This is more of a blog post but I don’t have a blog on planet and I kinda wanted to get everyone’s input/thoughts. I’d tag this #moz08 if that was even possible.
While the many events and happenings up in the great Northern expanse has been well documented, I wanted to write about what, for me, was the biggest take-home message of the entire experience. In particular, as someone who’s been with Mozilla for well short of a year, I realized over the past week that I didn’t know anything about the greater project and goals Mozilla has as a community. I’m hoping in the next few paragraphs to share this with you. If you were at Summit, have been with Mozilla for plural years or don’t much care, feel free to go read another thread… this one’s long.
The first day of the summit, after early morning bears but before rockslide for those keeping track with familiar landmarks, Mitchell Baker, the Mozilla Foundation’s “Chief Lizard Wrangler” gave a speech on what Mozilla means to her and how she views the larger community and its interconnections. In particular, she noted that fundamentally, Mozilla is people dedicated to a central core: human interaction with the internet. From this she built a metaphor that anchored her entire presentation: Mozilla is a tree. We have the elements of Mozilla that people can see: the branches. However, each branch is fed from a core set of roots. These roots inform everything we do, are absolutely vital to the success of the project as a whole and serve as a foundation for everything. While these roots are not what immediately comes to mind for most people when they think of Mozilla (in the greater metaphor, they’re underground) they’re actually more important than the branches in defining who we are and how much we can accomplish.
The first few roots are all aspects of the open-source nature of Mozilla. While I was aware that all of the Mozilla projects are open source, I was very surprised that the central aspects democratic development was so very important to the philosophy of Mozilla that the majority of core values was dedicated to them. Specifically, the first three discussed: open, equal access code and participation; a peer-review based review process and merit-based advancement; distributed and earned authority. Mozilla is completely open: anyone can contribute freely to any aspect of the project or fork your own copy. The review process is by other project contributors and as you earn the respect of the community at large, you gain more and more rights, responsibilities and privileges. As an organization, Mozilla actually actively makes efforts to distribute the authority so that people who have the biggest say are the people who’ve most earned it and no one person can dominate any decision.
Those of you who are familiar with open source projects may be used to this but for me it was a surprise to see it laid out so clearly. It was almost even more surprising that once I took an informed look back at my short Mozilla experience so far, these values guide they way everything is done. Unlike many other organizations where the central values are merely a series of feel-good platitudes, Mozilla stands by every one of its central values. Take bugzilla for example. Bugzilla is completely open, anyone can file bugs and anyone can comment. In fact, anyone can take a bug and assign it to themselves or look at submitted patches and discuss them. As you gain respect in the community, you’re granted the right to confirm bugs, edit bugs and then to approve patches and subsequently to check them into the code. There’s no single approver through whom all code changes must flow; there’s no reward system for knowing the CEO or any other form of cronyism; everyone has to prove [one]self and earn [one’s] position. Outside the central codebase, we still try to take these things to heart. It’s possible for anyone to contribute and later advance through ability and dedication in almost any subproject/subcommunity from Labs to spreadfirefox.
The next root of the Mozilla tree is public asset. This made me smile during the presentation because I’ve heard the expression to describe politicians (mostly saying how they should be, not how they are). Essentially, Mozilla belongs to the people. In every left-wing, Communist, idealist sense of that phrase. We’re not making a product for our own benefit or even for the benefit of our users and certainly not for the benefit of our investors. While we all work on it, it’s no more ours than the air we breathe. Anyone can contribute and everyone should benefit. While we make direct products, we also overall try to make internet a more open place, for everyone. This is tied with the last root: public benefit. Essentially, we want to make the world a better place or at least the internet world. (No plans to open source curing AIDS or something.) This root is so general that there’s not much to say (I mean who tries to make the world a worse place?). The key word is public, I guess. It’s very much a ‘we the people, by the people, for the people’ set of values.
The branches on the tree were the things you think of when you think of Mozilla, the legal entities, the products (especially Firefox), the employees, even the revenue. However none of these are fundamentally central to what the project is about. These “branches” are simply how Mozilla changes the world. We make products, hire employees and go to conventions not for their own sake as it’s often assumed (and to some extent, I assumed) but for a greater purpose. In fact, the Mozilla community would cease to exist if you “cut off” one of the roots but could survive without one of its branches, even without Firefox.
Now, take some time to think about that. Yes, Mozilla’s most visible project is Firefox. We even went to and were trapped in a small mountain resort in large part to celebrate a big Firefox launch. However, Mitchell Baker has unshakable faith that Mozilla can continue without Firefox, that Firefox does not define Mozilla. Perhaps even more interesting are the things she decided DO define Mozilla: the open source nature of the way we operate, the democratic and public benefit goals. We’re not simply using open source development to make Firefox better, we’re using Firefox to further these values and make the web an open, accessible place.
So what does that mean? I don’t know. I just wanted to throw this out there. While we’re a tiny support community and sometimes it does feel that we operate independent of the rest of the Mozilla organization, we share a lot more than is immediately obvious. Even more importantly, we’re all not just working for the Firefox browser. We’re part of the greater community that is Mozilla. Hence, we also represent the democratization of the internet. The open source, distributed decision model can apply to more than just code, that a community can be built entirely around open access meritocracy and not just function but thrive. I think that’s pretty cool.
It also means that I want you all to take advantage of the openness that this model has — the most important aspect of an open community is participation and feedback. My personal e-mail address is: chengwang(at)gmail. You can say anything: suggestions, criticism, opinions, ideas, general comments … I promise I’ll read it. I’m sure this applies to everyone else. Please don’t be afraid to offer suggestions or comments to anyone, to jump in on any project, to ask for help with anything. Yes, people can get touchy if you hit a sensitive subject or even disagree strongly (we’re all human, I’m probably worst than most) but it’s so important that we have this open and public system that you simply cannot hold back an opinion or be shy about doing things. If you don’t want to address someone personally, post it somewhere. Do it anonymously if that’s more comfortable. We have newsgroups, feedback forms, forums, bugzilla. Just remember that your voice counts just as much as everyone else’s so make sure it’s heard (and your actions count double, so make sure to do them!). It doesn’t mean that the community will see things your way (I’ve learned that the hard way) or approve your patches but it would be a greater loss to have no-one hear you at all.
Users, non-users, non-contributors, this applies to you as well. Although, I’m definitely not the best person to talk to about Firefox features or specific projects, someone is. If you’ve really wanted to get started helping but are afraid, don’t be! If you need help finding some way to help or a good place for your comment, I’ll help as much as I can (although a search may be more fruitful, I really don’t know much). Yes, I realize I just invited everyone in the world to overload me with questions; I promise to do the best I can. We have a feedback form: http://hendrix.mozilla.org and that may be a better place for this; we also have http://www.mozilla.com/manyfaces/ which details ways to get started helping. (I do want to make a plug for support… you really don’t need to be technically minded to do it.) If you have specific feedback about what can be done to make this community more open to new contributors or how we can improve the way it functions… you know the drill… just find some way to let us know.
On that note, this is just the beginning of a dialog. What do you think? Is this a good way of thinking of Mozilla? Do you have a totally different view? What can be done to make this community more open to input? What would you like to see done? Was all this obvious to you and was I the only oblivious one? (Don’t worry, if you say yes, my feelings won’t be hurt. It’s pretty evident in retrospect, too.) This doesn’t have to be support-specific. If you have any feedback about any aspect of anything Mozilla related, post it. I may need to direct you to a better place but I will make sure that someone listens.
Man, I wanted to make this short, too. (Reader’s digest version: Mozilla is about openness not Firefox, go take part and be heard!)