Being booted by August 2018 is not the first existential threat that the quirky, “do-ocratic” hackerspace Noisebridge has faced – and this time around, some core Noisebridge geeks are dreaming big. They’re hoping not just to live on, but find a bigger space and maybe even buy a permanent home.
As the place and its reputation have grown, so have its coffers. Noisebridge member Scotty Allen said the collective’s bank account balance has not only been in the black, but increasing over time rather than draining.
Cofounder Mitch Altman chalked that up almost entirely to donations, a testament to the widespread support the group has enjoyed. Still, the savings are not enough to easily find an equivalent space to rent in San Francisco.
The cost of space in San Francisco has tripled since Noisebridge signed its lease, and with newcomers piling in, the place is also bursting at the seams, so downsizing is not an option.
Lease renewal is apparently off the table as their relationship landlord likely wants a simpler tenant, said Altman. A previous participants ousted for violating the rule — to be excellent to one another — have taken revenge for exile by reporting Noisebridge to city inspectors for unpermitted construction. Noisebridge members are working to bring everything up to code, but those conflicts have strained relations with the landlord.
Moving on to a new location seems the better option, but where to? Altman said he’s floating the idea of teaming up with some other nonprofits and securing a permanent home by buying a building. But that requires capital.
Maybe there’s hope in another geeky phenomenon: Bitcoin. The cryptocurrency recently saw a surge in valuation, and some savvy early investors are still holding on to the virtual “coins” that are now worth immense amounts.
“There’s a lot of people that are part of our broader community that suddenly find themselves, in the current Bitcoin speculative bubble, with a lot of money,” Altman said. “So if we get a bunch of people who would consider giving us some of their Bitcoins, that could add up to enough for a downpayment, perhaps.”
The hackerspace has come a long way to get to a place where its members can toy with those prospects.
Victoria Fierce, who now considers Noisebridge hackers her family, had stepped in to help Noisebridge navigate an earlier self-reinvention around three and a half years ago. At that time, Fierce said, the vibe there was a more off-putting kind of quirky: Fierce walked in one day to find a naked man smeared in whipped cream emphatically practicing air guitar moves in a mirror.
“This is is when Noisebridge was also on its last limbs, and Noisebridge as a culture was just shit,” Fierce said of that time. “And yet still we recovered from that. We got better. We came back.”
And it’s true. At the time the group needed to come up with $10,000 in a week. Fierce said they met that deadline.
These days, Allen describes it as a “a place for those of us that really like being geeks and exploring to go and not have to be surrounded by startup-bro-tech culture, VC-culture all 24 hours of our day.”
Where other hackerspaces might have a boot-camp feeling, or seem like a place for young entrepreneurs to fast-track themselves toward founding the next big startup, Noisebridge exists mostly to satisfy curiosity.
“We have a really deep commitment to Noisebridge being as open and accessible as possible. That means that everybody from someone who’s homeless and living on the street to someone whos’ a founder of a VC-funded startup is completely welcome at Noisebridge,” Allen said.
That included, in September, a visit from Chelsea Manning.
Primarily backed by donations rather than investment, Noisebridge has only accepted grants about three times, according to Altman, always insisting that there be no strings attached. Funding offers perceived to have some kind of motive were rejected.
The result is less of a code boot camp and more of a weird transmutation machine where people go in as one thing and come out another. It’s a place where you could go to learn programming but fall in love with laser cutting instead. For some, those discoveries have been career changing, said Altman.
In one case, someone came in to learn to code and instead took a soldering workshop and “suddenly three years later they’re telling me, ‘You taught me how to solder and now I’m making a living working on this thing in electronics!’” he said. “It really changes lives.”
Whether through Bitcoin or donations or sheer force of will, the hackers seem confident that Noisebridge will endure.
“Noisebridge is like a super connected internet-of–things cockroach. You can never kill Noisebridge,” Fierce said.