The Baggage of Badges 

In preparation for some potential new work on badges / digital credentials / verifiable claims / whatever we’re call them this week, I’ve been digging back beyond to the very early days of Mozilla’s Open Badges work.

A particularly rich article is one I first read around seven years ago by Alex Halavais, entitled A Genealogy of Badges: Inherited meaning and monstrous moral hybrids. Alex also has a bunch of posts on badges from between 2010 and 2013 which are worth checking out.

I thought I’d just collect my highlights from his 2011 paper here as I’ll probably use them for something further down the line.

Some have suggested that badges represent a viable alternative to existing methods of assessment in educational institutions and work environments. But each of these badges arrives with a ghostly recurrence of a long history of social badges in other contexts; badges have baggage.

The confusion of the commercial and the state, of ranked organizations and networked organization, is inherent to the use of badges.

The visual form of a badge has existed on the Web nearly as long as graphical elements could be displayed.

Perhaps the essential function of a badge is to identify an individual as a member of a group.

‘Badges’, in the original use of the English word, were subsets of coats of
arms intended to identify an individual or a household (Boutelle 1867). Initially, they were embroidered on clothing, eventually being embossed on various metals. By the fourteenth century, such badges were often inherited and were in wide circulation. Parallel uses of badges on clothing could be found outside of Europe during the same period (Mayer 1933; Cammann 1944). These insignia eventually came to be the pins and other badges worn to identify military regiments.

Badges are used to signal group membership not just to enable systems of command and control, but also to create rapid rapport and trust.

The adoption of heraldic symbols may seem to be little more than an aesthetic crutch, but as Synott and Symes (1995) argue, these symbols are more than just logos intending to differentiate one school from another, they carry with them a consistent set of messages about how education should work.

It is difficult to find parallels of these kinds of badges of solidarity in online settings. Members instead tend to use badges in order to show their experience within a group, rather than identifying members outside of the group. Someone may indeed be a well-respected member of one community, but loses any reputation or trust gained by that work when they move to another platform.

It would seem that especially universities would have an interest in seeing their alumni using badges on the Web, but so far the mechanisms for verifying such badges do not exist. Just as you have no guarantee that
someone wearing a sweatshirt from Princeton actually graduated from that institution, you have no way of knowing how much weight the Princeton badge on their LinkedIn profile carries.

There are other applications of badges beyond those of privilege or rank. Sometimes, badges are used to identify excellence, or at least competence. Sometimes they are used to mark particular experiences or sacrifices. As noted above, the latter is a hallmark of all badges: to carry social currency they must represent a significant sacrifice.

It is sometimes difficult to differentiate badges based on skill with those
based on experience. It seems that many badge systems conflate the two, which is not entirely surprising since it appears that users tend to adopt the community standards as they gain more experience on a site (Halavais 2009). Nonetheless, particular behaviors can be seen as demonstrating skill, rather than just repetitive action. While some of the badges on the Huffington Post site, for example, can be earned merely by being an active member of the community, others are based on the ability to spark conversation or on receiving kudos from peers (‘gift badges’). Even without such badges, providing such an endorsement seems to be a common instinct within communities – badges merely formalize and make visible that process (Lampel & Bhala 2007).

Anything of value is worth stealing, especially a technology that signals authority, privilege, skill, and experience. If it can be obtained without the expected expense in time, energy, or risk, it will be. For this to be avoided, the creation of false badges must also be expensive, time consuming, or risky. At least at present, there are few badges worth faking, because they carry so little worth. There are exceptions to this, particularly in games, where certain achievements are hard-won and can be traded for money or reputation in the game. But up until now, badges have been too low-stakes to attract efforts to forge or finagle. This is in marked contrast to many traditional badges.

It is also clear that badges, particularly when they are used in online communities, are being used in contexts much more readily associated with the commercial syndrome. The sort of values that define the commercial syndrome: transparency, honesty, open dealing, competition, optimism, innovation, and the rise of voluntary agreements could easily be a list describing the ideology of social media.

It is not possible to borrow from a long history of badges in guardian contexts without some of the values of those badges ‘leaking’ into the current context.

As such, badges are the almost ideal ‘boundary object’, a way of translating the practices and social capital of one community to other,
dissimilar communities (Wenger 1998).

A badge is a symbol that something exists, and it is important to make sure that it does not come to replace the thing it represents. This is true regardless of where badges are used, but becomes particularly important in learning.

If learning badges are used at once in environments where they are ‘awarded’ for service, as a gold star might be used in a traditional
classroom to enforce desirable behaviors, and at the same time used to represent peer-assessed, student-guided learning, the badges are likely to have little meaning outside of immediate contexts, and may easily lead to confusion or worse among students interested in them.

The counter-productive form of a badge merely reproduces the problems of letter grading, relying on what Kohn (1993) called ‘pop behaviorism’, rewarding specific behavior extrinsically rather than building deeper passion for learning

There remain a number of good reasons to incorporate badges in an online system. They can serve as a clear way of expressing what is valued by a community, they encourage participation by those interested in the badges, they provide the means to identify more closely with the learning experience (to ‘learn to be’ rather than ‘learn to do’ as Brown & Adler 2008, put it), they allow for a diversity of self-directed gratifications among a group, and they provide a visual cue and social marketing for a particular community.

If the badges will be intended to express authority, they should be consistent in how they approach the ethical choices they suggest. If they are meant primarily as a form of (self) identity, they likewise should adopt a set of values in how they are assessed, granted, and displayed that reflect this intended use. It is nearly guaranteed that badges will be
used in ways outside of their intended function, but a clear idea of that intended function is important, and that the uses remain congruent.

A badge that provides a pointer to deeper documentation is important, particularly for participatory communities. It should be immediately clear to the recipient and anyone challenging the legitimacy of the badge
how and why it was awarded. This also avoids the issue of the badge coming to mean something on its own; it is instead always a pointer to more information.

For those who wish to invent new ways of interacting online, it is vital that they recognize that any badge system carries with it a set of ethical expectations, and badge systems are likely to perform better if those expectations are consistent, cohesive, and appropriate to the context.