Archive for July, 2014

Looking Ahead: Challenges for the Open Web

Mozilla at the 2008 Summit in Whistler.  Mozilla Community at 2008 Summit. Taken by Gen Kanai

At the end of this week, I’m moving on after six amazing years at Mozilla. On August 25, I’ll be joining Reddit – another global open source project – as their first user experience designer. I’m ecstatic to help shape and design the future of another incredible community.

In looking back at all that’s changed in technology and the web since I joined Mozilla, I find myself humbled at the trials we’ve met and overcome. When I joined in 2008, we were smaller and scrappier. Fellow designer Alex Faaborg and myself stood before whiteboards, explaining how tabs on top of the URL bar were more efficient. The bug backlogs of Firefox 3 kept us up at night, but when we launched in July 2008 we made the Guinness Book of World Records for most software downloads in 24 hours ((Mozilla sets new Guinness World Record with Firefox 3 downloads)). Chrome didn’t even exist yet!

Of the challenges in Mozilla’s future, many are nearly universal for open source communities and largely unsolved. Here are three I find myself often returning to:

1. How do we protect users’ data when users consistently choose utility over privacy?

You can package it any way you like, but if your privacy-centric product even slightly hinders user enjoyment of the web, it won’t see wide adoption.

When prompted, users overwhelming cite online privacy (referring to data being shared with companies and governments) as a concern. A recent poll ((Right To Be Forgotten: Do Users Even Care?)) showed 26% of people were “extremely concerned” about privacy when using a search engine, with nearly 90% expressing some level of concern. And yet, 92% of those use Google and only 3% use DuckDuckGo, an explicitly non-tracking search engine. In the developing world and younger markets, users are even less concerned. Mozilla’s research team is currently investigating attitudes towards privacy in Malaysia and the Philippines, and most people they’ve spoken with don’t even have a concept “online privacy” aside from not wanting their friends and relatives to see all they’ve posted to social media.

Those of us who care about online privacy are increasingly at a values impasse with our users. The solution is not to simply inform, coax, or frighten users into taking security measures.

Most importantly, a world without the practical technological possibility of privacy is much scarier than one where users can choose, either actively or passively, to share their information.

2. How can global communities accommodate incompatible values?

Philipp asks if this is good for the company

Championing inclusiveness and diversity is an easy decision for most organizations. But when push comes to shove, members of any large community will still disagree fundamentally on many important values. The need to bridge fundamental divides is an inevitability.

As an example, open source contributors disagree vehemently when it comes to DRM. Is it better to follow the content industry and implement extensions so content owners can control how users share content? Or, is DRM’s current instantiation so harmful to an open web that it’s worth limiting user’s access to content to avoid supporting it? Both these views and many others exist amongst Mozilla contributors, yet ultimately decisions about what ships in Firefox must be made. When this happens, the community cannot simply shrink by the number of people opposed to the decision.

To successfully cooperate, global communities have to form a sustainable plurality. The key is allowing members to operate in a context of known responsibilities to each other, yet also generalized freedom to hold, express, and act on their views. Freedom of expression should exist by default, but the community will collapse if members don’t understand that they also have responsibilities that are defined and understood.

Furthermore, the balance of power between the community at large and its leadership is best when it is understood and predictable. Major organizational decisions are often be made by a few executives or benevolent dictators for life. Where and how these decisions are made as well as what was decided needs to be widely available for a community to cohere. The community must also know the difference between the organizational values which guide decisions and the personal values of leaders which do not. Realistically, the two are never wholly separate.

The question over “public vs. private” values in leadership has been addressed frequently at Mozilla. Perhaps the lines that separate public and private views cannot be entirely explicit, but acknowledging and engaging openly about differences bring strength to a community. Again, this is best where the role and position of leaders in making decisions is clear.

3. How can design culture embrace open source?

Affinity Diagramming with Firefox in Toronto

Within design communities, open source is still met with disinterest at best and derision at worst. This is hurting both open source and design.

The main barrier towards design culture embracing open source is a chicken-and-egg: few open source projects appear to value usability and design. Scratch-your-own-itch hacker culture assumes the creators of technology are its users, which deemphasizes the need for usability and accessibility. Additionally, feedback in open-source is heard mainly from a few power-users, and the temptation to appease them can thwart designs that would appeal to a wider audience.

Another reason design culture hasn’t embraced open source stems from designers’ wariness over being taken advantage of. I remember Mark Mentzer, one of my Carnegie Mellon design professors, warning his students to “never work for free!” This attitude runs deep in design circles, and for good reason: we’ve become used to requests for work where the only payment will be “another piece in your portfolio.” Honoring those requests devalues design work as a whole.

But, open source is different from free labor. Just as developers do, designers love their work and often consider it a hobby as well as an occupation. The transformative potential of open source projects excites designers as much as developers. By insisting on excellent user experience, open source projects can show designers that they are communities that value design.

Another reason design culture hasn’t embraced open source is because code contributions fit more easily into open projects than design contributions. Any developer can jump into an open source project by taking and fixing a bug. Little context is needed beyond what’s provided in the ticket: current behavior, expected behavior, acceptance criteria. Patch written, reviewed, done, boom.

In design, more context and background is needed to “fix a problem,” which hinders potential community contributions. A design “bug” is harder to identify than most engineering bugs. Simply diagnosing them requires user research, collaboration, and context. Providing well-scoped design problems with dedicated mentors can help bring on contributors.

Mozilla Heart

To Mozilla, thank you for six amazing years. You’re my allies, my friends, and the most incredible people I know.

The Internet Says Goodbye

Humans are a Community-Centric

We evolved to rely on community to survive. From moment we stood on two legs, we have derived our identity, culture, and beliefs from the people around us.

Our communities started as tribes. With agriculture, they became villages and cities. But as communities adapted and grew, they remained rooted in physical proximity. We were together, so we could build a fire to gather around. We could construct a market, temple, or wall. We could protect each other from harm.

The Internet is Changing the Nature of Human Community

Increasingly, our communities are not made up of people physically around us, but those we connect with online. It takes only a shared passion to create and foster meaningful relationships on the web. Whether or not we’ve met in the real world, the internet is globally becoming the predominant tool we use to communicate.

Like physical communities, online communities share their whole lives together. But what of the cultural aspects of community? There are few online analogs to the customs and traditions that united our physical communities. Do we need them, now that we’re not constrained by proximity?

Culture Needs to Evolve for the Web

The culture that surrounds our online communities is still fledgling. As the first waves of internet users embraced social networking, too often online interaction was defined by cruelty and abuse. The addition of younger demographics brought bullying to a new platform, sometimes with deadly consequences. Anonymity often fueled the flames.

Lawmakers, educators, and parents have tried to curb the web’s unsavory cultural aspects. Their efforts have fallen short and will continue to do so. That’s because online culture isn’t a problem that can be solved through offline regulation. It’s a problem that must be solved within the communities themselves. We can curb abuse over time, but doing so is insufficient: we must also build communities that support and nurture.

What should community support look like on the internet? How can we show compassion when we’re digitally connected but separated by distance?

One of the clearest examples of offline community support is response to death. Our physical communities bury bodies, scatter ashes, erect monuments, and embrace the mourning. The shared rituals help us accept and move forward.

Can a Digital Community Support Each Other through Tragedy?

It can. It already has.

The internet itself – the people who build, protect, fight for, and love this new global interconnectedness – is its own community. I’m a part of it, and you likely are as well.

We lost two beloved members of our community recently. The positive responses to these tragedies could help frame a model of how online communities can support each other through grief.


Aaron Swartz. 1986-2013.

Aaron was many things: a programmer, hacker, activist, founder, and friend. He fought for the freedom of information with all his intellect and creativity: both were plentiful. His tragic suicide occurred amidst a grand jury indictment. Accused of violating federal hacking laws by downloading millions of academic articles in order to make them freely available, he was facing up to 35 years in prison ((Info-Activist Aaron Swartz Facing 35 Years in Prison for Alleged JSTOR, MIT Hack. Publishers Weekly.)).

How did the internet community respond to Aaron’s tragic death? With action. Last month, Brian Knappenberger released a crowdfunded documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy, about Aaron’s life and death. In January of 2014, Lawrence Lessig led a walk across New Hampshire in Aaron’s honor ((Lawrence Lessig Walking Across New Hampshire In Memory Of Aaron Swartz. Huffington Post.)). Yesterday, Lessig’s MayDay Super PAC reached its five million dollar goal, bringing action to the cause Aaron and so many of us believe in: removing the influence of money from politics ((About the MayDay PAC)). We lost Aaron, but we promised not to lose his war.

Aaron’s Community Lesson:

Advocate for the dreams and passions of those we love.
Respect their memory by carrying forward their vision.


Rebecca Alison Meyer. 2008-2014.

Eric Meyer is a beloved member of the internet community. His work and advocacy over two decades towards better web technologies and standards is renowned. Last month, Eric and his wife Kat tragically lost their six-year-old daughter, Rebecca, to cancer ((Photo: In Memoriam: Rebecca Alison Meyer. Myerweb.)). In the wake of the tragedy, the internet community sought ways to show its love and support.

One tribute stood out. Rebecca had a favorite color, and it was purple. Specifically, it was the shade of purple expressed by HTML hex value #663399. In her honor, a proposal was made and accepted to add a name to color #663399 in the CSS4 specification: “Rebecca Purple.” Just as sympathy flowers are grown from the land of the bereaved, the internet made a tribute in the very material it’s made of.

Rebecca’s Community Lesson:

Support each other in ways that are meaningful to your own community.
Show caring in ways that reflect the individuality of those we love.

In Conclusion

The digital nature of our communities does not make us any less human. Minimizing communication to text and emoticons does not (and will) not minimize the spectrum of our emotion. If we intend to live more fully online, we’ll need ways to support each other just as our cultural traditions have done.

Culture will surely look different for each online community. Let’s be explicit about its creation. Let’s not think of ourselves as individuals with computers, but as communities who use computers to connect. Let’s find new ways to support each other though life’s storms.