Badges – Less Yack, More Hack

This post is the basis for a talk I’ll be giving at the 2012 Flourish conference on March 31st

I’ve covered a bit of what a OBI compliant badge is, technically, but wanted to speculate a bit on where badges could start appearing. There’s a lot of theorization on badges in higher education, and badges for learning, but I want to propose something else entirely, something more geek-centric.

The Problem

I’ve spent a significant amount of my life in user group meetings, open source conferences, and more recently – playing Pathfinder (an OGL D&D 3.5 edition variant). In each of those three places, you spend some percentage of your interaction time explaining who you are, and trying to figure out where you fit in with the overall ecosystem, or team dynamic.

We do it for a few reasons, the above board – store this information away so I know who to talk to in the future when I have a particular problem, or do I want to be pals with this person, and the less-above-board – is this other person more awesome than me? It’s not all warm and fuzzy either, in a hack-sprint situation at a conference, you have to figure out who’s going to work on what, and at what level. In a dungeon raid, you need to know who can pick pockets, and who can heal you when you get a sword boo boo.

Yack Yack Yack

All this takes time, it’s a lot of yacking, not a lot of hacking. Pathfinder speeds it up a bit. At table games, each player brings a table “tent” (a placard?) that gives their character name, level and class. So, at a glance, you know the player is a Dwarf fighter, and is good to get behind in a fight. The tents aren’t the end of the discussion by any means, they’re just short hand so we can quickly get to the meat of the team. There’s usually some tongue in cheek RPG backstory stuff, maybe some general strategizing, whatever – the point is, we didn’t have to waste 10 minutes going in a circle explaining the basics, it’s right there in front of everyone. Now we can get to the (sword) hacking faster.

The Open Badges spec provides a few things,

1) Criteria – what the badge means
2) Attribution – who earned the badge, who awarded the badge
3) Verifiability – is all this for real?

Pathfinder does all this too, including verifiability. All players are given a character id, so that anyone can look up a given character and verify they’ve earned their rank, including a papertrail. It’s pretty neat, here’s one of mine. Because my character’s background is verifiable, the folks at my table don’t need to spend a bunch of thought cycles trying to figure out if I know what I’m doing. They can see it right there, I’ve been in the shit man! I’m a Dwarf that knows what’s what!

Pathfinder Table Tents

Table Tents, anonymity provided by the pink unicorn.

Towards Hack

There are companies forming around something I think of as resumes+. LinkedIn is an obvious first example, their additions of skills to online resumes makes sense. The reverse search ability of them is cool too, so if you’re looking to fill a job, it makes it pretty easy to find someone who knows “Python”.

What about levels into Python though, what about fine-grained stuff like, “knows the guts of the Django ORM?” That’s a real skill, but not what LinkedIn wants to know. There’s also the continuing problem of verifiability. There’s some alternatives, like CoderWall that pull directly from your Github account to decide the kinds of stuff you’ve done. It leans towards the show-off side of things, but could easily remove friction to putting together a team.

If you extend the CoderWall example to physical hardware hacking, you could build a site that certifies competency on a bunch of different tools. That way, if you’re certified on a laser cutter in Chicago, you can use the same machine in Milwaukee and San Francisco. At some high level of achievement with the cutter, you could certify other folks. Reverse lookup of the certification could make it easy to figure out who could help set up a newly purchased cutter. All of this can be done with emails and phone calls and tweets, but it takes time. Time that could be spent using the cutter, not verifying your ability to use the cutter.

Why OBI?

Like I’ve said before, figuring out what to badge is the hard part. Determining if someone is actually able to use a laser cutter is serious. All of that sort of stuff is best left to those that know, and best initiated by trusted organizations. The Open Badge Infrastructure doesn’t solve the problem of creating badges, it solves the problems of multiple badges living together.

Let’s say you’re a certified laser cutter user, but you’re also a Django ORM expert, and maybe even a 5th level dwarf. Three separate silos are badging you, Pumping Station One, CoderWall, and Paizo (objection – speculation, these badges don’t exist, don’t get sad, give it time…they’ll come around). Each badge lives in its respective silo, and you’ll need to direct someone to all three places to land that amazing laser cutting / orm hacking / dwarf fighter gig you’ve dreamed of.

That’s the guts of the OBI, make each badge portable, and push them all into a backpack that you have complete control of. You’re also able to set the privacy settings, so if you’re not comfortable letting your boss know what a kick-ass axe wielding dwarf you are, you don’t need to. That’s your business.


The unofficial tagline for Open Badges is, “enabling lifelong learning.” I love that mission, but think it itself sounds too formal. The unofficial mission statement of the Mozilla Foundation (undocumented) is “less yack, more hack.” If you see badges as a way to promote hacking, rather than constantly having to prove and reprove yourself with the repetitive yackery, then that’s right too.

Further Furthermore

There’s two counter arguments here, things that people say, that I agree with, and am actively trying to work around.

1) People are unique snowflakes, badges pigeon hole them – yeah, totally, people are unique snowflakes, and you should take the time necessary to explore a person’s unique crystalline structure. In the meantime, there’s a castle to storm, and we need a good necromancer…let’s save the getting to know you for later.

2) Certifications suck – yeah, totally. There’s a whole market of semi-fraudulent certifications out there. As a person-who-hires-people, I’ve never used professional certifications as a significant hiring factor. However, I’ve definitely used Github, code samples, and general internet-profile-google-stalking of someone as a hiring factor. Badges codify some of what we’re already doing. And since anyone can make them, it seems like there’s less incentive to build bullshit ones, or at least, bullshit badges will be quickly supplanted by not-bullshit badges. Time will tell.

  • Sheeri Kritzer Cabral

    Interesting, I’ve never thought of badges as kind of a “wikipedia for people who aren’t that famous” type of thing – basically a way to note your accomplishments in a verified way. Could be where you worked, your job title, if you wrote a book or made a video tutorial. This opens up a whole new world of why people might want to participate in badges.

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