it to get off the ground. An online hackathon can be as simple as making a quick website, a Slack workspace, a Devpost, organizing 3 Zoom calls & calling it a day. While it’s great that more folks can start organizing, the much lower barrier to bringing a hackathon to fruition, without nearly the same challenges of sponsorship & logistics, means many are less inspired.

I think it’s also way clearer what components you really need to nail for a great in-person event—good food, which requires plenty of money, a nice space, diverse attendees, workshops, swag, judging, whatever. Online, it’s a lot less clear what to focus on, & how to make those areas great. How do you get people actually talking in a Slack, without people naturally talking to who’s next to them? How do you get them to walk away with real friendships? Those don’t have easy answers like “Panera catering.” (Which I highly recommend.)

Crucially, the best experiences in person (like eating ice cream with a stranger at 2am while helping each other with React.js) don’t always translate to the best experiences online. At the same time, the format for a truly compelling online event isn’t super figured out, much less standardized. We’re certainly learning that at Hack ClubScrapbook has been way more successful than a hackathon we could’ve run, while in-person it wouldn’t even make sense.

We’ll see where the space goes, but I think the only way forward is iteration. We need lots of events to try lots of experiments on what works amazingly online, instead of trying to directly upload a uniquely physical experience to the internet. Some components will fail, others will start to become normalized. But hackathons can be magical, life-shaping experiences—let’s figure out how to bring that ✨ onto the internet.

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