The first time I hacked life was in middle school. In the lunchroom, a friend noticed I was reaching all the way down to the table to pick up my soda can and taught me an easy workaround. By turning the tab around so that the tab hole was over the mouth of the can, I could hold a drinking straw firmly in place. With this neat little trick, life was hacked.
That’s the easiest way to characterize the “life hacking” trend that has emerged in the more DIY-inclined corners of the Internet: neat little tricks that exploit, combine, or otherwise use preexisting materials to save time, energy, or money. It’s an interesting concept; instead of buying something new to solve problems or make life easier, a life-hacker simply finds and shares existing workarounds. That’s where the term “life hacking” comes from: it’s akin to the way computer hackers find preexisting loopholes in a program in order to get what they want from it. There is a significant community built around finding and sharing these tricks: a quick Google search for “life hacks” turns up 89,200,000 results. Among them are countless Twitter accounts, message boards, and blogs, all devoted to cataloguing and sharing the copious inefficiencies of modern life.
Most life hacks are fairly innocuous and easy, along the lines of the soda-tab-straw trick. Some of the tricks featured on Lifehacker.com, the most prominent site devoted to the trend, are more complex: one article teaches readers how to make a device out of string and a pen that can steady a camera in the absence of a proper tripod. Another lays out the steps to properly “jailbreak” a smartphone by removing or modifying the programming in the phone that normally limits it to its pre-programmed cell network. My personal favorite was a rating system of the grocery store equivalents to different types of Girl Scout cookies—if you like Samoas, track down some Keebler brand Coconut Dreams.
The common goal among all these articles on Lifehacker, and in millions of comments, blogs, and discussion boards, is the reduction or mitigation of inefficiency. Want to keep your tall winter boots from being crushed in a crowded closet? Lifehacker recommends using an empty wine bottle to help them keep their shape. Hate squeaky or wobbly grocery carts? A Reddit thread on the subject reveals that carts found out in the parking lot are less likely to be defective, reasoning that the carts that made it through the store and out into the lot were satisfactory for previous customers.
This urge to find and weed out even minor inefficiencies is not a new one, though. It is arguably the reason why any technological progress occurs at all. It is a common stereotype that a good innovator will never be satisfied with something that merely works; instead, there is always room to make it run faster, quieter, easier. But unlike technological innovation in the conventional sense, “life hacking” is unique as a form of progress in that it does not require the creation of any new technology; time and effort is instead expended on sharing your own hacks, and learning those of others.
What has given rise to the life hacking phenomenon is the sophisticated development of an architecture for sharing problems and solutions. Although the life-hacking trend first started with the popularization of the Internet, the current online landscape is one that is perfect for fast-paced sharing and re-sharing of relatively small pieces of information. The development of a wide strata of social media—think of not only Facebook or Twitter, but also of blogs and hybrid sites like Tumblr and Reddit—has facilitated sharing information and has allowed communities to develop based around that practice. Hence, the explosive growth of this trend and the vibrant community that supports it.
Of course, there are limits to what these tricks can help you with. Life hacks can shave off the rough edges to your life but they can’t necessarily fix big issues or help you shirk major responsibilities. For example, a life hack might help you get your taxes done faster, but it won’t get you out of paying them, and it won’t help you come audit time. On the micro level, though, some of these life hacks can make life much less annoying. Take, for example, my initial soda-straw life hack. It was a tiny project to solve a tiny annoyance, but it made drinking my soda easier, without requiring me to buy anything new to do so.
However, despite the micro scale of most life hacks, there are some that hold legitimate large-scale potential. Lifehacker has a veritable library’s-worth of articles intended to help readers reduce their electric bills and conserve energy. The widespread application of these kinds of small-scale waste reductions would lead to a large net positive effect. On Lifehacker, I read an article detailing ways to back up computer data across multiple devices, which if adopted on a large scale could greatly reduce unproductive time spent trying to access data that hasn’t been properly synced. Other more literal types of waste could also be reduced—one forum I visited was filled with recipes for common grocery items like sour cream. I imagine that thousands fewer plastic sour cream tubs sitting in trash cans across the country is a good thing.
I should note, even in closing, that I am not a dedicated life hacker. I haven’t actually made a tripod out of string and a pen, perfected my proprietary sour cream recipe, or bought off-season replacements for Girl Scout cookies. My range of technical expertise is basically limited to messing around with soda can tabs and occasionally changing the settings on my computer. This does not mean, however, that I don’t recognize the potential utility of many of these tricks; DIY culture can often seem daunting for those not accustomed to it, but many life hacks are small and simple enough to learn and incorporate into your daily routine without any real hassle – which is exactly the point. It’s progress with less pain, on an admittedly miniature level. I, for one, welcome this way of thinking—especially when it involves cookies.