The Great Wannabe Hacker Emblem Controversy

Posted 6 Nov 2008 at 05:18 UTC (updated 6 Nov 2008 at 18:22 UTC) by laburu Share This

If you think a polemic about a symbol devised to represent people who mockingly declare themselves unworthy of displaying some other symbol designed to represent them [*breathe*] is much ado about nothing, we have something in common. It may be one of a very few things we have in common. Indeed, we are probably quite different, and I am sure I have not done enough to earn the privilege of being counted as one of you — regardless of who you are. That's because, as it turns out, one cannot earn membership in hackerdom.

In order to see how one might come to believe such a thing, however, we must first spend a few minutes talking about history. Let's step into my WABAC machine!

Peabody and Sherman step into the WABAC

In October of 2003, Slashdot reported on a pamphlet by renowned hacker anthropologist Eric Raymond in which he advocated the use of the glider as an emblem that represents the entire hacker community:

Raymond's hacker emblem

Interesting — thought I. And, being a lowly slashbot, I couldn't help clicking on the link to see whether the site was still up. [This is where you get to feel clever by spotting the irony of my action.] Being a penitent slashbot, however, I actually RTFA'd. And that's where the trouble started.

The Linux folks have their penguin and the BSDers their daemon. Perl's got a camel, FSF fans have their gnu and OSI's got an open-source logo.
— Eric Raymond, The Glider: A Universal Hacker Emblem

Now, if you are nitpicky like I am, you'll have noticed that these logos aren't really all in the same class.[0] Linux, BSD, and Perl are products[1] or families thereof, but OSI is an organization. A logo for a product is commonly interpreted as either an identifying label or an endorsement; a logo for an organization, on the other hand, can additionally be interpreted as an affiliation badge.

BSD daemon Linux
penguin (alias Tux) Perl camel GNU gnu OSI

If you think this means you can use the hacker emblem to signify identity or membership, though, you are in for a surprise:

When you put the glider emblem on your web page, or wear it on clothing, or display it in some other way, you are visibly associating yourself with the hacker culture. This is not quite the same thing as claiming to be a hacker yourself — that is a title of honor that generally has to be conferred by others rather than self-assumed. But by using this emblem, you express sympathy with hackers' goals, hackers' values, and the hacker way of living.
— Eric Raymond, The Glider: A Universal Hacker Emblem

Oh, I get it: it's a fanboi button! The hackers' glider is, then, in the same class of symbols as the Democrats' donkey or the Republicans' elephant: when you display it, you are not claiming to be a dues-paying member of the group with which the logo is associated, but merely expressing sympathy with the goals, values, and way of living embraced by said group. It makes perfect sense! But I just couldn't manage to get excited about something like that.

Republican elephant Democrat
donkey Eric's glider

Some time later, I came across the now-defunct wannabe hacker logo homepage[2]. Antti Brax's parody of Eric's page proposed that the dilettante poseurs of hackerdom adopt an emblem of their own:

This is a proposal that we hacker wannabes adopt an emblem like what the real hackers have done. Our emblem is quite similar to the real emblem: only the life pattern is different. While the hacker pattern is the smallest form that travels forever our pattern crumbles and vanishes after 6 generations… just like our programs do.
— Antti Brax, The Wannabe Hacker Logo Homepage

"Now, that's more like it" — thought I. So, being a lowly wannabe wannabe hacker who knew next to nothing about Life, I appropriated Antti's logo as a pithy critique of Eric's emblem, and decided to advertise my ignorance by decorating my Advogato profile with the wannabe hacker logo and a link to its homepage.

Antti Brax's wannabe hacker logo

Unfortunately, that link is now stale, while Eric's page is (as of this writing) the top-ranked search result for hacker emblem and hacker logo. This is, to put it mildly, a disaster for wannabe hackers everywhere. Of course, one might argue that merely wanting to have an emblem makes one a wannabe hacker, but wannabe hackers still need an actual badge they can wear with shame — and even wannabe hackers know that an actual badge requires an image and a URL. But where is the homepage for this logo now?[3]

Fortunately, every cloud has… well, a cloud like a search engine's has lots of data, and one man's detritus is another man's silver something. So, although I did not find the successor to Antti's page, I learned that Johan Kiviniemi had proposed an alternative wannabe hacker logo, in support of which, instead of the expected technical rationale, he offered the purported fact that the (U+2835) entity was included in the Unicode standard as an acknowledgment of the logo's popularity.

Johan Kiviniemi's wannabe hacker emblem

This is, of course, a blatant lie (U+2835 is actually BRAILLE PATTERN DOTS-1356) of the sort one might devise "4 teh lulz". And, predictably, it soon netted its first victim. Or are we now pretending to be "in the know" by pretending to pretend to be ignorant? Whilst being actually ignorant, perhaps, FTW?

All the wannabe hackers this idea was alpha-tested on instantaneously said "Wow! Cool!" without needing any further explanation.
— Joahn Kiviniemi, Wannabe Hacker Emblem

Oh, I get it: it's a trap! Or, rather, it's a shibboleth. Actually, for those who would instrumentalize the glider as a nerd shibboleth, Johan's page introduces what one might call a shibboleth shibboleth.


I hear you. There must be a better way to tell the wannabe hackers and actual hackers apart — one that does not involve the use of clever emblems. After all, we have these two terms because two kinds of hacker exist, right?[4]

Let me put my pundit hat on and see what I can come up with.

A wannabe hacker knows that he is ignorant, but does not accept that his apprenticeship will be long and hard; so he eschews true learning and instead looks for pearls of wisdom, hoping that they will magically empower him to travel faster, or (better yet) so impress his betters that they will bend time and space to make his journey shorter.
— Alex Laburu, The Great Wannabe Hacker Emblem Controversy

[Wow, that's a pretty cool hat!]

An actual hacker knows that she is ignorant, and accepts that the path to enlightenment cannot be traversed in a lifetime; so she eschews received wisdom and instead seeks to understand, that her betters may be relieved of the burden of carrying her, hoping that, together, as traveling companions, they can make the infinite road they are on seem like a home.
— Alex Laburu, The Great Wannabe Hacker Emblem Controversy

But how can you tell one from the other in a "live" setting? Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but there is no such thing as a Completely Automated Program to Tell Wannabe Hackers and Actual Hackers Apart (CAPTWHAHA). If we were to set one up, some wannabe hacker would soon defeat it and tout his mad skillz in a disquisition on the matter. Because that's what a wannabe hacker does: he watches the hackers, learns their ways, and – eventually, if allowed some trial-and-error – poses convincingly as one of them.

"But wait", you say. "That sounds a lot like hacking!"

Indeed, wannabe hackers are hackers, too. They may not have what it takes to hack stuff — but they can hack you. And, from an evolutionary point of view, this is just about as good. Actually, the strategy of posing as a member of a collective in order to gain privilege or to instrumentalize others' labor is very successful.

You don't need to take my word for it. Just watch one of those Discovery Channel documentaries sometime. Better yet, look down the hall: your own Information Services manager is probably a (former) wannabe hacker. Or up at your screen: your favorite mainstream technology pundit is almost certainly a (former) wannabe hacker. Or, indeed, into a mirror: are you sure that you aren't, on some level, just another wannabe hacker, too? Could you consistently get past a CAPTWHAHA?

Hint: it's a trap![5]

Hackers devise automated solutions to many kinds of challenge, but ascertaining the hackerliness of a given individual isn't one of them.[6] Hackers know that the body of hacker knowledge grows too quickly and the path to mastery is too random to be accounted for in a codex.

Therefore, let us not waste another minute concocting standard tests with which to assess somebody's hacker quotient; such attempts to ritualize and trivialize the hacker's journey are decidedly unhackerly. Besides, what would be the point? After all, one cannot earn membership in hackerdom: one can earn standing, but fellowship is born of mutual commitment. Let us, then, revel in the baroque, irreducible complexity of hackerkind, and continue to put stock in our own and each other's judgment. Let us, to put it more succinctly, champion hackitude over craptitude. And let's lose those hacker shibboleths already — they're just wannabe CAPTWHAHAs anyway.

[0] Never mind that the Perl camel is an O'Reilly trademark and that the Perl Foundation's logo is the Perl onion.

[1] Of course, associated with each of them, there is also a community of users. It is worth noting that, in the case of Perl, the real "product" of the Perl community is the Perl community itself. Because Perl is a Shinto shrine.

[2] The original hacker wannabe logo homepage used to be at, and the logo itself was at

[3] And what happened to Antti? If you know, please share.

[4] Are you sure?

[5] Interestingly, a CAPTWHAHA would be the sort of test you can only pass by not taking it.

[6] FWIW, Advogato's rating algorithm acknowledges this tacitly. But that's a topic for another rant.

I wish to acknowledge, in no particular order, the contributions of Steven Rainwater, Charles Stewart, Nathan Myers, Mauro Persano, and Luke Leighton, whose suggestions and encouragement helped make this a better article. All remaining flaws are my sole responsibility.

I apologize prospectively to non-native speakers of English for any obscure cultural references, unusual words, and jargon that remained unexplained by contextual links.

This essay was written in response to Luke Leighton's call for articles. The canonical version may be more up-to-date.

Thanks!, posted 6 Nov 2008 at 08:47 UTC by mako » (Master)

Wonderful article. Thanks for putting this together!

The obvious question this article raises..., posted 6 Nov 2008 at 11:11 UTC by chalst » (Master) whether such artefacts as Advogato's certification graph actually represents useful information about one's standing in the free software community. At the risk of veering off- topic —though the topic is certainly broad— let me speculate.

While the most widely-held opinion seems to be that while trust-metric technology is successful at determining a welcome/unwelcome boundary for the group, Facebook-like network popularity effects swamp dispassionate assessments of achievements, and so the certification graph has a hopelessly low signal-to-noise ratio when applied to saying something about what standing one has earned.

I'm more optimistic, since I think that (i) in fact many advogatans are conscientious about certifications, and (ii) there is a good chance that we con construct analytic techniques to filter out popularity effects. I'm pleased to note the recent appearance of account ciropom who seems to want to do serious critical work on the social aspects of trust metrics; I hope to hear more of his team's work. There's other work in the literature, such as Cai-Nicolas Ziegler's analysis of Advogato's trust metric, and his alternate Appleseed algorithm (cf. my list of some trust-metric references).

Correction, posted 6 Nov 2008 at 18:45 UTC by laburu » (Journeyer)

In response to feedback from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous, I have made a small but significant correction to the text for the sake of clarity; namely, I have replaced

sorting people into hackers and non-hackers


ascertaining the hackerliness of a given individual

to convey more accurately my understanding that trustworthy appraisals of a given individual are arrived at holistically by each of her peers, whereas the sorting of a group of hackers may be (and, for practical reasons, often is) performed algorithmically using said appraisals as input.

Braille, posted 7 Nov 2008 at 01:35 UTC by ncm » (Master)

Tangentially, I notice that placing two adjacent braille characters suffices to reproduce ESR's logo:

   U+2820  ⠠  BRAILLE PATTERN DOTS-6    shift
   U+2835  ⠵  BRAILLE PATTERN DOTS-1356 "z"
spelling "Z". Alternatively,

  U+282C  ⠬  BRAILLE PATTERN DOTS-346  "+"
  U+2806  ⠆  BRAILLE PATTERN DOTS-23   "2"
spelling "+2" in braille ASCII.

Apparently hackers are one of

The anti-hacker, a glider proceeding in the opposite direction, decodes to Braille-ASCII "$A" or "^M", which I leave the gentle reader to decode.

what's wrong with me?, posted 10 Nov 2008 at 09:58 UTC by lkcl » (Master)

i can't quite work out why, but i found this article to be incredibly funny. far from making me want to _write_ "lol" it actually _caused_ me to bark like a seal for several seconds. the exact cause of the mirth is yet to be determined, and, when found, will be nailed to a badge for use as my very own hacker logo.

Can we all just get along, posted 22 Nov 2008 at 19:04 UTC by DeepNorth » (Journeyer)

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