Editors Note: This is based on a presentation at the upcoming  Theorizing the Web 2015 conferenceIt will be part of the Protocol Me Maybe panel. 


I’ve been researching hacking for a little while, and it occurred to me that I was focusing on a yet unnamed hacking subgenre. I’ve come to call this subgenre “interface hacks.” Interface hack refers to any use of web interface that upends user expectations and challenges assumptions about the creative and structural limitations of the Internet. An interface hack must have a technical component; in other words, its creator must employ either a minimal amount of code or demonstrate working knowledge of web technologies otherwise. By virtue of the fact they use interface, each hack has aesthetic properties; hacks on web infrastructure do not fall in this category unless they have a component that impacts the page design.

One of the most notable interface hacks is the “loading” icon promoted by organizations including Demand Progress and Fight for the Future in September 2014. This work was created to call attention to the cause of net neutrality: it made it appear as though the website on which it was displayed was loading, even after that was obviously not the case. It would seem to visitors that the icon was there in error; this confusion encouraged clicks on the image, which linked to a separate web page featuring content on the importance of net neutrality. To display the icon, website administrators inserted a snippet of JavaScript — provided free online by Fight for the Future — into their site’s source code. A more lighthearted interface hack is the “Adult Cat Finder,” a work that satirizes pornographic advertising in the form of a pop-up window that lets users know they’re “never more than one click away from chatting with a hot, local cat;” the piece includes a looping image of a Persian cat in front of a computer and scrolling chatroom-style text simply reading “meow.” The links to these, and other interface hacks, are included at the end of this post.

I maintain that interface hacks are powerful tools for online activists and hacktivists and that their potential has yet to be fully explored. The power of interface hacks resides in the fact that they take as their raw material the technical underpinnings of the Internet. Because their medium is infrastructure as opposed to content, they are functional on the level of context — in other words, their content is also their contextual frame, or the structure that gives the work meaning. Insofar as they exist to draw attention to their own rubric for interpretation, interface hacks leave the user at a disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their initial encounter with the work. One effect of this confusion is that user attention is seized during this time. The period before the user grasps that the “surprise” of the work is intentional, i.e., the time in which their awareness is given to making sense of what they are seeing rather than simply absorbing it, is a particularly potent one in terms of establishing messages and conveying meaning in a busy web environment. I believe that interface hacks are particularly suitable for activists and artists whose work confronts digital issues.

I am aware that my usage of the word “hack” in this context may be contentious. Many people, some of whom do not identify as “hackers” per se, have strong feelings about the word “hack.” The phrase has been defined and redefined frequently since its inception in the 1950s and encompasses a distinctly heterogeneous set of activities, individuals and groups across the world. A definition of “hacking” that suits all possible contexts and applications is therefore difficult to pin down, and it’s become fashionable in recent years to use the term in contexts entirely unrelated to computing (á la “life hack”). This has evoked ire from hackers and non-hackers alike who argue that its overuse has diminished the term to the point of meaninglessness. I use it here because the taxonomical status of these works is ambiguous: many of the pieces included could be classified in numerous categories, including “artwork” “software,” “activist demonstration” and “toy.” I take “hack” as a noun version of Richard Stallman’s definition of hacking: “exploring the limits of what is possible, in a spirit of playful cleverness.” The categorical ambiguity of interface hacks demands the need for a phrase: “interface hack,” as a term, is an epistemological tool. Grouping all of these works together under one name has allowed me to refine my investigation into their likenesses. These similarities are the structural elements that allow for the development of the theory behind them.

Hacking, including interface hacking, deals in a great amount of mystification and surprise; developing new terms as figures of thought offers us the to opportunity to reveal some of its internal machinations. Making the theoretical blueprints behind the cognitive “surprise” of interface hacks allows us to create other, similar works, which can be used to boost any number of causes. These, of course, can be either good causes or bad causes; my interest is in promoting hacking-for-good. I hope that they are used for beneficial reasons above and beyond all other possible manifestations.

 Some Interface Hacks

Ben Grosser’s “Facebook Demetricator”

Maddy Varner’s “Tab Police”

Net Neutrality Slowdown Icon

404: No Weapons of Mass Destruction

Richard Stallman,”On Hacking”

Emma Stamm is a writer, musician and web developer; her work can be found at https://www.silentinternet.com and she tweets @turing_tests.