Even better than Slashdot?

Advogato is the latest step forward in the evolution of online open-source community.

Published July 18, 2000 7:31PM (EDT)

12 July 2000

"Incidentally, Napster was Shawn Fanning's nickname in high school, after he got an extremely short haircut. Just in case, y'know, anyone was still wondering about that."


Let me say, right upfront, that I don't deserve to be on Advogato, and that all the people who have certified me as an "apprentice" are just being kind. (Thanks, people!) I use MacOS at home, Windows (gasp) at work and Linux only occasionally. My sole qualification for membership in the open-source community is that I enjoy the company of engineers very much, and seem to get on with them fairly well. It is, therefore, the height of cheek for me to keep a diary on Advogato, but I do.

Advogato -- it's a play on the word advocate, but the place is routinely called avocado or guacamole -- is an eight-month-old Web site designed to make life a little easier and more fun for free-software developers. It is both a community hangout where hackers cluster, jotting down daily tidbits of info in publicly accessible diaries, and a forum for discussion, like Slashdot. There's also an extra twist: On Slashdot, readers can rate the value of posts as part of a not-always-perfect filtering mechanism. But at Advogato, people rate one another.

Advogato has three elements: certificates -- apprentice, journeyer, master -- that measure your status in the community and that are awarded by members to other members; a Slashdot-like article feed, less frenzied but arguably much more thoughtful; and the diary-hosting feature. Thrown in almost as an afterthought, the diaries are by far the best part of the site. The "recent entries" page is particularly addictive. A compilation of the 10 or 20 freshest diary entries, haphazardly juxtaposed, it's a continually refreshing portrait of the free-software community, a gestalt dream journal, a gossip column, a webcam in prose.

Advogato was built by Raph Levien, a UC-Berkeley computer scientist, as part of his Ph.D. research into the gnarly problem of creating "webs of trust." There are two basic approaches to building such webs.

You can assemble a strict hierarchy with "God" at the top, authorizing the priests beneath him, who oversee the commoners beneath them in their turn. This is what VeriSign, the largest commercial encryption security company, has done. The company's model, in which it plays the role of God, corresponds closely to open-source evangelist Eric Raymond's idea of the "cathedral" style of software development, in which coders are coordinated from on high as part of a master plan. Cathedrals tend not to be popular in the free-software community, where everyone wants to do his own thing.

Advogato is an experiment in the alternative, peer-to-peer model, heavily inspired by Phil Zimmerman's Pretty Good Privacy site. "I found that the traditional trust metric framework was pretty limited, but discovered a new technique, which I call a group trust metric," Levien explains. "Basically, you put in a bunch of certificates of the form 'I, person A, vouch for the fact that person B is a member of this group,' and the trust metric tells you who it thinks is really in the group."

In other words, to qualify as a master on Advogato requires that the community of your peers agree that you're a hotshot.

12 July 2000

"chinese buffet for lunch, not the good one either. my stomach is kind of rumbling around in circles, i dont even want to look at the AIX failovers. oh well, back to work."


What's revolutionary about Advogato's model is that like the Net itself -- and unlike VeriSign's top-down bureaucracy -- it's self-organizing, self-repairing and therefore hard to corrupt or otherwise compromise. "In all previous systems, once you get a certain number of wrong certificates, the whole thing falls apart," says Levien. In Advogato, at least in theory, the system should continue to function even if abuse is widespread. But his theory sounded too good to be true. Without hard evidence, Levien found, peer reviewers kept rejecting his papers.

At the same time, he was starting to feel the need for a community Web site for free-software developers. In spite of its efforts at moderation, Slashdot had become a victim of its own success, its signal-to-noise ratio infamously low. "It occurred to me that I could kill two birds with one stone, and build a community site that used the group trust metric to define the outline of the community," says Levien. "With these goals in mind, I started hacking like crazy, and Advogato was born." Article zero went up Nov. 6.

And suddenly, the hardcore hackers who had grown disillusioned with the venerable and increasingly creaky Slashdot had somewhere far more interesting to go. The latest stage in the evolution of online community had come to pass.

12 June 2000

"I got a call from my cousin today. My grandmother died Saturday night. Life sucks. My initials are entirely appropriate right now.

"The sky is a terribly brilliant blue today."


Ever since I discovered Advogato, I've hit the recent-entries page three or four times a day. Not a great deal happens, to be honest. There have been one or two deaths in the extended family, two or three births, four or five breakups, six or eight episodes of depression. I've learned, for example, that Deb Richardson of the Open Source Writers Group -- "dria" -- has moved to Montreal, where she's having a very satisfying time furnishing her apartment.

"I'm still occasionally questioning my sanity in this 'I need a huge dining suite' thing," she writes, "but it's way too late now." Meanwhile Stephane, Eskil and Maciej were lucky enough to find a rental in San Francisco's sought-after Castro District, although they were all greatly puzzled by Clause 26 of their lease -- "Time of Essence: Time is of the essence."

Not everything on Advogato is quite so quirkily benign. Rob "lilo" Levin (certified master) and Elise Shapiro (journeyer) used to work at Linuxcare, until Rob was laid off and Elise was fired. Dave Sifry (journeyer), who founded the company, also keeps a diary at Advogato. "I wish the best for lilo, and Elise and others caught up in recent goings-on at the job," he wrote in May, in the thick of the layoffs. "I see your diary entries and I'm glad that things are working out well for you all." It sounded pretty awkward, but what else could he have said?

"The worst thing, I think, was the 'dimwit' fiasco," says Levien. "People had been continually asking me to add new levels. I finally broke down when Elliot Lee offered to join up if he could get certified as 'dimwit'... I thought people would have fun trying to jockey for low status, sort of a joke on the people who were getting wrapped up in having a high cert[-ificate] level on Advogato. Unfortunately, some people didn't take it in the intended spirit of fun, and some feelings were hurt. It's gone now."

3 July 2000

"I've been messing around with doubleclick.net's heinous cookie system and come up with a programming problem and an anti-tracking page. I wonder what kinds of responses I'll get."


Public exposure has its price. Philip "bryce" Copeland, a Red Hat programmer, got burned by what he calls "the infamous Piranha security hole fiasco." A security consultancy announced that it had found a "back door" into a Red Hat software utility called Piranha.

"I originally wrote up a response to the press critics in as fair and as unbiased a fashion as I possibly could," says Phil. "Unfortunately a few press houses decided they'd blatantly misrepresent what I'd written to sensationalize the story. I don't mind being quoted; however, I would have liked it to have been in context of the spirit in which I'd written it." Now there's a disclaimer on his Advogato home page: "For people that want to use these scribblings for news articles regarding Red Hat, please, please, please contact the good people in Red Hat's PR group *first*."

So who does contribute, and why? Members include famous Linux and BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) hackers like Jordan Hubbard, Miguel de Icaza, Bruce Perens, Eric Raymond and Jamie Zawinski, although few of them are active on the site. Others purport to be God, Satan, Nietzsche, Richard Stallman and Need to Know's Danny O'Brien, but these claims have yet to be confirmed.

Seth David Schoen, the hacker behind Linuxcare's bootable business card -- a full Linux installation on a cut-down CD -- is one of Advogato's most prolific posters. "I like the opportunity to keep a diary on the Web," he says. "I would have wanted to do that earlier, but I didn't have any kind of excuse." Seth, it must be said, is something of an exhibitionist: "Most of the time the idea of sharing some part of my life on the Net is pretty appealing to me. I used to have a thing called whereami ... I would send myself e-mail with keywords and that page would update immediately with a map and sometimes a picture of where I was. Some days I updated that six or seven times a day."

Like other open-source projects, Seth noted, Advogato goes through cycles of activity and quiescence. "A bunch of people from some community (e.g., Bay Area Linux user groups, employees of a particular company, developers on a particular project) will get involved, and all enjoy reading one another's diaries all the time. That keeps them coming back." Then the novelty wears off. "When some of them get bored, they stop updating their diaries, which makes Advogato less interesting for other people ... People have certainly come and gone in waves."

Among the groups that have fallen in and out of love with Advogato are the technical staff at big-name companies (Red Hat, Linuxcare and VA Linux Systems), lesser-known start-ups (Eazel, Helixcode, Tuxtops and Canada's Zero Knowledge Systems), mailing lists (Linux elitists and Crackmonkey) and semilegendary secret society/defunct coffeehouses like the Linux CABAL. But given the very large extent to which these cliques intersect, it's hard to say who actually joined through which connection.

It should be emphasized that the above list is San Francisco-centric simply because these are the people I know personally and the connections that have caught my eye. Though Advogato was born in Berkeley, it now has users all over the world. The site is fun for the same reason the free-software community is fun. Both are full of smart, interesting people, many of whom are also witty and all of whom are engaged in and passionate about their work.

Advogato's creator is a case in point. "The best payoff for me is seeing it strengthen the community," says Levien. "People routinely help each other out with technical problems, and it's also a great way to get a feel for what's happening in the free-software world. I've gotten to know a number of people through Advogato, several of whom I've met in real life. Plus, I now have a real certificate graph I can use in my research!"

11 July 2000

"Today is a sad day for Debian. It is odd how you can feel you know someone as a friend, and yet have never met that person in the flesh. To our friend, who will remain unnamed for a few more days ... you shall always be remembered as a part of what some people (quite aptly, perhaps) call the most dysfunctional family there can be. We may quarrel, but we all share a passion for the cause. We shall all miss you."


By Rachel Chalmers

Rachel Chalmers is an Australian writer living in San Francisco.

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