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Trust Unlimited

Affero Helps Open Source Developers Take Online Reputations With Them

  • March 27, 2003
  • By Robert McMillan

Henri Poole has been studying the dynamics of online communities for about a decade now. In the early 90s, his first company, Vivid, prototyped a user interface for the Well. Later, as CEO of Linux distributor MandrakeSoft, he says, he became intrigued by the idea of open source communities, and what made them tick. That interest, he says, led to his most recent venture Affero. Launched with two other MandrakeSoft refugees in the summer of 2001, Affero is trying to build a standard system of reputation measurement for the Internet. LinuxPlanet recently caught up with Henri to ask him about Affero and his new position on the Board of Directors of the Free Software Foundation.

LinuxPlanet: Where did the idea for Affero come from?

Poole: When I was at MandrakeSoft, I started trying to figure out where the real value was being exchanged and where we could add value and make profits. We started looking at the motivations for the communities that were developing the Mandrake platform--what motivated people to check in their patches and participate in the community. We looked at what these individuals needed. A lot of them needed money-- many people that are doing this work, they're doing it as a hobby but they'd like to do it full time.

So we started looking at that. Reputations were a big aspect of why people were doing things. It was fun, and people who contributed would get Whuffie from their friends. So we just started to look at the value that was being exchanged there--either monetary or non-monetary--and we started working on e-services not only enhancing the exchange of value, but also creating mechanisms for monetizing that.

Our whole strategy toward e-learning at MandrakeSoft was centered around GNU/Linux. It wasn't a departure at all, it was centered around GNU/Linux, and it was centered around the Free Software applications that were bundled with the distribution. Our interest was to offer learning communities and support communities to the people that were using the products, basically reducing the amount of friction for new users to get up to speed. And reducing the friction and making it easier for those people to find the support that they needed--the people that could support them--and also access to the tools to learn on their own.

And that had some influence on what we're doing now in that we learned a lot about what the interactions were and what people wanted. So after the departure of my team from Mandrake, some of us got together the following summer and decided that we wanted to start a business to facilitate a dialogue amongst various communities that were giving our work away.

We've basically been prototyping and developing a reputation service and a commerce service. In 2000, MandrakeSoft looked at a company called Question Exchange, that was eventually bought by VA Linux. They basically had a portal where you could go and ask questions and get answers. People like to do that, but they don't want to go somewhere else to do it. There are so many places where people are answering questions and giving support, and those communities are growing everywhere. So we looked at building a service that would enable a reputation to be developed, but where the individual had more control of the reputation, and if the community itself were bought or shut down, people's reputations could go with it somewhere else.

We also looked at building a system for moving money around, which reduces the amount of gaming in these trust systems, because if money is associated with ratings, and with the individuals, then it's harder to game--it costs a lot of money to game.

LP: What do you mean by 'game?'

Poole: You could go into a community and create 10 identities and rate yourself really high with these bogus identities. People do things like that to gain credibility. If you had to spend money on all of those, it would reduce people's ability to do that.

LP: Are Affero's reputations entirely dependent upon money?

Poole: A person can choose to look at reputation from a different light. Ultimately, we'll have a trust system that enables each person's input to calculate a trust rating. Every single person in a network would have a particular trust score with every other person, and you could use money as a component of that if you want to.

LP: So how is Affero working out?

Poole: We originally looked at rolling it out on mailing lists, and we found that people on mailing lists, they have a way of doing things, and they don't really have that much about their identity. So it's not really that natural for them to have an interest in developing more texture to their reputation.

What we found a few months ago was that in the online Web-based forums, people have a lot of information about their profiles, and that other people look at those profiles. And that creates more of a community. Those communities just love what we're doing. So we've started working with some key forums to work out the kinks of integrating and adding value to those communities. And people in the community are working on modifications to make it possible to use Affero's trust system and donation system within those forums.

LP: Which forums are you working with?

Poole: We spent a bit of time with Linux Questions. It is a really well-managed forum for getting GNU/Linux related questions answered. There are about 25,000 people in that community. Almost all of the top moderators and experts in that community have been using Affero. There are transactions that happen there every few days. People are making donations and comments and rating each other relatively frequently there. We've just recently started working with Overnet, which is an eDonkey 2000 community. We're looking at rolling a system out there, and we're pretty close to getting our software ready to roll out in other communities.

In order to use our service, code has to be written for the community to enable the Affero links and the Affero feedback--the reputations--to be useable inside those forums. So we have some work to do before we integrate with a particular form; we have to make sure that our system works within the platform that they're using.

LP: Some communities already have their own reputation systems. Is Affero compatible with, for example, the Slashdot Karma system or would it have to replace it?

Poole: I don't know. It depends on whether we could add any value to Slashdot. Slashdot's got a pretty strong reputation system. Most of these communities don't. The main difference between what we're doing and what others are doing is that we're not building and maintaining a community. We're basically maintaining the reputations for members. We've been approached recently by communities that say, "I would like to have people be able to post in my community, but I would like to check their credibility to see whether they're trustworthy or not before they post."

For example, on a blog, if people are posting or linking to you and you want to check the validity of the backlink, there's no way to do that right now. So we're actually working on enabling that.

LP: How would you enable that?

Poole: We have a Web services interface, so you can check the reputation of someone by interacting with our Web services system. Or a person could use their own network to determine a reputation.

LP: So you could care about what certain people think rather than what everybody thinks?

Poole: Yes.

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