2014-05-01

Co.Labs

How To Bring The Art Of The Creative Blitz Into Your Hackathon

Novelists, filmmakers, and magazine editors have mastered creativity under pressure. Here's what hackers can learn from old-fashioned creative sprints.



Before hackathons existed, there were rapid-fire content creation blitzes. Ad hoc creative teams have produced magazines in 24 hours, created films in a week and written novels within a span of 30 days. These events are not unlike today's hackathons, but with words and pictures instead of code. So what can hackathon organizers learn from these old-school creative blitzes?

The Rise Of The Media Creation Blitz—And The Lessons That Follow

Campus MovieFest started in 2001 when cofounder David Roemer saw the new iMovie software as an easy-to-use and far cheaper version of traditional film editing software. It let students make a movie in under a week—which just wasn't possible before.

CMF has since spread to dozens of campuses worldwide, some of which chose to retire their smaller film festivals in favor of CMF's proven model, resources, and corporate partnerships. If you can provide networking and improve the experience with corporate deals, participants will flock to you.

"Any school can run a student film festival and showcase the films in their auditorium, but we can showcase their winners in-flight on Virgin America," Roemer says.

Freelance writer Chris Baty launched the ostentatiously titled National Novel Writing Month for himself and 21 Bay Area friends back in 1999. The goal: write 50,000 words in the month of November with other dreamers. Even as NaNoWriMo grew to attract hundreds of thousands of writers, Baty's groundedness and humor made the hiccups in service bearable for the bootstrapped staff and legions of participants alike.

When things fall apart, Baty found that humor and honesty give you leeway—even with thousands and thousands of participants hanging on to your authority and direction. As NaNoWriMo was growing in the 2000s, Baty and his skeleton crew rushed to manually plug in servers when media coverage overloaded the NaNoWriMo website. So long as Baty kept participants in the loop and poked fun at the logistical struggle, all was forgiven—even when a catastrophic website failure in the third year led Baty to throw up his hands and ask writers to step forward on the honor system if they’d passed the 50,000-word mark.

"Having a sense of humor was really key. We were criticized for the humor and joy, that this wasn’t something that needed to be taken with the utmost seriousness. I would encourage anyone looking to grow something to have a sense of humor," Baty says. And NaNoWriMo has indeed grown in the 15 years since it launched, getting 450,000 participants last year from 30 countries.

#24MAG, on the other hand, locked a couple dozen creative folk in a room in NYC to put out a full-color multimedia magazine in 24 hours. Founder Sara Eileen Hames had numerous creative luminaries she wanted to work with but nobody had the time—so she challenged them to blitz out a magazine in a weekend.

In contrast to the lack of diversity in most hackathons, Hames deliberately made #24MAG’s space tolerant, welcoming, and very open to discussion if content was troubling. She sought out minority and LGBTQ collaborators. Shocking nobody, such an inspiring environment forged the collaborators into a community—and they kept coming back.

Your First Year Will Be A Nightmare. Here's How To Survive

Creating a blitz event from scratch is no mean feat. Expensive gear is important, but so is food, water, and power: Many a hackathon has been tripped up by a lack of power strips.

With barely $500 in campus funding and some donated donuts, the CMF founders were determined to make sure the festival’s first year at Emory University still went smoothly—so they "begged, borrowed, or stole" all the equipment their participants needed to make films. Their belief outweighed the logistical nightmare and resource scarcity that so often sinks events before they start.

"I think we were naive. I think we didn’t know what shouldn’t have been possible. If we had known that we shouldn’t have been able to do all this stuff, we never would’ve tried or we would’ve given up at some point," CMF cofounder Dan Costa says.

No matter how much you plan, things will go wrong. Accept it, says Baty of NaNoWriMo—but enjoying the ride will save you.

"You’re not always going to get it right," Baty says. "Have fun be a part of the equation. It’s going to be really really hard, but if you love it, it won’t feel like work."

Hames and her contributors had blown their 24-hour mark their first year, finishing after 30 hours. Crushed and exhausted from the weekend, she consulted with an editor who had helped produce Longshot, a similar weekend magazine blitz.

"I was so worried—nobody’s gonna like us anymore, y’know," Hames says. "He told me, ‘No no—Longshot blew their first deadline by seven hours. Nobody cares.' It’s not like a 24-hour play where there’s an audience showing up at 8 p.m."

Learning while you go is totally fine. But you have to be willing to dive in already. And you have to accept that your first year will be a total mess.

"If you’re working with a team that’s excited to be with you and you’re working for an audience that’s excited to be with you—your sins are forgiven," Hames says. "If you don’t know exactly how things are going to work and you’re honest about that, people will say ‘Okay, we’ll figure this out.’"

If The Goals And Rewards Are Unclear, It’s Your Fault

If your hackathon doesn’t make its goals clear from the get-go, your participants’ entries could be all over the map—and much harder for you to judge at the finish line. Be open and upfront about both what you want created and what prizes they should be gunning to win. People will enter a creative jam, even if there isn't a monetary prize at the end of the rainbow.

CMF only has one real requirement—all films screened for competition must be under five minutes. Winning films net prizes, including exposure to film and production folks within Hollywood and the private sector. There are even a few corporate partner challenges that students can compete for alongside the main competition. But most importantly, the FAQ is stacked with information on what you can and can't do—and there are half a dozen contact options at the top of that page to get in touch with someone at CMF any time of day. They know that a competition with real prizes needs to get the ground rules across as clearly as possible—and keep lines of communication open so eleventh-hour students get their questions answered before the finish line. The higher the stakes, the greater YOUR responsibility that everyone's on the same page.

NaNoWriMo has one goal—write 50,000 words of anything—and one non-monetary reward amounting to digital bragging rights. It doesn't even fill a podium with the month's "best" novels—mostly because judging among the 30,000 winners who beat the 50,000-word mark would be impossible. But so many users return, enrollment continues to grow, and people keep hitting that 50,000-word goal.

Why? In a word: community.

Instead of glorifying a "best" entry, NaNoWriMo exists to change a traditionally solitary endeavor into a social experience. The website tracks everyone's progress and allows participants to post excerpts and comment, but local groups are where the encouraging magic happens. Part communal therapy and part networking, NaNoWriMo writing groups spring up without any supervision from NaNoWriMo staff. Whether it's a group chant to kick off a night of writing or just the ritual of a weekly drink, group culture keeps people coming back to write.

#24MAG's promises are similar to NaNoWriMo’s: Nobody's here to make money, so focus on making something cool with your multi-skilled peers. But by laying stern ground rules for tolerance from the get-go via its editorial policy, #24MAG sets up a space unique in creative blitzes—one dedicated to trumpeting marginalized voices. Combined with its exciting blitz process, this open and accepting atmosphere forges #24MAG into a strong voice.

By outlining its mission upfront alongside its non-financial rewards, #24MAG’s contributors accept that the opportunity to create with other dynamic artists is well worth their time and effort—even at the nightmare pace of a 24-hour blitz.

Integrate Your Sponsor Presence Well—Or Say Goodbye To Respect

CMF was founded by filmmakers, but several of them had substantial marketing and business experience too. It was natural to look at business and corporate sponsors as partners to both fund CMF’s growth and showcase work by CMF participants to sponsors looking for young talent. So long as they were honest about the sponsors’ presence and found that everyone involved got something out of the experience, nobody had a problem with the merging of creative and business worlds.

"The first thing we talk about with our corporate partners is how do we authentically integrate them and not just slap a logo on something?" Roemer says. "We found that as long as we provide value to the students and the school thanks to the partners, we really don’t get criticism."

Universities will be wary of introducing more corporate presence on their campuses and students can smell brand bullshit a mile away. You’ll have to get a balancing act going to make sure everyone’s happy, but the end result is worth it.

"It’s really brought the festival to a whole new level with prizes, exposure, and tools we’re able to provide to the students," Roemer says. "Some of our winners are creating Super Bowl ads for Doritos or creating web series for Adobe. All great opportunities that we could never have brought to students without corporate support."

No matter how creative you want your blitz to be, your participants have to eat—and should be building job-friendly skills. It’s your job to illustrate how meshing corporate presence in with the "pure" creative process is a win-win for everyone.

"The ongoing challenge of artists is to try to figure out whether you’re going to support yourself with your art or whether your art will make money at all—that dialogue absolutely saturates everything we as artists deal with," Hames says. "It’s a logical extension to try and bring those skillsets together."

Avoid Hackbro Culture—Make Your Jam Accessible To All

Hackathons have made strides to welcome women and nonwhite programmers to combat the pervasive White Boy’s Club culture in computer science. And yet, meeting the high-water mark of diversity set by other hackathons means you’re still stuck in the status quo. Setting a higher standard for diversity won’t just keep your hackathon progressive—it’ll earn you the devotion of returning participants.

Before every #24MAG blitz, Hames began by citing the sternly tolerant editorial policy, which set ground rules that let contributors feel comfortable enough to pipe up about someone else’s unsettling content.

"Very simple rules like that mean that anybody who showed up felt like they could be their true selves, do the work that was exciting to them, and not have to worry about how that work was received by their peers except for a critical, collaborative standpoint," Hames says. "For many of those people, that’s the first time that they've been in a space where those kinds of rules were observed."

Such rules created communication—and contributors came back not just to work in the space, but to work alongside each other.

"They know that they’re in a space where their creative work is valued, their identity is valued, and at the end of the day, they’re going to walk away energized—not shut down," Hames says.

Obviously, securing physical space is critical for any creative blitz—but it has to be the right space. As serial hackathon organizer Peter Morano tells Dice, providing that physical and mental safe space for developers to create at their upper limits is what keeps him coming back to put on more hackathons. Provide the right space and people will return, Morano echoes.

Got Problems? Get Experts

A well-timed piece of advice can save a bridge that might be burned by miscommunication.

CMF felt they needed to be present on campuses to maintain the integrity of the CMF experience, but they’d essentially grown it into a deployable model.

Then the CMF founders made a brilliant move: They hired an experienced university administrator. With insider knowledge, CMF avoided situations like bringing a sponsor’s soft drinks on a campus that already had a contract with a rival soft drink company. The administrator was able to anticipate campus demands, streamlining the process to build CMF out to new universities.

"Each school has a lot of policies in place about how to promote, and what kind of brands can be on campus. A lot of times it’s starting fresh on day one at each school to make sure we're working within their guidelines," Roemer says. "The administrator made sure that we are a partner with these schools as opposed to a guerilla marketer and that we were not going to cause trouble."

Show Your Participants’ Work

If you put on a great hackathon, your participants will walk away happy—but they came to create a cool new app/program/service. To show the scope and productivity of your creative jam, those projects should be uploaded and visible for the world to see. If you don’t display the worth of your hackathon, it won’t grow.

For public display, it doesn’t get much bigger than CMF's annual Film Summit in Hollywood, a combo top film showcase and workshop camp. But even those who can’t get out to Southern California can see every submitted film up on CMF’s site. It’s one thing to post your student video up on YouTube. It’s quite another to see it trumpeted to the masses on your creative jam’s site.

The first #24MAG was funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign, but subsequent issues were put out with angel investment. Most of this came from Hames herself: Despite orders of physical copies of the mag, she ate much of the cost for each issue. Nevertheless, all six issues of #24MAG are available to view online, free of charge.

Showcasing work both keeps your participants happy and, when they show off the work they did, it boosts the profile of your hackathon. Suddenly, your hackathon is known to attract talented people who produce interesting projects.

[Image: Flickr user Les Chatfield]




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