A Portrait of J. Random Hacker

This profile reflects detailed comments on an earlier `trial balloon'
version from about a hundred Usenet respondents.  Where comparatives
are used, the implicit `other' is a randomly selected segment of the
non-hacker population of the same size as hackerdom.

An important point: Except in some relatively minor respects such as
slang vocabulary, hackers don't get to be the way they are by
imitating each other.  Rather, it seems to be the case that the
combination of personality traits that makes a hacker so conditions
one's outlook on life that one tends to end up being like other
hackers whether one wants to or not (much as bizarrely detailed
similarities in behavior and preferences are found in genetic twins
raised separately).

:General Appearance:

Intelligent.  Scruffy.  Intense.  Abstracted.  Surprisingly for a
sedentary profession, more hackers run to skinny than fat; both
extremes are more common than elsewhere.  Tans are rare.


Casual, vaguely post-hippie; T-shirts, jeans, running shoes,
Birkenstocks (or bare feet).  Long hair, beards, and moustaches are
common.  High incidence of tie-dye and intellectual or humorous
`slogan' T-shirts (only rarely computer related; that would be too

A substantial minority prefers `outdoorsy' clothing -- hiking boots
("in case a mountain should suddenly spring up in the machine room",
as one famous parody put it), khakis, lumberjack or chamois shirts,
and the like.

Very few actually fit the "National Lampoon" Nerd stereotype, though
it lingers on at MIT and may have been more common before 1975.  These
days, backpacks are more common than briefcases, and the hacker `look'
is more whole-earth than whole-polyester.

Hackers dress for comfort, function, and minimal maintenance hassles
rather than for appearance (some, perhaps unfortunately, take this to
extremes and neglect personal hygiene).  They have a very low
tolerance of suits and other `business' attire; in fact, it is not
uncommon for hackers to quit a job rather than conform to a dress

Female hackers almost never wear visible makeup, and many use none at

:Reading Habits:

Omnivorous, but usually includes lots of science and science fiction.
The typical hacker household might subscribe to "Analog", "Scientific
American", "Whole-Earth Review", and "Smithsonian" (most hackers
ignore "Wired" and other self-consciously `cyberpunk' magazines,
considering them {wannabee} fodder).  Hackers often have a reading
range that astonishes liberal arts people but tend not to talk about
it as much.  Many hackers spend as much of their spare time reading as
the average American burns up watching TV, and often keep shelves and
shelves of well-thumbed books in their homes.

:Other Interests:

Some hobbies are widely shared and recognized as going with the
culture: science fiction, music, medievalism (in the active form
practiced by the Society for Creative Anachronism and similar
organizations), chess, go, backgammon, wargames, and intellectual
games of all kinds.  (Role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons
used to be extremely popular among hackers but they lost a bit of
their luster as they moved into the mainstream and became heavily
commercialized.)  Logic puzzles.  Ham radio.  Other interests that
seem to correlate less strongly but positively with hackerdom include
linguistics and theater teching.

:Physical Activity and Sports:

Many (perhaps even most) hackers don't follow or do sports at all and
are determinedly anti-physical.  Among those who do, interest in
spectator sports is low to non-existent; sports are something one
*does*, not something one watches on TV.  

Further, hackers avoid most team sports like the plague (volleyball is
a notable exception, perhaps because it's non-contact and relatively
friendly).  Hacker sports are almost always primarily self-competitive
ones involving concentration, stamina, and micromotor skills: martial
arts, bicycling, auto racing, kite flying, hiking, rock climbing,
aviation, target-shooting, sailing, caving, juggling, skiing, skating
(ice and roller).  Hackers' delight in techno-toys also tends to draw
them towards hobbies with nifty complicated equipment that they can
tinker with.


Nearly all hackers past their teens are either college-degreed or
self-educated to an equivalent level.  The self-taught hacker is often
considered (at least by other hackers) to be better-motivated, and may
be more respected, than his school-shaped counterpart.  Academic areas
from which people often gravitate into hackerdom include (besides the
obvious computer science and electrical engineering) physics,
mathematics, linguistics, and philosophy.

:Things Hackers Detest and Avoid:

IBM mainframes.  Smurfs, Ewoks, and other forms of offensive cuteness.
Bureaucracies.  Stupid people.  Easy listening music.  Television
(except for cartoons, movies, and "Star Trek" classic).  Business
suits.  Dishonesty.  Incompetence.  Boredom.  COBOL. BASIC.
Character-based menu interfaces.


Ethnic.  Spicy.  Oriental, esp. Chinese and most esp. Szechuan, Hunan,
and Mandarin (hackers consider Cantonese vaguely d'eclass'e).  Hackers
prefer the exotic; for example, the Japanese-food fans among them will
eat with gusto such delicacies as fugu (poisonous pufferfish) and
whale.  Thai food has experienced flurries of popularity.  Where
available, high-quality Jewish delicatessen food is much esteemed.  A
visible minority of Southwestern and Pacific Coast hackers prefers

For those all-night hacks, pizza and microwaved burritos are big.
Interestingly, though the mainstream culture has tended to think of
hackers as incorrigible junk-food junkies, many have at least mildly
health-foodist attitudes and are fairly discriminating about what they
eat.  This may be generational; anecdotal evidence suggests that the
stereotype was more on the mark 10--15 years ago.


Vaguely left of center, except for the strong libertarian contingent
which rejects conventional left-right politics entirely.  The only
safe generalization is that hackers tend to be rather
anti-authoritarian; thus, both conventional conservatism and `hard'
leftism are rare.  Hackers are far more likely than most non-hackers
to either (a) be aggressively apolitical or (b) entertain peculiar or
idiosyncratic political ideas and actually try to live by them

:Gender and Ethnicity:

Hackerdom is still predominantly male.  However, the percentage of
women is clearly higher than the low-single-digit range typical for
technical professions, and female hackers are generally respected and
dealt with as equals.

In the U.S., hackerdom is predominantly Caucasian with strong
minorities of Jews (East Coast) and Orientals (West Coast).  The
Jewish contingent has exerted a particularly pervasive cultural
influence (see {Food}, above, and note that several common jargon
terms are obviously mutated Yiddish).

The ethnic distribution of hackers is understood by them to be a
function of which ethnic groups tend to seek and value education.
Racial and ethnic prejudice is notably uncommon and tends to be met
with freezing contempt.

When asked, hackers often ascribe their culture's gender- and
color-blindness to a positive effect of text-only network channels,
and this is doubtless a powerful influence.  Also, the ties many
hackers have to AI research and SF literature may have helped them to
develop an idea of personhood that is inclusive rather than exclusive
--- after all, if one's imagination readily grants full human rights to AI
programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color
and gender can't seem very important any more.


Agnostic.  Atheist.  Non-observant Jewish.  Neo-pagan.  Very commonly,
three or more of these are combined in the same person.  Conventional
faith-holding Christianity is rare though not unknown.

Even hackers who identify with a religious affiliation tend to be
relaxed about it, hostile to organized religion in general and all
forms of religious bigotry in particular.  Many enjoy `parody'
religions such as Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius.

Also, many hackers are influenced to varying degrees by Zen Buddhism
or (less commonly) Taoism, and blend them easily with their `native'

There is a definite strain of mystical, almost Gnostic sensibility
that shows up even among those hackers not actively involved with
neo-paganism, Discordianism, or Zen.  Hacker folklore that pays homage
to `wizards' and speaks of incantations and demons has too much
psychological truthfulness about it to be entirely a joke.

:Ceremonial Chemicals:

Most hackers don't smoke tobacco, and use alcohol in moderation if at
all (though there is a visible contingent of exotic-beer fanciers, and
a few hackers are serious oenophiles).  Limited use of non-addictive
psychedelic drugs, such as cannabis, LSD, psilocybin, and nitrous
oxide, etc., used to be relatively common and is still regarded with
more tolerance than in the mainstream culture.  Use of `downers' and
opiates, on the other hand, appears to be particularly rare; hackers
seem in general to dislike drugs that make them stupid.  On the third
hand, many hackers regularly wire up on caffeine and/or sugar for
all-night hacking runs.

:Communication Style:

See the discussions of speech and writing styles near the beginning of
this File.  Though hackers often have poor person-to-person
communication skills, they are as a rule quite sensitive to nuances of
language and very precise in their use of it.  They are often better
at writing than at speaking.

:Geographical Distribution:

In the United States, hackerdom revolves on a Bay Area-to-Boston axis;
about half of the hard core seems to live within a hundred miles of
Cambridge (Massachusetts) or Berkeley (California), although there are
significant contingents in Los Angeles, in the Pacific Northwest, and
around Washington DC.  Hackers tend to cluster around large cities,
especially `university towns' such as the Raleigh-Durham area in North
Carolina or Princeton, New Jersey (this may simply reflect the fact
that many are students or ex-students living near their alma maters).

:Sexual Habits:

Hackerdom easily tolerates a much wider range of sexual and lifestyle
variation than the mainstream culture.  It includes a relatively large
gay and bisexual contingent.  Hackers are somewhat more likely to live
in polygynous or polyandrous relationships, practice open marriage, or
live in communes or group houses.  In this, as in general appearance,
hackerdom semi-consciously maintains `counterculture' values.

:Personality Characteristics:

The most obvious common `personality' characteristics of hackers are
high intelligence, consuming curiosity, and facility with intellectual
abstractions.  Also, most hackers are `neophiles', stimulated by and
appreciative of novelty (especially intellectual novelty).  Most are
also relatively individualistic and anti-conformist.

Although high general intelligence is common among hackers, it is not
the sine qua non one might expect.  Another trait is probably even
more important: the ability to mentally absorb, retain, and reference
large amounts of `meaningless' detail, trusting to later experience to
give it context and meaning.  A person of merely average analytical
intelligence who has this trait can become an effective hacker, but a
creative genius who lacks it will swiftly find himself outdistanced by
people who routinely upload the contents of thick reference manuals
into their brains.  [During the production of the first book version
of this document, for example, I learned most of the rather complex
typesetting language TeX over about four working days, mainly by
inhaling Knuth's 477-page manual.  My editor's flabbergasted reaction
to this genuinely surprised me, because years of associating with
hackers have conditioned me to consider such performances routine and
to be expected. -- ESR]

Contrary to stereotype, hackers are *not* usually intellectually
narrow; they tend to be interested in any subject that can provide
mental stimulation, and can often discourse knowledgeably and even
interestingly on any number of obscure subjects -- if you can get them
to talk at all, as opposed to, say, going back to their hacking.

It is noticeable (and contrary to many outsiders' expectations) that
the better a hacker is at hacking, the more likely he or she is to
have outside interests at which he or she is more than merely

Hackers are `control freaks' in a way that has nothing to do with the
usual coercive or authoritarian connotations of the term.  In the same
way that children delight in making model trains go forward and back
by moving a switch, hackers love making complicated things like
computers do nifty stuff for them.  But it has to be *their* nifty
stuff.  They don't like tedium, nondeterminism, or most of the fussy,
boring, ill-defined little tasks that go with maintaining a normal
existence.  Accordingly, they tend to be careful and orderly in their
intellectual lives and chaotic elsewhere.  Their code will be
beautiful, even if their desks are buried in 3 feet of crap.

Hackers are generally only very weakly motivated by conventional
rewards such as social approval or money.  They tend to be attracted
by challenges and excited by interesting toys, and to judge the
interest of work or other activities in terms of the challenges
offered and the toys they get to play with.

In terms of Myers-Briggs and equivalent psychometric systems,
hackerdom appears to concentrate the relatively rare INTJ and INTP
types; that is, introverted, intuitive, and thinker types (as opposed
to the extroverted-sensate personalities that predominate in the
mainstream culture).  ENT[JP] types are also concentrated among
hackers but are in a minority.

:Weaknesses of the Hacker Personality:

Hackers have relatively little ability to identify emotionally with
other people.  This may be because hackers generally aren't much like
`other people'.  Unsurprisingly, hackers also tend towards
self-absorption, intellectual arrogance, and impatience with people
and tasks perceived to be wasting their time.

As cynical as hackers sometimes wax about the amount of idiocy in the
world, they tend by reflex to assume that everyone is as rational,
`cool', and imaginative as they consider themselves.  This bias often
contributes to weakness in communication skills.  Hackers tend to be
especially poor at confrontation and negotiation.

Because of their passionate embrace of (what they consider to be) the
{Right Thing}, hackers can be unfortunately intolerant and bigoted on
technical issues, in marked contrast to their general spirit of
camaraderie and tolerance of alternative viewpoints otherwise.
Old-time {{ITS}} partisans look down on the ever-growing hordes of
{{UNIX}} hackers; UNIX aficionados despise {VMS} and {{MS-DOS}}; and
hackers who are used to conventional command-line user interfaces
loudly loathe mouse-and-menu based systems such as the Macintosh.
Hackers who don't indulge in {Usenet} consider it a huge waste of time
and {bandwidth}; fans of old adventure games such as {ADVENT} and
{Zork} consider {MUD}s to be glorified chat systems devoid of
atmosphere or interesting puzzles; hackers who are willing to devote
endless hours to Usenet or MUDs consider {IRC} to be a *real* waste of
time; IRCies think MUDs might be okay if there weren't all those silly
puzzles in the way.  And, of course, there are the perennial {holy
wars} -- {EMACS} vs. {vi}, {big-endian} vs.  {little-endian}, RISC
vs. CISC, etc., etc., etc.  As in society at large, the intensity and
duration of these debates is usually inversely proportional to the
number of objective, factual arguments available to buttress any

As a result of all the above traits, many hackers have difficulty
maintaining stable relationships.  At worst, they can produce the
classic {computer geek}: withdrawn, relationally incompetent, sexually
frustrated, and desperately unhappy when not submerged in his or her
craft.  Fortunately, this extreme is far less common than mainstream
folklore paints it -- but almost all hackers will recognize something
of themselves in the unflattering paragraphs above.

Hackers are often monumentally disorganized and sloppy about dealing
with the physical world.  Bills don't get paid on time, clutter piles
up to incredible heights in homes and offices, and minor maintenance
tasks get deferred indefinitely.

1994-95's fad behavioral disease was a syndrome called Attention
Deficit Disorder, supposedly characterized by (among other things) a
combination of short attention span with an ability to `hyperfocus'
imaginatively on interesting tasks.  There are grounds for questioning
whether ADD actually exists, and if it does whether it is really a
`disease' rather than an extreme of a normal genetic variation like
having freckles or being able to taste DPT; but it is certainly true
that many hacker traits coincide with major indicators for ADD, and
probably true that ADD boosters would find a far higher rate of
clinical ADD among hackers than the supposedly mainstream-normal 10%.

The sort of person who routinely uses phrases like `incompletely
socialized' usually thinks hackers are.  Hackers regard such people
with contempt when they notice them at all.


Hackers are more likely to have cats than dogs (in fact, it is widely
grokked that cats have the hacker nature).  Many drive incredibly
decrepit heaps and forget to wash them; richer ones drive spiffy
Porsches and RX-7s and then forget to have them washed.  Almost all
hackers have terribly bad handwriting, and often fall into the habit
of block-printing everything like junior draftsmen.