On December 10, Facebook announced its first Hacker Cup. Engineers world-wide have been atwitter (terrible pun intended) about the opportunity for programming glory – and also the hilarity of the public’s fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of hacking.

The programming competition, which will begin on January 7, 2011 with an online qualification round, will be structured in a multi-round format. Contestants will have to successfully solve algorithmic-based problem statements to advance and will be ranked by accuracy and speed. Following three online rounds, Facebook will fly the top 25 hackers to their California headquarters for the on-site finals.

With first prize being a relatively modest $5,000 USD, Facebook shows a clear understanding that money isn’t the driving force here. Bragging rights of being number one out of what is likely to be a cast of thousands from around the world is the co-main attraction. The other, of course, will be a single-line resume for any programming position anywhere – and a salary with a hell of a lot more zeros than three.

A good portion of the chatter, however, is about the reactions of everyday facebook users on hearing the name of the competition. Due to the general public’s greatest exposure to the idea of hackers being the movie of the same name along with others such as Sneakers (which actually portray ‘cracking‘), hacking’s actual meaning of coding to improve or repurpose an existing structure or quickly create a new one is widely unknown. Thus, comments such as the following were quick to pop up:

“This is freaking scary coz pipol(sic) will be able to hack into any fb ccount they want to. This is crack…”

and

” ‘Liking’ this would be the same as condoning home invasion and theft. Any suggestion of approving hacking is irresponsible.”

While such statements are simply met with amusement and mockery in programming circles, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (whose organization regularly has all-night ‘Hackathons‘ to promote new ideas and projects) recognized the need for clarification from a PR standpoint, and stated the following in a Dec. 5 60 minutes interview (@ 2:10).

When we say hacker, there’s this whole definition that engineers have for themselves, where it’s very much a compliment when you call someone a hacker, where to hack something means to build something very quickly, right? In one night, you can sit down and you could churn out a lot of code, and at the end, you have a product.