Monday, 14 November 2016

Why I left Vancouver Hack Space

I recently became aware a fellow former member of Vancouver Hack Space (VHS)'s blog post about alternatives to the hackerspace in light of it becoming a rather toxic environment. A few years ago, I had penned a draft piece about why I chose to leave but never bothered to publish it. After having seen someone else's disgust for what it has become, I have decided to speak up.

One way to start is to show what VHS looked like in 2009 when I had originally joined (my old iBook is visible in the shot too):

This was the first un-shared physical space that VHS occupied, a room that was barely larger than my living room being used by twenty or so people who all had the same goal in mind: do cool shit. On my first night there, I was enamoured and immediately signed myself as a member.

For me, it was the start of a lot of things: I met a lot of great people, made friends, furthered my own career, and learnt new things--it contributed to me being a better person overall. When I found myself working downtown after leaving my job in Surrey, I was able to put more time into the space and was able to leave work and go straight there to hangout.

VHS had spun up a lot of cool projects or was at least the catalyst for bigger things. The best one I can think of is Mini Maker Faire Vancouver, which otherwise may have never happened if it weren't for the space. Two startups come to mind that have changed the personal lives of members for the better and again it may have not been this way if it were not for VHS' existence.

I think that around the time that VHS started to need a new space and that there were new members coming in was the time I started to lose interest in being an active member. For a while, I would still go on a regular basis, but found myself as time went on that the space was changing and it was changing for the worst. When it left its location on Hastings Street for a larger one on East 1st Avenue, it was pretty much the end for me and the place because it had already become something that it shouldn't have been.

The aforementioned blog piece I mentioned stemmed from a variety of abuses directed at someone who spoke out. This was posted to the members-only discussion forum back in May:
Someone cleaned out my locker and stole some of the items in the locker, others item ended up in the drop box. This happens between Thursday May 5th, and May 11th. My locker was not locked, but was labeled with my name and there was a note in the locker that said "[person's] locker, not free, not available"
You have a thief and an asshole at the space. More bad people.
I don't suggest leaving anything of value at the space any more.
Back when VHS was smaller, this behaviour where items were stolen was exceedingly rare to the point where it was more often things getting misplaced, borrowed, or general ignorance--and even then I am failing to remember if and when these circumstances. We were generally better at keeping assholes out of the space and I would argue that until the move away from Hastings Street that the unwritten policy for how it was done went fairly well.

An example of a toxic individual being removed successfully was one person who came to the space in 2012 for one of our Super Happy Hacker Houses (SHHH). This was a periodic event we'd host where we'd have a keg, some music, lots of people, and then the later part of the evening devoted to three minute lightning talks where one could talk about whatever cool topics we had in mind--I had previously given talks on generating tripcodes, lock-picking, and Python to name a few.

This individual that evening chose a rather thoughtless talk: stealing credit card numbers from the wireless network at the Vancouver Public Library. It didn't get too much attention as it was towards the tail end of the evening, but it continued on the IRC channel later on. I ended up calling this person out on this, citing that it was fairly idiotic from an operational security point of view to openly admit that you were looking to commit fraud. His response was to use some uncreative insults, resulting in his removal from the IRC channel and was then made aware that he was not welcomed at VHS.

I'd say that this person's story with me ended there but he would later attempt to include himself in VanCitySec a few years later, resulting in him being removed from the IRC channel as well. He was then removed from being able to attend BSides Vancouver and then finally removed from OWASP's Vancouver chapter after he went off on the organizers and the speaker after the event had concluded when someone had enough of him interrupting their conversations. At an extreme level, he even managed to get a visit by the local police after he had admitted to intrusion on the wireless networks of the local transit agency.

It didn't help that later on I found out that he was harassing a friend of mine at a local meetup.

To this day, I still get him periodically showing up in the various Freenode channels I am in, taunting me over some non-existent botnet that he suspects I run. In almost all cases he ends up getting himself removed from the channel after I realise who he is.

In fairness, I do believe that he has some rather difficult problems to overcome (I have had people show me some aspects of his personal history that were troubling), but one of the things that I have learnt is that even if you know a reason for why someone exhibits shitty behaviour towards you or someone else, it is not something you have to sign up for and you should be able to remove that person if you feel it is necessary.

The reason why I bring up this person in particular is because he was the final straw for me deciding to leave the space: he was making an appearance again and I was finding it problematic that nobody was enforcing the ban--this was before the remarks about OWASP and the local meetup I should add.

When I spoke up on the mailing list, the response I got from someone who later ended up having someone at the space call the police on them was that he had every right to be in there--funny how assholes defend other assholes. At a meeting, he was eventually formally banned but after a year the ban had apparently expired in space's own words "[person] has since expired and he is welcome back at VHS".

I recently learnt that he had joined the hackspace after another encounter with him on Freenode, citing that I was an impediment to his membership. Of course, when he was banned in the first place, I had three people contact me privately letting me know that whatever decision VHS made would influence whether or not they'd be members.

This is not the only story involving harassment that I could bring up but this one I have first-hand knowledge of. I'm also exempting his name from this entry because I do not wish to attract his attention.

One of the things I can point out is that the whole makeup of how VHS is run and operated has changed since its beginnings. I'll use this photo as an example from the 2014 AGM:

Photo: VHS AGM 2014 Group Photo

In this photo, there are twelve men. I don't take exception to seeing twelve men but I damn well know that in the past we had women as members, especially who served as board members--I'll clarify something about how this "board" works or rather used to in a bit. Hell, even the aforementioned Maker Faire event was put on for the first few years by someone who I cannot say enough good things about her in terms of creativity and organizational skills. The fact that in 2014, six years after VHS was founded that it would still show a mostly male face even though it is apparent there are female members and those from the LGBTQ community amongst the membership is downright distressing.

The board that VHS has was originally created to satisfy the requirements of the Societies Act, a law that governs non-profits and other like-minded organizations in British Columbia. I served two years on the board and we only officially met when it was time for our annual general meeting, which again was a requirement of the act. Its sole purpose was to satisfy those legal requirements and to make insurance easier for us to get, but since then the board has morphed into an overseeing eye, drafting policy and everything, which was beyond what VHS was meant to be.

All in all, by the time that the person was banned after discussion amongst members of the space, the board had become something that oversaw everything and VHS was something that it wasn't when I first joined five years earlier. The writing on the wall should have been apparent when walls were erected to keep the woodworking away from the rest of the space that things were going to change. When the ham operator group formed within VHS and wanted to form a society within the society for the purposes of getting government grants for themselves and themselves alone, I knew that my time was done.

Since then, I have visited the space once at its Cook Street location and while it definitely is still a hackerspace, the original vibe it had years prior is not there. It doesn't feel like it's doing anything challenging and while there members there I still respect and chat with periodically, I cannot say that I want anything to do with the organization.

Today, I find myself going to VanCitySec, other local security events, and am friends with people who share the same ethos that I do, but it is really saddening that a space like VHS in 2009 is no more and I believe that the only reason it died was because it wanted to be everything to everyone. The original space is something I truly miss.

Sometimes it's hard to notice that you're becoming a victim of your own success and eventually you miss the forest from the trees.


  1. I think it's interesting that you're pining for a VERSION of VHS, rather than evaluating what VHS has become. It's entirely valid to feel that what you're personally looking for in a hackspace is no longer found at VHS, but personally I think that the "be everything to everyone" attitude is a great model. As the space grows it becomes increasingly difficult to steer the ship, to have people on the BOD or at the AGM and QGM that are able and willing to head space lead projects or community initiatives. People are busy, we all have our own lives and projects to deal with, so as membership rotated and the projects int he space changed and widened scope, the space evolved in to "A community garage for a community without garages."

    Personally I think this model is fantastic, it's given me the ability to start a second career, learn nearly every power tool in the space, work on projects FAR beyond anything I would have tried a few years ago, and meet lots of cool people who know way more than me about everything I could ask.

    I agree that a more inclusive model inherently means that it is more difficult to remove disruptive individuals, it's much easier when it's a smaller group of friends that can shun or simply ask someone to not come by. I haven't been around for the other incidents that you'd mentioned, but I can give my two cents on the blog post that spurred yours; I'm unsure exactly how it STARTED between the two, but a series of increasingly childish "pranks" met by increasingly overblown reactions (calling the police because he made a crappy shelf out of some panels of wood, and again when asked if he wanted to "settle it outside" which in his mind is a threat on his life?). This resulted in a board decision to ban the "prankster" member for a a short time, this was both meant as punishment and as a mediation in hopes to tell both members their actions weren't ok and to act like adults moving forward. The result of this decision was that the prankster abided by the ruling, leaving the space for the duration, while the "scorned" blog writer decided that the board made an incorrect decision and started to take his frustrations out on the space as a whole. He went from being a great, active member, to, in his own words "take every opportunity to warn people about VHS" because he somehow believes that his status as a "good member" entitled him to preferential treatment when it comes to his personal squabbles. He's since been banned from the space for stealing VHS property (a web domain) and continues to (in my opinion, though he's at least polite about it) harass current and potential members on social media "warning" them about the toxic environment, that he himself has created.

    I AGREE that it's sometimes difficult to remove difficult individuals, but in this specific case, I believe the board did their job to stop a childish feud and remove a childish member.

    As for queer members, there's at least me, I agree that's not much, but from the people that I've seen coming to the open nights, it's not exactly a case of not making the space seem safe as much as perhaps not advertising the space's existence in the correct places?

  2. Hey just wanted to come by and echo @gibbtall's sentiments. I'm a current active VHS member (since two years ago) and it has made a dramatically positive impact on my professional & hobby life. With the help and encouragement of the VHS community I've learnt a swath of new skills (PCB design, CAD, laser cutting, metal lathe, some mechatronics).

    It was super unfortunate to see the situation with those two members deteriorate. As well as the inability of the board and community to defuse it successfully. I have great respect for the contributions those members made to VHS. Less so for their ability to manage their personal conflicts.

    In any case, I will continue to be a VHS regular, and will also check out VanCitySec and some of the other promising local groups of which I'm now aware. Cheers.

  3. VHS is a cheap place to use a laser cutter. That's about it these days. There are still some excellent people down there that only know it in its current form, and that's unfortunate. Censure-ship is common and random. Ideas are frequently ridiculed and disparaged (as anyone with access to the online tools can attest to). There is absolutely favoritism.

    But where it completely went off the rails is when the board somehow came to see themselves as overlords. Gibbtall, you’re one of my favorite people down there. Reading your comment made me sad. Do you think the board should be handing out penalties and banning people? The community built VHS, and the community should be the ones making the decisions. As Colin mentions, sometimes you have to ban people, but the board (particularly in its current form) has absolutely no place making any significant decisions, deciding the direction of VHS, much less banning people. Those decisions should be made by the whole community. The fact that people now vie to be on the board is offensive to me, and it should bother every member.

    But I guess that's the risk you take with a non-profit. The old ethos (the HACKER ethos) is dead, which is why there are almost no original members left. That speaks volumes. VHS is hemorrhaging members. If you love it, you should really try to fix it. In the meantime, I’ll still pop by from time to time to use the laser cutter, but I’ll get my hackspace fix from other places.

  4. Tyson, do you really think the BoD wanted to get involved with this rift between two members? They most certainly did not want to , but were forced to when one member went to the BoD to get the other banned.

    Do you think the members wanted to take sides in this rift? I didn't. In fact as a member I just wish they had both started acting like adults, being nice to each other, stop taking pot-shots at each other in the forum and basically STFU about it. It's absolutely painful to watch an adult act like a spoilt child.
    VHS is a do-ocracy and democratic in that that the members elect a BoD - what funvill wanted to do was dictate to the BoD and members what the outcome of his rift should have been. VHS is not a dictatorship.

  5. Colin a couple of comments about your blog post - first kudo's if you were one of the founding members of the Hackspace - they boot-strapped an organization which is a hard thing to do given the costs of rented space in Vancouver.

    Yes VHS has changed since the days of 45W Hastings, and I think for the better. My first visit to VHS was at 45W. There was no orientation, no one showed me around the space, no one told be about the equipment available, no one told me how membership worked. It was more like "here for the Arduino class? Take a seat". There was soldering and electronics - that's it. No 3D printer, no tools (that I was told about), no wood working, no laser cutter. Apparently in those days you also had to "Disclose your motives and affiliations" - number 5 on the list of "Principles of Unity"
    These days on open house when I give tours of the space I cover what the space is about, the tools/equipment, the people, membership etc and I don't care about their motives or affiliations, I ask then what they like to do for projects, if they need help with anything and introduce them to other members.

    My other comment is about the wall in the "Bunker" space - it was there for a reason, that being to keep dust out of the common area and also reduce the noise - not to segregate one activity from another. As you probably know, at the Cook St location (being somewhat temporary) walls weren't put up because of cost and having to get permits from the city. The dust from the wood working machines can be a problem as it tends to cover things on the other side of the shelving - the 3D printers.

    I'd agree that the vibe isn't the same as in 45W, I don't think it's a good or bad thing, it's just different. The space has grown in physical size and members along with the tools and equipment available. I think that is a good thing.