The hackerspaces wiki documents a number of patterns and anti-patterns derived from the experiences of other hackerspaces around the world. The documentation includes a brief description of a problem, and the implementation of a pattern to solve it. (Or how to spot an anti-pattern and solve it.)
How does Tangleball stand with respect to these patterns? Here's one subjective evaluation reflecting on its first 15 months of life. For each pattern, an arbitrary rating of poor/mediocre/good/excellent is given, with some remarks that may or may not justify the judgement. A "poor" rating is not necessarily bad, especially if the pattern simply doesn't apply to Tangleball.
Tangleball can be described as infrastructure-driven. In our first year, we largely just met the basic needs, paying for rent, utilities, connectivity, domains, and small maintenance. We made our first substantial discretionary purchase around the end of the first year — a number of blank t-shirts for screenprinting.
However, a large portion of the (useful) resources hosted on-site are private or personal tools or material donated or loaned by members or associates. In a few cases, small groups of members pooled money to purchase resources. But none of these were group purchases out of the society's account.
Regarding starting the hackerspace, we deliberated for months, with seemingly endless meetings. But somehow, people stepped up to keep the initiative alive, and that phase concluded with a positive outcome. In fact, it may not be unreasonable to think that the group really exercised the "best choice problem" in determining its founding principles and members, as well as a venue to build upon.
In its day-to-day functions, Tangleball's culture for getting stuff done relies strongly on asking forgiveness rather than permission. This is embodied in the iconic "Someone", who hangs with the keys on the wall. Often visitors or new members ask for "someone" to do a job (e.g. taking out the trash) but the usual response is that Someone is on the wall and probably can't do it (after all, he has a hook for a hand). The implication is that if you see a job that needs doing, you should do it — and ask forgiveness if it was improper. (There are limits, of course.)
This pattern ought to be named the "digital community pattern" or something like that.
Online, we have:
- A mailing list with about 40 subscribers, which serves as the main point of online group discussion.
- A wiki, which currently serves a few people who have accounts and can use it. It often goes unmaintained, though it's meant to host documentation, minutes and policies.
- A Drupal website/blog that is used sporadically, and isn't easily accessible to everyone who might want to contribute.
- Twitter, Facebook, Meetup and IM accounts, most of which are used often by a variety of members. In particular, we have a semi-automated system of Tweeting that the space has been opened or closed for a session, which is easy to use. The Facebook and Meetup accounts draw new visitors.
- No IRC channel.
We generally rely on the Tuesday meetings as the main channel of group discussion and for introducing visitors to the space. Our online presence is fragmented and hard to use.
However, this is partly by design and only partly by accident and neglect.
One of the tradeoffs the founding members made was to err on the side of meatspace rather than cyberspace. We didn't want to fall into the trap of endlessly discussing things online, with all the inherent risks due to human separation (flamewars, bikeshedding, etc) — which was antithetical to the physical spirit of a hackerspace. So an intentionally weak effort at setting up early online infrastructure influenced its eventual form.
This is a major tradeoff, and there are penalties and opportunity costs. Not least of which is that the majority of the community (including prospective members) isn't physically engaged at Tangleball at any given instant, and they rely on our online presence to stay connected. So this is an ongoing issue at Tangleball.
It is difficult to estimate exactly who started what because Tangleball is really a function of many inputs, including independent efforts, historical context and the local community who participated in various ways. There were other hackerspaces before us, or simply other hacker/maker/creative groups around; there were several people who independently began initiatives to start a local hackerspace and merged with each other to form Tangleball; and at various times participants/activists/agitators/initiators would leave or return to the project, or give critical advice from a distance.
Framed like that, Tangleball always had critical mass; it was inevitable that some combination of people would gather somewhere in Auckland (probably a pub) and decide to take the next tentative step towards forming a hackerspace (again).
Without naming names, there were enough strong personalities with enough experience through successive phases of Tangleball's life to start and sustain it. Maybe because New Zealand is so small, we easily connected with enough people who already had authority/respect (how about "mana"?) in a number of hacker/maker/creative circles as well as business or academia, and they contributed essentially.
The Charitable Member Pattern
See: You have extreme anxiety over cash flow month-to-month and members seem to see the space as a business that provides them a service instead of a charity they actively help make possible for their community.
Rating: excellent We have sufficient funds to cover our expenses, and are currently working on a financial buffer.
Landlord and Neighbourhood
We struck gold here. We have an uninterested landlord and cool neighbours. There are few residences to disturb in the area, which has a vibrant night life anyway. Our immediate neighbours are already involved in the hackerspace (and perhaps "do not live the majority lifestyle" in some crucial ways).
See: You need a space for meetings and as a lab, to store and work on materials for projects. In order to minimize rent or out of sympathy, you think it’s great when someone lives in your space. But somehow it doesn’t work, as you cannot use the lab anymore.
Our neighbours keep a clear separation of space from the shared Tangleball area, so no one lives on-site. Although we have had overnight use of the space for long hacking sessions or nightowl members, no one actually lives in Tangleball.
At times, we have faced the risk that someone might want to overuse or abuse the space by practically living there, but this has not been a huge problem yet — particularly since we are conscious and watchful of it, and have developed a culture of using the space and resources properly.
See: You want to chill, discuss, or work in small groups. But the main room is occupied: There are simply too many people at your space. Or you want to smoke a cigarette at the space without disturbing non-smokers.
Besides the workshop floor, we have three smaller, separate chambers: one for "clean room" electronics and computer hardware, which somewhat resembles an office space; one meeting space with couches, chairs and a projector that seats 10-15 people comfortably; and one quieter study area that accommodates 2-4 people and is furthest from the workshop noise. In addition, there is a kitchen and separate toilets.
This arrangement works very well, with the caveat that at times they may be too small and require too much work to reconfigure. Early in its first year, Tangleball's meeting space would often be expanded into the workshop floor, but now there is an internal wall (for keeping out noise and dust) preventing that, as well as more things parked in the workshop. But those are minor problems.
There is a separate kitchen, and it has many essential items to prepare basic things like tea, coffee and some food. There is a full fridge/freezer (outside the kitchen), as well as a smaller beer fridge, and a microwave oven. There is no automatic dishwasher, but that hasn't proven to be a dealbreaker.
Real food and real beer are prepared in the kitchen from time to time.
In addition, as this is New Zealand, there is also a barbeque that gets used on open days and similar events.
While the collection of kitchen equipment and utensils is not complete, it has proven to be adequate for most needs so far. It will probably grow over time; but until then, some members have taken to bringing in additional items to help prepare food as needed.
There are couches, sofas, comfortable chairs, tables, a jukebox, and a projector on-site. We do not provide ashtrays as the indoor area is smokefree. There are no video game consoles, but there are computers and a game dev group that occasionally meets.
The interior aesthetics leave a lot to be desired, however. Ambient lighting is harsh, and the décor is uninviting and uncoordinated. The whole configuration is in constant flux, but perhaps there is low-hanging fruit in terms of improving look and feel.
Over the first year, there was a growing problem of clutter and mess, as junk would be donated or generally accumulate in the space. To a large extent, this was solved in a one-shot summer/spring clean, but it is a real, ongoing risk that needs constant vigilance.
We have a functioning shower, but no exclusive washing machine (we may sometimes have access to the neighbour's washing machine).
It was assumed for some reason that our shower was non-functional. That nor the lack of a washing machine has proved to be a huge problem, and might have even saved us a lot of money on the water bill.
We collect regular fees from perhaps 15-30 members; with approximately 15 payments a week.
We also collect irregular fees and cash donations from visitors and casual members.
In the first year, we were solvent and with a small surplus.
We have a dedicated treasurer who accounts and reports on finances regularly, and estimates bills and solvency with some accuracy.
However, we have no membership officer, and no one who chases up payments (or seeks feedback from members who leave). As a result, it's hard to estimate just how many members there are, and whether payments will be made regularly enough.
We also don't usually have more than 1 month's rent in our account.
We are not beholden to any companies or sponsors besides our real, human members. The physical space is rented by the incorporated society specifically representing the Tangleball community, and not co-located with a company or university.
The idea of accepting commercial sponsorship for limited cases (e.g. a particular event) has been mooted but hasn't materialised. We do, however, have relations with companies through our members who either own or work for them, and that has led to some cooperation or small perks, but little else.
There has been more traction for the idea of getting local government sponsorship. The Tumeke Cycle Space (which co-locates at Tangleball) has such funding, and we are looking to replicate that. This sort of grant funding may come with fewer strings attached and is less likely to interfere with our independence.
Tangleball holds a regular meeting on Tuesday nights for resolving conflicts, making decisions as a group, planning for the future, sharing notices, and introducing visitors and new members.
The meetings occur very regularly, and usually draw about 10-20 members or visitors. There is little confusion about when and where this occurs, and we advertise it emphatically. We are gradually developing a culture or process for holding fair and worthwhile meetings, and are beginning to build a sense of continuity and permanence.
However, the minutes of the meetings are often not taken (when no one takes the initiative), and this disconnects the many absentees and outside observers from the goings-on of the space. It also fails to advertise the liveliness of the community.
Post-meeting socialising and hacking/making/sharing is an important part of the day. Often, it's when things get done after all the talk at the meetings. So we try to limit the run-time of the discussion to about 45 minutes (less is better), to maximise the time for action afterwards. The pre-meeting period is also gaining importance for similar reasons.
We experimented with a second weekly meeting to cover for those who couldn't attend the Tuesday event, but that did not persist. It may have been a meeting too many, and synchronising between meetings proved difficult. Also, similar to metalab, a weekly meeting may be too frequent already for some, as they really use every second Tuesday as their catch-up time (each week attracts a different combination of regular members).
Tangleball "open days" or "MakerDays" occur approximately every 4-8 weeks, typically adjusted to fall on a convenient date such as a public holiday. We host a number of demonstrations, interactive workshops or talks on these days, as well as a sausage sizzle and general socialising. Some days have been more successful than others, but overall it's an excellent way to attract new members, raise funds, or locally advertise our existence and availability.
There is room for improvement, and we are constantly experimenting with variations on the open day format, planning and scheduling. Perhaps we can also host other themed open days in the intervening period; certainly a lot of local hacker/maker/creative groups (either existing or wanting to exist) could make more use of the space that way.
We have not engaged students or younger people strongly. Partly, this is due to the social network of the early members not including them. Partly, students are harder to support economically, or can be lacking motivation/initiative/resources to sustain involvement. Partly, we are like other hacker/maker/creative groups in NZ that serially fail to engage youth constructively. Partly, we have no idea what we're doing. This is an opportunity to improve how Tangleball relates to the wider community.
We have only been around for under 2 years, so it is hard to judge where we are in the wide scope of the curve. On a smaller scale, we have seen variations in interest and momentum that could be cyclical or seasonal, and we survived them. It seems we may be on the rise in this first 4-year cycle for now. More to come over time.
Conflict Resolution Patterns
We do this often, typically as a first resort. It works often. Sometimes it leads to pointless discussion and long meetings but remains worthwhile and a fundamental part of our ethos.
We do this often, as a second resort. It works often. It can leave some voices feeling unheard (watch out for abstentions) but if we did the consensus effort right first, that's rare.
We do this rarely, and in gentler ways than yelling. Typically it takes the initiator leading by example and others eventually join them after a few appeals.
Sometimes it doesn't work, and the "commander" risks appearing like a serial whiner. On those occasions, it might take a stronger approach (or it might mean the complaint isn't sound).
We have generally not found this happening, as authority and power are shared via consensus and regular reporting to the group.
While we have officers on paper for the purpose of incorporating legally, keeping a bank account, etc., we mostly avoid exercising those ranks internally — instead acknowledging that all members have an equal say for almost every purpose.
Occasionally, a member might take responsibility for a specific project or aspect, and in those cases we usually discuss the question of delegation as a group at some meaningful point (which may well be after the fact, if they have taken initiative and aimed to ask for forgiveness instead of permission).
There is a risk that members and visitors sometimes view the hackerspace through the lense of a corporate ("majority") lifestyle found elsewhere. In some cases, they may try to misapply lessons learned there to Tangleball in fundamentally incompatible ways, invariably leading to frustration. For example, there are frequently requests to create a unified brand strategy, or set up an enterprise CMS/CRM/ERP/BT/WTF/BBQ website solution, or drawing sharp distinctions between officers-on-paper and other members to concentrate additional responsibilities on these convenient titles. For the most part, though, we have so far sustained the consensus-among-equals model instead of reverting to 'sudo' too much — with the limited exception of having to interact with third parties like government departments, landlords and banks.
For certain roles, some members have volunteered responsibility and applied themselves to tasks well. This includes the flipside of maintaining reasonable ambitions to avoid burn-out, and consulting with and reporting to the group frequently.
However, a lot of tasks happen to be neglected either because nobody has stepped up to take or share that responsibility in a mature and sustainable way, or because the previous volunteer simply failed to transfer responsibility to the next person.
To some extent, this might have been a teething difficulty as Tangleball became established. There are signs as we enter our second year that this will become less of a problem, particularly as we set precedent within the group for these roles.
We have established a culture of seeking consensus and input from all participants at meetings (while still keeping the agenda rolling). One technique is to pass around a simple squeaky toy that acts as a mutex lock on speaking. Should anyone interrupt, the holder of the toy can squeak it to regain the floor.
Several members have substantial experience in leading group discussions and generally applying social skills to facilitate meetings, which has helped in evolving a style that suits us.
Occasionally, there is a flare-up of unconstructive debate or verbal flaming, but that is remarkably rare for a group that includes so many geeks.
The major failing in relation to debate culture is really the broader context of not engaging more types of stakeholders from the wider community: we have too few women, students, ethnic minorities, etc. Doubtless such diverse participation would change the complexion of our meeting debates.
It happens. We learn to get over it. It happens again, subtly differently. We learn again. It's a problem that will never go away, but Tangleball could do worse in handling it than we do now. Devices like the squeaky toy help move past such points in weekly meetings. It's OK for a member to openly suggest that some discussion might be bikeshedding (without interrupting) and that happens commonly.
The time before and after meetings provides a great opportunity to discuss things in private but in the context of Tangleball. Also, as many members join through a social network of some existing members, there are usually people who can talk among themselves outside Tangleball.
Creative Chaos Patterns
In our first year, this became a major problem. We had excess material (e.g. MDF) provided by benevolent associates in a short time when we were not prepared to store it in an organised way. Then the space became so cluttered and messy with "donated" goods that people could no longer work on whole categories of projects that were possible before. It even impeded visitors during open days. This almost certainly turned away members and visitors, reducing interest in the space except as a dumping ground for junk.
Fortunately, we eventually undertook a major cleanup and have disposed of most of the junk. The next phase to organise the worthwhile items remaining into personal storage and shelving is underway. We have also come to a consensus on policies for accepting new donations (it must be "sponsored" by a member, at their cost). Items marked for disposal will be either sold on Trademe or just thrown out. All this looks likely to work.
Having said that, though, we cannot regret accepting much of what was donated. The MDF, wood and other fixed tools and consumable supplies were indeed useful and will continue to be so. There was plenty of useful scrap in other lots of donations that various members salvaged and even put to use. We basically need to be more careful in filtering donations, and in taking personal responsibility or finding consensus before accepting items.
We have a basically functioning system of handing out keys, and for the most part it obviates the need for members to call other members. However, we have run into several limitations of the system.
We have no registry of who has been issued keys (and this is complicated by having anonymous returns of keys). For some purposes, who has a key determines whether they are considered a member, so this is a problem.
We do not collect a specific deposit for the key (such as a bond) but we generally collect regular fees from new members for a few weeks before they are considered trustworthy and can be issued a key.
Issuing a key has often been problematic since the responsibility for that has historically not been shared well, so there have been extended and unpredictable delays in letting members use the space.
All this still fails to serve non-members well, as we don't keep regular opening hours (besides the Tuesday meetings). We frequently struggle to open the space in time for visitors.
The notion of an electronic locking system has been mooted and agreed upon several times. However, it has simply not materialised due to the usual problems of responsibility or of seeking permission.
Non-specific caffeinated carbonated beverage
Although we don't stock non-specific caffeinated carbonated beverage, some members do make or supply beer, wine, honey and t-shirts, with room for much more. Ideas for fundraising include 3D printing services, selling electronic supplies or toys, making and selling jewellery or other handiwork, etc.
There are limited flat surfaces, and we have a growing population and many interesting projects. The subject of members leaving tools/projects out after they have left has been brought up at the meeting several times (indicating a problem, but also indicating a strong desire to fix the problem). Storage space is increasing.