Fun Politics and the Politics of Fun in Taiwan’s g0v Community

Written by Sam Robbins.

Image credit: _DSC0760 by 柚子/g0v.tw 零時政府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

“I feel like that spirit of fun and fooling around from the earlier days… is slowly fading away… and basically everything I do in the g0v community…. Is trying to bring back, or supplement, a little [of that earlier spirit]”– pm5, g0v contributor.

When I started participating and doing research in Taiwan’s g0v community (pron. “gov-zero”), I did not expect it to be as fun as it turned out to be. Founded in 2012, g0v is a decentralised civic tech community that advocated transparency, open-source technology, and civic participation. Although hard to measure precisely, it is likely one of the most prominent groups of its type in the world. Anyone can join g0v, there is no formal membership, and the community is made up of a diverse group of those from coding backgrounds, NGO’s, students, and more. The community has launched, or been involved with, several successful projects over the years. These include a fact-checking line bot, an online open-source dictionary for the Amis language, the collaborative deliberation platform V-Taiwan, and more recently, a map to locate available face masks during the months when sales were still tightly regulated. During my interviewees with those involved in the community, I was surprised how often the topic of fun came up, whether as a motivating factor for their own participation, a marker of the g0v identity, or something that needed to be preserved to keep g0v functioning. Fun, I came to realise, is not just tangential to g0v. Instead, it is intimately tied to the community and its continued functioning. 

The notion that emotions can inspire political action is not new. Research into social movements contains many examples of the motivating power of passion, anger, and disgust. These emotional states need not be purely individual. Indeed, they can instead be consciously cultivated, or sometimes actively mitigated, by movements themselves to connect participants and help encourage certain types of collective action. These processes are not limited to a specific kind of movement and have been documented in everything from the Chinese civil war to AIDS activism. What is seemingly much less common is the active cultivation of positive emotions, such as happiness or fun, in such social movements. If you’re feeling content about your situation, what need is there to engage in collective action or civil engagement? In this regard, g0v is perhaps an outlier, or at the least, emblematic of another way that emotions and political engagement can interact. In the g0v community, fun is put to political ends. But what this means requires further discussion. How can fun be used this way, and how can movements try to cultivate fun consciously?

To start with the latter of the two questions, the easiest way to understand the role of fun in the g0v community is to experience it yourself, whether through joining their slack or participating in one of g0v’s bimonthly hackathons. Perhaps one of the most apparent ways fun is cultivated is through food at hackathons and how food has become a self-reflexive marker of the community and its identity. “There’s nothing that can’t be solved with a slice of pizza, and if there is, just take another slice,” says Cofacts cofounder Billion in the g0v newbie manual video played at the 40th g0v hackathon. Pizza, along with fried chicken, are two foods present at every hackathon. In addition, food is always discussed at every hackathon and g0v event. One of the translators hired for the 4th biannual g0v summit in 2020 was apparently taken aback at the amount of discussion of food she had to translate in every g0v talk. How much food was needed for the next hackathon was also the first item of discussion at the first g0v-jothon – the community’s main organisational task force – meeting I sat in on. In addition to food, humour and wordplay, commonly found in hacker communities, are replete within the community. There are many instances of parody, pastiche and wordplay in g0v. to take a recent example, the 44th hackathon has been named the “the most dangerous hackathon on earth” in mockery of the economist’s recent story on Taiwan. On the rare occasion I have made a joke that lands, I’ve been told that I’m starting to understand “g0v’s culture.” Those involved in g0v-jothon or g0v-intl, which manages g0v’s international exchanges, are often quite consciously trying to make sure that people have fun at g0v events. This means the presence of food and humour and making sure that g0v hackathons are social events where people can meet each other and make connections. 

How has fun become so essential and something remarked upon so much? Apart from being foundational to the hacker cultures that g0v has been influenced by and grew out of, fun is used to ensure the community continues to function. Civic tech and civic hacking often involve (tech) professionals contributing their professional skills in their free time for no compensation. As a decentralised community, the only people who work at g0v are the small team involved in event organisation. Everyone else is a volunteer. Although there have been many successful g0v projects, many more projects die or go nowhere. One of the key reasons that can cause the death of a project is a lack of motivation. If everyone has limited time and resources to contribute, projects can often fall through without a strong team pushing the idea forward. As is the case with many types of activism, burnout is a constant and perennial threat for g0v and g0v participants. Fun is thus a way to keep people motivated. If hackathons are fun, the logic goes, people will be more likely to keep coming back, and the community will continue functioning. This seems to have worked thus far. There have been 44 bimonthly hackathons since the community was first founded, and the number of people involved continues to grow. 

But the question remains, why fun? Why is time spent cultivating this emotion to keep people motivated when something like anger could work just as well? Part of the reason is likely that g0v currently does not exist in opposition to any single threat, and there is no singular grievance guiding action. There is no end goal or single issue to be resolved for the g0v community. Instead, growing out of a certain post-authoritarian sense that civic participation in the political process remained low, g0v’s central premise is empowerment through engagement. Fun thus becomes linked to empowerment as the act of empowerment (participation) is intentionally fun, and it is through having fun that political empowerment happens. To quote from pm5 again, “Making things fun (instead of merely making fun of things) is a generative/productive, and thus political, action.”

Fun is not only a tactic to keep people coming back, but also to get people involved in the first place. Significant effort is put into trying to decrease the perceived barriers to entry in the g0v community, which for many outsiders—and some insiders—is involved in a type of political engagement that only those who code can join. To quote from the same newbie manual video as above, “30% of the participants are coders, 28% are newbies, and 100% are hackers.” There have been many strategies emerging out of discussions about decreasing barriers, but one of them has been to ensure that new participants have fun at the events. 

As described earlier, fun also serves as an identity marker. The fact that g0v events are fun helps separate them from formal government operations or workplace settings, thus maintaining the “decentralised community” g0v atmosphere. But whilst fun can help demarcate g0v from what it is not, debates about the role of fun – and how to ensure fun – can also reveal certain divisions or tensions within the g0v community. There is a perennial question regarding g0v: is the goal producing successful projects, or is the g0v community and its values a goal in and of itself? Does g0v need to be focused on making tools or ensuring that citizens have alternative ways to engage politically and come together? As g0v has become more successful and more well-known, the former opinion has seemed to become more dominant – relegating fun to a secondary goal or strategy, and not an aim. However, as pm5’s quote at the beginning suggests, there are those trying to go against this. This spirit of fun-first has inspired the running of certain events over the last few years, such as Facing the Ocean: Meet and Hack, a Japanese Korean Taiwanese joint hack event. Rather than focusing on building concrete tools, organising this event stressed that the focus was on building community, building ties and coming together. It is named a “meet and hack,” not a “hackathon,” for this reason. 

G0v continues to expand and diversify in a way that somewhat defies any attempt to pin it down. Exactly what type of community g0v is to become is constantly up for discussion and debate. Regardless, I am sure that the community will continue to remain fun and continue to serve as a model for cultivating fun that can successfully encourage political participation and civic engagement. Perhaps there are some things that even two slices of pizza cannot solve, but I am sure it will not solve members of the g0v community from trying to do so and defying expectations in the process. 

Sam Robbins is an editor at Taiwan Insight and a master’s student in Sociology at National Taiwan University, where he’s writing about g0v and international data activism. 

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