The Mainstream Media and That Word, ‘Hacker’

Dear Media,

It would seem that you’re struggling with a teensy bit of semantics—namely, the precise meaning of the word “hacker.” Let’s get this sorted out, shall we?

A cracker. Figure 1 – a cracker

The root of the problem seems to be the distinction between bad hackers and good hackers. Many seem to swallow the qualifier outright, insisting that all hackers are zit faced cyber criminals lusting after AOL passwords. Tut-tut!

So let’s talk about bad versus good. To start, both are bad.

A Hacker is not characterized by any particular action (i.e., a hacker is not someone who plays footsie with Iran’s power grid): “hacker”, as a descriptor, simply implies a particular set of technical skills as coupled with a deeply creative and highly inquisitive demeanor. For this reason, a bad hacker is bad in the same way a bad lover is bad: the adjective serves only to modify the subject’s ability to perform. A bad lover doesn’t club seals on weekends, right? Neither does a bad hacker.

A hacker. Figure 2 – a hacker

Moving on: if a hacker is — simply put — an inspired technologist, then who are these poopie heads that break into eBay and steal all of our megabytes?

Crackers. I know, the word isn’t quite as sexy as its counterpart (and may indeed conjure images of Jerry Springer) — but isn’t it about time we got this right? Think about all the nice hackers who build the technology that you love and cherish: the smiles on their faces as they merrily code your WordPress plugins and Drupal extensions. Get it right for the hackers!

Here’s how: if the subject in question is pubescent, goes by a handle like F1r3N1nj@ and/or reminds you of a character in the 1995 hit film The Net, you’re dealing with a cracker. Incidentally, you should probably change your password, social security number, and underwear just to be sure you’re not a victim of collateral pwnage.

Examples: LulzSec, Captain Crunch, Zer0 C00l, lots of Uzbeks (apparently), most employees of Microsoft.

A cracker. Figure 3 – a cracker (genus: scriptus kiddus)

If — conversely — the subject appears to be a tech savvy individual with a penchant for tinkering or a proclivity toward hackathons: well, that’s most likely a hacker. If it’s got a UNIX beard (… or a casio watch, or a subscription to 2600, or a Tux pendant), it’s a hacker.

Examples: Brian Kernighan, John Resig, Dennis Richie, RMS, Bjarne Stroustrup, Fabrice Bellard (behold this), most unemployed developers.

A hacker. Figure 4 – A Hacker (genus: tuxus maximus)

There you have it: a hacker is a clever techie who thrives on caffeine and code (and fedoras) while a cracker is a sociopath who breaks into your mom’s Facebook account and posts unflattering pictures of you from high school (in a fedora).

Watch those ports n3wbs,

This is a guest post from Brandon Diamond and originally appeared on his blog, Your Startup Sucks


  1. Zephyr says:

    I like the postmodern commentary on the hacker position, and as much as Eric S Raymond may hate me for saying it – The original usage of the term hacker (originally on a pre-PDP11 system called Arginet, but more famously in the MIT Magazine ‘The Tech’) is in a malicious context.

    Let me get the quote for you, from the late 1950s, I’d challenge you to find an earlier reference that is relevant to the term ‘Hacker’ in relationship to computers. Until then, the word hacker, as used by 99% of the population (correctly, I may add) – Is going to refer to malicious actors.

    “any telephone services
    have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, according to Prof.
    Carlton Tucker, administrator of the Institute phone system.”

    1. Anonymous says:

      Awesome quote! And thanks for bringing to bear so much research: my article was *definitely* not very nuanced and didn’t really offer much in the way of argument. To be honest, it was intended more as a rant than as a reasoned bit of discourse. Perhaps there is material here to revisit?

      In any event, I’ll think about what you’ve submitted and perhaps write an addendum further down the road. Thanks!

  2. kc says:

    Likening most Microsoft employees to script kiddies makes you look extremely ignorant.

    1. Anonymous says:

      So sensitive out in the great NW.

    2. Dawson says:

      Why are Microsoft fanboys so uptight when someone makes a joke about Microsoft? Oh wait, nevermind, we all know the answer.

    3. Pssst… it’s a joke.

    4. Anonymous says:

      Completely a joke — I’ve got many friends at Microsoft who do great work.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Ben:  On a roll today!

    1. Anonymous says:

      Oh, Brandon was just using Ben’s login.  Next post:  Zuckerberg is dead!

  4. Dick Wisdom says:

    Are you kidding? This debate has been raging since at least the 80s, and this is far from the most eloquent or compelling case for the word’s true definition. There’s even a Wikipedia article on the matter, with actual sources and both sides of the debate represented. Furthermore, common usage dictates a word’s definition, not butthurt geeks; no amount of bitching and moaning is getting it back until prescriptivist hackers represent more than an insignificant minority of the population. Even as pageview-bait, this is a hackneyed debate that you add literally nothing to.

    1. Anonymous says:

      If you couldn’t enjoy this article for what it is then Dick, you need a break.

      1. Anonymous says:

        Thanks — I appreciate you stepping in there. I’m all for criticism (and even “Dick” had something interesting to share): I just prefer when folks keep the discourse civil.

    2. Anonymous says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Dick — you make some good points. Perhaps the context of my post would benefit from some clarity: the above represents a brief, off-the-cuff rant that is (admittedly!) poorly argued. In fact, it’s not argued. I merely state my feelings and leave it at that.

      Regardless, the cracker debate rages on: there *is* nuance to the discussion that you, like my article, appear to have missed.

      Times have changed. Languages have evolved. No longer do we need to clench our sphincters around pedantics and history. In the modern era, there are many folks who would call themselves hackers whom in generations past wouldn’t have thought to do so. What of these hackers?

      Are we not capable of moving beyond a silly argument to acknowledge that things are different — and that “hacker” doesn’t need to be a pejorative? Is it not a worthy struggle to take back the word “hacker” for those who would wear it proudly and capably? Do we really need to defer to criminal groups like LulzSec who defile the image of technologists across the net?

      I don’t think so, Dick. And heed this: my article brought both of our opinions to the surface. I would say there is great value in that.

  5. Guest says:

    I never understood, back when we as a culture put forward the “Cracker” alternative, why we did not use the existing perfectly good and fitting English word that described the douchebags.


    Adding “… on the computer” to an existing concept does not make it novel, and the concept of “cracker” as simply “idiot vandal on a computer” doesn’t merit a new word, never has, never will.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Fair point. My post wasn’t really meant to be persuasive so much as a rant: your argument, however, holds water and wouldn’t require any sort of reeducation to set folks straight. After all, the distinction between online and offline crime seems to be blurring more every day.

  6. Isaac says:

    They will never use the word Cracker. It is a racial slur, and sounds stupid to boot.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Sounds like something a cracker would say.

  7. Mutabletuple says:

    where did you get that uzbeks are crackers? or was it a joke?

    1. Anonymous says:

      I’d read a few articles recently discussing defacements by Uzbek hackers. That said, it was included as a bit of off-color humor. Hope I didn’t offend!