The virtual world is made by real people

Interview with Mozilla Community organizer Florian Merz

The virtual world is made by real people

Interview with Mozilla Community organizer Florian Merz

To Florian Merz, open source is more than just a code, it’s the inextricable link between the virtual world and the real world. The Mozilla Community rep and co-founder of the Open Mozilla Night works on a voluntary basis in his free time. Aside from his fulltime job as developer, he has been shaping the development of the Berlin Community.

Do you have to be really good with computers to join the Community?


Florian: Not at all. I myself only started getting interested in computers at the age of 16. To me, the important thing was always the people using the computers. I started off with LAN parties where people meet, bring their computers, play games together, talk and simply have fun. I grew up in a very small village. We didn’t have any bigger towns nearby, so the Internet was my link to the world.


Is that why you’re putting so much work into developing the Berlin Mozilla Community?


Yes! I started in my home region where I got together with a few people to set up a computer club. I also held workshops for parents, showing them that playing computer games is not all bad and that LAN parties don’t turn children into frenzied killers but actually teach them a lot.

“I enjoy giving something back that I learned through open source”

Connecting people with the world via their computers, raising awareness … Do you relate particularly well to digital beginners?


While pursuing my IT degree in Karlsruhe, I joined a working group which introduced people with little prior knowledge to Linux and web design. I have learned a lot from people who write open source software and tutorials and explain how things work and I enjoy giving something back.


What do you personally associate with Mozilla?


I’ve been using Firefox since its inception, before that Mozilla. I was already using it when the browser was still called Phoenix. Mozilla has always accompanied me on the Internet. There simply was no alternative for anyone interested in free software and open source. And if one had a bit of an idea about the subject, one could immediately see that this was somebody fighting for an open Internet.



What aspects of open source do you appreciate most?


Open source is based on a completely different fundamental approach. Everything is well-documented, one can do more things on one’s own. If one doesn’t understand something, there are explanations of how things work underneath. I have always enjoyed tinkering, not only on the computer but before that also in the real world. I like to understand how things work – for example my kitchen in Berlin. Doing things myself, especially understanding how everything fits together, that’s what I really enjoy.


If you look at Europe today, do you think people are too far removed from understanding how things work? How much digital knowledge do we need?


I sometimes think it would be good if more people had an understanding of what they interact with all day long. I would prefer it if reading up about these things was more popular at the social level. In my opinion it is important to know how the Internet works, that it’s not just something which comes out of the socket or radiates onto our mobiles. There’s a lot going on that doesn’t meet the eye and it’s not something that will simply always exist in this form.

“We hope to offer a Raspberry Pi workshop for kids in the near future”

Kids are very interested in these subjects. A friend of mine supplies Raspberry Pi Jams. Raspberry Pis are small computers, a bit smaller than a slice of toast. Actually, it’s only a circuit board. One can put really simple switches on it, with an operating system, and one can connect a monitor and a keyboard. Almost 50% of the kids tinkering with them are girls. I hope we can bring the workshop to our Mozilla Space soon.


There must be many people in Berlin who can offer wonderful things … What digital opportunities are being offered for older people?


In one of our meet-ups we had a woman who is offering afternoon computer courses for pensioners. The concept was based on knitting clubs. People meet, in this case not for knitting but for explaining to each other how the Internet and computers work. Mainly, how to browse the Internet and write Word documents. We have a longer list of things, people and groupings that we would like to address once the Community Space is fully set up.”


What are your priority subjects? What is particularly important to you and what other activities could be initiated?


We aim to support all activities that can be connected with the Mozilla mission in any way. We don’t want to create a start-up incubator or a co-working space, but we want to remain very open. The first thing we did was setting up a machine learning study group consisting of 30 people whom we offered the use of our premises. That worked really well.


What types of people are coming to your space?


Some of the people who participate are already working on their own machine learning projects, others are simply interested in the subject. One woman who had studied mathematics and done a lot of statistics just wanted to develop in a totally different direction.

“We’re still looking for volunteers who want to get involved in digital education”

Will the community also address political education?


I believe that Berlin is the perfect city to do more in the policy and advocacy field. A monthly working group addressing this subject would be ideal. Last year, there was a workshop at the Wikimedia Foundation with three short presentations and a subsequent discussion of the copyright issue. That was really quite good. We wanted to provide information about the European copyright reform and discuss the issue. I also presented the subject this year at the re:publica.


How do you find people with the same goals and bring them together?


In my first two months in Berlin, there was a hack weekend that had been organized by the German-speaking community, which also included stimulating tech talks. But a Berlin Community didn’t exist yet. At the next event, I cooked for the 80 participants. I got to know more people and decided that I wanted to do something myself. This is how I found the first people who were also keen to do something with the Community.


You also still work as a developer? How do you manage to do all this?


Yes. I get a lot of energy back from my activities. I’m quite flexible. I trust people to do the legwork without having to control everything and ask lots of questions. I know that I’m a good improviser; even if something goes wrong it will still turn out well in the end.

How big is the Community?


Our meet-up group consists of around 800 people. We have a reasonable outreach and people are interested when we do bigger things, too.


What is your main focus? In your opinion, what is particularly important in Germany?


We are planning to set up an area for people who simply want to develop and help advance the open source concept. Another area could be translation and content.


Writing as well? I mean contributing good content?


Absolutely. Authors who want to provide good content to help the Mozilla Community grow are very welcome.


Do you have any plans to support digital education at schools?


We call that web literacy. This is exactly what’s on our agenda. I have already talked to teachers. We are focusing on cooperation and are still looking for volunteers who want to get involved.


One last question: In today’s times, is it even possible to separate the virtual world from the real world?


I live fully in the real world. The virtual world has always been around; in the past there were fireside stories, later TV and film – worlds to immerse oneself in. The TV age was not very interactive, though. The virtual world is also made by real people; it simply offers a different medium for communication. Whether I talk to someone on the phone or via video chat or a text chat on the Internet – it’s simply the medium that has changed.


Text: Anja Fordon
Fotos: Falko Siewert