“The Internet:” re-reading the Mozilla Manifesto

This week, among other topics, I’ll be teaching my students about the
Mozilla Manifesto
. It’s one of the places I need to start if I’m going to bring new people into the Mozilla project, as it helps to establish the principles that they will encounter in code review, irc, mailing lists, and other areas of the community. When I first started teaching Mozilla at Seneca, this document didn’t exist. Having these things stated explicitly is tremendously helpful, and I’m glad for the hard work of those who developed it.

Most Mozilla contributors probably don’t re-read the manifesto on a regular basis; I know I wouldn’t if I wasn’t teaching it every fall. Like my students, I’d encourage you to go (re-)read it today. What does it say? One of the things I noticed in today’s re-reading is that it says “The internet” 21 times, while “web” and “browser” each occur only once in “We are best known for creating the Mozilla Firefox
web browser
.” I’m sure that’s by design, and I think it was a good choice. I also note that “The internet” is never defined, which partly speaks to its ubiquity among readers, and partly allows for the evolution of an idea separate from a set of technologies. “The internet” I used in university is vastly different from the one I use with my students now.

I also find the exercise of re-reading the manifesto each fall a good one because it inevitably gets me thinking about the current and near-term goals of the Mozilla project. The landscape in which we function, whether technical, commercial, or political, continues to change. What was important to do five years ago might not matter as much today; perhaps because we’ve done it already, or perhaps because the world has shifted, and it’s not the right problem any more. The list of things that’s changed in the 9 years that I’ve been working on Mozilla is too long to enumerate–I can only imagine what it’s like for those who have worked on Mozilla longer than me.

In preparation for the upcoming summit, I was interviewed about what I thought Mozilla should be doing in the near, medium, and far future. Re-reading the manifesto today, I was thinking back on some of my answers, especially as I bumped into “the internet” vs “the web” over and over again. One of the things I like most about Mozilla is the balance between ideology and pragmatism. One can argue that we lean too far either way at any given time, but that’s always true of balance, which requires mindful, constant adjustment to keep from falling in one or the other direction. Mozilla has made (and will continue to make) many decisions that frustrate people in our community: maybe we should avoid implementing spec X; maybe we should implement spec Y; maybe we should put resources behind service A; maybe we should kill product B. I’ve been involved in some of the decisions, and watched friends as they struggled to figure out what was right. I’ve also seen decisions change over time (c.f., h.264 and

Many of the people who work on Mozilla are technical. They understand what “the internet” is at the protocol level and at the implementation level. Often that’s a good thing, since participating in keeping it functioning, and keeping it open requires that one understand its complexities. I would argue that there are other times where deep technical knowledge also hinders our perspectives. I’ve spent the past few years working on the
Mozilla Webmaker
project, which is primarily aimed at non-technical users, and it has opened my eyes to how focused I am on deep technical things vs. “the internet” that everyday-people use. I am not a typical user. My opinions, instincts, and decision-making context are not like many of the people in my family.

When my friends and family think about “the internet,” they make all sorts of mistakes, and include things that they shouldn’t if we were being technical. But remember that most of the world isn’t being technical when they use “the internet.” It’s important to pay attention to what users think, to what they expect, to the world in which they encounter your work. It’s fine to hold a principled stance if your only goal is to maintain it personally. But if your goal is to affect change, to provide alternatives, and show up in the world so as to have influence, you’ll forever be required to evaluate your positions in a larger context and adjust.

There was a time that if you’d said that Mozilla should put huge effort into creating its own mobile operating system, many people in the project would have questioned you (I’m sure that is still happening). And yet here I am in 2013 with a brand new
Firefox OS
phone on my desk. Was it the right decision? We’ll find out.

When we say “Individuals must have the ability to shape their own experiences on the Internet”, where do we imagine this taking place specifically? What’s in and what’s out in your view of “the internet?” It’s an important question because it comes to influence the horizon of your decision making. For example, is iOS and the App Store part of “the internet?” Is Facebook? Are cloud services like Dropbox? Should Mozilla be fighting to matter in these spaces? Is the manifesto talking about these things? I can tell you that everyday, real people and users are talking about them.

I hope these and other questions will get discussed at the summit, and in other contexts in the coming weeks and months. Our ability to matter is closely tied with our willingness to change. I think the authors of the manifesto knew this and gave us an excellent starting point for making good decisions now and into the future. They didn’t make those decisions for us, though, and we have to always be willing to ask one another hard questions, make changes, and figure out how to do what’s right in the current context.

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