Product Manager Liv Erickson on Building Inclusive Social Technology for Impact

Liv Erickson wants to help you bring bold ideas to life. Whether she’s mapping product design and strategy for Mozilla Hubs, Spoke, and new social media mixed products or discussing the future of virtual work, one thing remains constant: she loves showing others how immersive technology can help them achieve goals that otherwise feel impossible.

What is Hubs, and how does it work?

Hubs is a multi-user platform where you can create shared virtual spaces with the people you care about. You can meet up with friends to watch videos, interact with 3D objects with your colleagues, or just hang out. It’s especially useful when you need to share media quickly; we use Hubs for team meetings so everyone can stand in a virtual circle and all see the documents we’re working on. It’s also a really good replacement for the common areas and conference rooms in a physical office.

Hubs is browser-based, so it will work on virtual reality devices but also on your phone or desktop computer. VR still feels unapproachable to a lot of people, and it was important to us to meet our users wherever they are.

 

How do Mozilla’s values around privacy inform your work?

One thing we’ve done is make Hubs private by default. On most traditional social media platforms, people can invite themselves into your space at any time, unless you specifically decide otherwise. But Hubs is the opposite—only the people you invite will be able to join you. You can still share a link with the entire internet if you want to, but there’s no central place people can go just to browse through what other users are doing.

We also don’t require Hubs users to sign up for an account with their real name or identity, although you always have the option of requiring that for a room. There’s a lot of really interesting research on how women in particular are subject to harassment in virtual and online spaces—and we’ve certainly seen in the gaming world that some groups are more welcoming than others. We believe it’s important for users to have control over which parts of their identity they choose to reveal.

Photo of Liv Erickson

What’s most challenging about your work?

The pace of change can be a challenge for anyone working in immersive technology. There are still so many unknowns about how people will use new virtual or augmented reality devices and how they might find ways around the applications we build. Best practices for shared 3D environments are still being developed. But personally, I like that—because there’s always something new to think about. We get to grapple with everything it means to share a virtual space.

One issue we’re just starting to scratch the surface of is how to handle situations where users have different devices with different capabilities. Historically, the conventional wisdom has been that everyone in a virtual space should see mostly the same things—I don’t need to see your system menus, of course, but we should still be grounded in the same reality. But what happens if you’re using a VR device and I’m on a mobile browser that can’t show me what you see? What should it look like for us to collaborate effectively from any device? That’s a big question right now for us as a team.

 

How has COVID-19 changed the conversations you’re having?

We’re certainly seeing a lot more interest in virtual events for people who are geographically distributed—groups are figuring out how to hold things like academic conferences using online spaces. Obviously the catalyst for this increased interest is a difficult one, and it’s been an incredibly challenging time for everyone. But I do think the resulting increase in awareness itself of these types of online tools is a good thing, because even outside of what we’re going through with COVID-19, there are many use cases where meeting virtually is critical. Maybe you can’t get the visa you would need to participate in an event in another country, or you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint—that’s a big one for me. Getting together in real life when we can is definitely important; I don’t think online spaces should aim to replace that entirely. But I’m hopeful that over the next decade or so, we’ll be able to normalize meetings in 3D shared spaces enough that people are thinking about it more. I think that we’ve all suffered a lot of fatigue from video calls this year, too—so being able to provide alternatives for people to meet in different ways means we’re gaining users who might not have considered us before.

 

How do you collaborate with your fellow Mozillians?

As a product manager, I work across a lot of different teams. I’m collaborating with Engineering to set road maps, of course—it’s my job to understand what they’re working on and the issues we’ll need to address in the short and long term. I also work closely with our Community and Events Manager and marketing team, since they’re the ground with users, getting the feedback that helps us prioritize different features.

But I get to collaborate on the bigger picture, too; things like creating a healthy business model for social applications and figuring out how our users can monetize the valuable content they’re building. And I’ve been able to work with our Design team up in Portland, as well. They do a lot of research and design explorations, and they’ve helped me understand what’s happening in the industry and how we think it’s going to grow.

 

Tell us about your involvement with the broader mixed reality community.

Understanding the people we’re building for is a huge part of Mozilla’s mission, so our team tries to be really careful about hearing from a diverse range of voices. I spend a lot of time in email and Slack and Discord just chatting with people doing cool stuff in AR and VR. Then I try to bring those learnings back to help inform what we’re building.

Mozilla’s also really supported me in exploring the space beyond our current projects; I recently got back from a 10-week fellowship with the Aspen Learning Institute that focused on data privacy and identity. Part of it was the Digital Afterlife project, which is focused on giving people more control over what will happen to their information after they pass away. A virtual version of yourself, for example, can be a huge comfort to your loved ones when they’re grieving—but what should the consent framework look like? It was a really interesting opportunity to take a step back and think about how policy-making can be applied to immersive spaces. I think we can build these systems in a way that preserves privacy and security, and I think Mozilla can be a real leader in this work.

 

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Interested in working with Liv and the rest of the Mozilla team? Check out our open roles.