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Inside a Facebook Hackathon, Where the Future of Social Media Begins

Facebook hackathon shows off the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow.Stanford University and UC Berkeley students are partying tonight at the social network’s headquarters — coder style.

There’s a “Battle of the Bay” going on tonight at Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters, and it’s happening in a haze of Chinese food, juggling, music, and coding. And maybe some unicycling, if you’re lucky.

The social network holds its second Stanford versus Cal (University of California at Berkeley)hackathon for budding coders to try their hands at creating new products. Nearly 200 students from both campuses sat in front of their laptops at around 5 p.m. with no intention of stopping until 3 p.m. tomorrow. That’s what Facebook hackathons are about — nothing but code. And some fun.

“The first rule of hackathon is there are no rules. Kind of like ‘Fight Club,’ but with no blood,” Facebook engineer Paul Tarjan said, after rolling into the room on his unicycle.

Tarjan, who has run hackathons for the last five years, also offered juggling lessons for when weary coders hit the 2 a.m. wall.

He promised prizes and glory. And coffee, plenty of coffee.

Tarjan said the best ideas come from the hackathons among Facebook employees, including the “Like” button and Facebook video and chat functions.

He told the students that Facebook won’t be stealing their ideas and won’t be upset if they don’t build a product specifically for the Facebook platform. The social network is certainly not afraid of a little competition.

“If you start the next Facebook tonight, that would be awesome,” he said. The winners get an invitation to compete at the social network’s hackathon finals in November.

So as “Gangnum Style” played in the background, the students got to work. The music choice is a bit surprising, since attendees normally like to go Justin Bieber or do some rick-rolling, according to Facebook software engineer/Hackathon DJ Richard Zadorozny (that winds up happening later in the evening).

One participant, 20-year-old Tarun Chundhry, a former software engineering student at Cal, said he wanted to create a mobile app for his already existing product, Quad. It’s an education tool he hopes will replace Blackboard. He said he hasn’t had time to build a mobile app or any of the other ideas he’s had, so he signed up for the hackathon to dedicate some time (apparently, though, he was able to find the time to build a digital education platform and start a business around it).

Galina Meyer, 18, a computer science and Chinese major at Stanford, said she wants to build a Google Maps layer that will tell users what movies were filmed on the spot where they’re standing. She envisions being able to pull up video clips and photos from the films.

Neither expressed much interest in working for Facebook, they were just there to hack. Last year’s winner, Peter Cottle, became a Facebook intern and starts a full-time gig at the social network in the spring.

Tarjan said hackathons like these certainly help Facebook surface the best of the best, but that’s not the sole purpose. He wants the students to be inspired by the pure joy of creating something, just as he was when he was a student attending hackathons.

Of course, Tarjan knows how competitive some of these young hackers can get.

“Every person in here thinks they are going to be the next Mark Zuckerberg,” he said. Who knows? They might be right.

 

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