The Future Of The Planet

I’m not sure who said it first, but I’ve heard a number of people say that RSS solved too many problems to be allowed to live.

I’ve recently become the module owner of Planet Mozilla, a venerable communication hub and feed aggregator here at Mozilla. Real talk here: I’m not likely to get another chance in my life to put “seize control of planet” on my list of quarterly deliverables, much less cross it off in less than a month. Take that, high school guidance counselor and your “must try harder”!

I warned my boss that I’d be milking that joke until sometime early 2017.

On a somewhat more serious note: We have to decide what we’re going to do with this thing.

Planet Mozilla is a bastion of what’s by now the Old Web – Anil Dash talks about it in more detail here, the suite of loosely connected tools and services that made the 1.0 Web what it was. The hallmarks of that era – distributed systems sharing information streams, decentralized and mutually supportive without codependency – date to a time when the economics of software, hardware, connectivity and storage were very different. I’ve written a lot more about that here, if you’re interested, but that doesn’t speak to where we are now.

Please note that when talk about “Mozilla’s needs” below, I don’t mean the company that makes Firefox or the non-profit Foundation. I mean the mission and people in our global community of communities that stand up for it.

I think the following things are true, good things:

  • People still use Planet heavily, sometimes even to the point of “rely on”. Some teams and community efforts definitely rely heavily on subplanets.
  • There isn’t a better place to get a sense of the scope of Mozilla as a global, cultural organization. The range and diversity of articles on Planet is big and weird and amazing.
  • The organizational and site structure of Planet speaks well of Mozilla and Mozilla’s values in being open, accessible and participatory.
  • Planet is an amplifier giving participants and communities an enormous reach and audience they wouldn’t otherwise have to share stories that range from technical and mission-focused to human and deeply personal.

These things are also true, but not all that good:

  • It’s difficult to say what or who Planet is for right now. I don’t have and may not be able to get reliable usage metrics.
  • The egalitarian nature of feeds is a mixed blessing: On one hand, Planet as a forum gives our smallest and most remote communities the same platform as our executive leadership. On the other hand, headlines ranging from “Servo now self-aware” and “Mozilla to purchase Alaska” to “I like turnips” are all equal citizens of Planet, sorted only by time of arrival.
  • Looking at Planet via the Web is not a great experience; if you’re not using a reader even to skim, you’re getting a dated user experience and missing a lot. The mobile Web experience is nonexistent.
  • The Planet software is, by any reasonable standards, a contraption. A long-running and proven contraption, for sure, but definitely a contraption.

Maintaining Planet isn’t particularly expensive. But it’s also not free, particularly in terms of opportunity costs and user-time spent. I think it’s worth asking what we want Planet to accomplish, whether Planet is the right tool for that, and what we should do next.

I’ve got a few ideas about what “next” might look like; I think there are four broad categories.

  1. Do nothing. Maybe reskin the site, move the backing repo from Subversion to Github (currently planned) but otherwise leave Planet as is.
  2. Improve Planet as a Planet, i.e: as a feed aggregator and communication hub.
  3. Replace Planet with something better suited to Mozilla’s needs.
  4. Replace Planet with nothing.

I’m partial to the “Improve Planet as a Planet” option, but I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the others. Not (or at least not only) because I’m lazy, but because I still think Planet matters. Whatever we choose to do here should be a use of time and effort that leaves Mozilla and the Web better off than they are today, and better off than if we’d spent that time and effort somewhere else.

I don’t think Planet is everything Planet could be. I have some ideas, but also don’t think anyone has a sense of what Planet is to its community, or what Mozilla needs Planet to be or become.

I think we need to figure that out together.

Hi, Internet. What is Planet to you? Do you use it regularly? Do you rely on it? What do you need from Planet, and what would you like Planet to become, if anything?

These comments are open and there’s a thread open at the Mozilla Community discourse instance where you can talk about this, and you can always email me directly if you like.

Thanks.

* – Mozilla is not to my knowledge going to purchase Alaska. I mean, maybe we are and I’ve tipped our hand? I don’t get invited to those meetings but it seems unlikely. Is Alaska even for sale? Turnips are OK, I guess.

15 Comments

  1. Posted August 17, 2016 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    I regularly consume Planet Debian, Planet Gnome, and Planet Mozilla via a feed reader (Newsblur, in my case). In each instance, I can think of no alternative for passively sensing the human aspect of each community’s pulse.

    IRC, mailing lists, and Discourse instances require much greater investment or active participation. Building my own blogroll or Twitter list would require a priori knowledge of the community; a classic chicken/egg problem. A subreddit might come close, but the very form of Reddit tends to emphasize commentary instead of content, and third-party pages instead of self-publication.

    Planets, blogging, and RSS itself are all showing their age, but… what else is out there?

  2. Posted August 17, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Some time ago I switched from planet mozilla to the subreddit where all planet posts are automatically posted. It promises to solve the problem of sorting important content, but the user base is too small to actually do that. On the down sides you also get a closed platform.

    With that being said, Datatau is somewhat successful in building a reddit like site for 1 niche, and hacker news is *very* successful, though somewhat broader. There is something intriguing about a Mozilla version of such a site, though I imagine many of the planet users won’t be ecstatic at the prospect.

  3. Posted August 17, 2016 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I follow Planet Mozilla for reasons similar to Dan’s. Everything else I’ve seen either requires too great of an up-front commitment or emphasizes the wrong aspects of the topic.

    In fact, the only issue that affects me in a significant way is the lack of filtering and that’s something I think is a problem for the entire web.

    (eg. For Planet Mozilla, I’m interested in the technical or UI/UX-related stuff and things with an especially high probability of teaching me something about how to successfully pull off an entrepreneurial venture. It’d be nice if I didn’t have to manually triage away the posts on things like SUMO-related posts, Testday results, and the nitty-gritty of Mozilla governance and contributor management.)

  4. Posted August 17, 2016 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Like Dan I like the planet format (am also subscribed to Planet GNOME and Planet Python), which I consume through the Feedly RSS aggregator. I’m +1-ing everything Dan is saying about the efficiency of the format to get a pulse without the curation pain/effort.

    I have one thing to add: maybe an option 5. would be to leave Planet as-is, but *complement* it with an official “Mozilla Weekly” email-based newsletter, broadcasting each week a selection of articles from the ecosystem. For users expecting less of a firehose, the format has an excellent signal-to-noise ratio. Good examples: Changelog Weekly, Pycoders Weekly, Hacker Newsletter, FrontEnd Focus.

    Thanks for asking :)

  5. Caspy7
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I regularly consume PMO and /projects.
    It’s a significant way that I keep my finger on the pulse of things. It absolutely contributes to my involvement and to being informed on topics. If it went away I’d be less able to give support and inform others on Firefox and Mozilla topics.

    Honestly, my main want is to be able to use ‘n’ and ‘p’ to skip forward and back through postings on sub-planets. :)

    “Replace Planet with nothing.”
    Seeing this as an option is surprising and concerning.

  6. mhoye
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Seeing this as an option is surprising and concerning.

    If nobody used it we’d probably want to turn it off, but all the feedback I’ve had so far says that’s definitely not the case.

  7. Simon
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Pretty much what Dan said… it’s a way for interested people to passively keep an eye on what’s happening in Mozilla, without the time investment involved in being part of the community.

    Like others, I follow it through feeds, so I don’t really care much about the usability of the website.

  8. DB
    Posted August 17, 2016 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I enjoy reading planet Mozilla via the website. I read it when I want a break and I’m not too busy. I don’t contribute to Mozilla in any meaningful way. I’m just a fan who likes using Firefox and Thunderbird and enjoy reading what’s happening. (I especially appreciate reading the rational behind upcoming changes).

  9. Posted August 18, 2016 at 2:29 am | Permalink

    Hey, really happy to hear someone is thinking about advancing after years of what seemed to be stagnation!

    I think Planet Mozilla is tremendously important, and a great tool for Mozilla to disseminate knowledge on what’s going on in the larger community, to the larger community. In particular, I feel like it could be a great venue for MoCo to share more semi-high-level thoughts on direction/strategy, which is not really happening right now.

    Personally, I feel that Planet Mozilla has both too much and too little stuff. On the one hand, some stuff from the Projects planet should maybe really be on the main planet, to readers can get a pulse of what’s going on. On the other hand, sometimes personal posts appear that really have very little relation to Mozilla or its community, and I don’t think they add much value. Third, I’m on record as thinking that Air Mozilla regularly overwhelms the Planet content, and it feels like spam to me.

    For me, the goal of Planet should be something like Pulse for Humans, i.e., an entry point for people to get lots of pointers to stuff that’s going on in a way that’s accessible — easy to digest. Part of the remaining problem is then about prioritizing stuff in a sensible way. It could also be interesting to segregate more by theme instead of style, e.g. Planet Mozilla > Tech, Planet Mozilla > UX, Planet Mozilla > Support, Planet Mozilla > Participation, and then maybe have a top-level feed that carries digests of each of the other fields? I might be overthinking it, too — a more personal tone also has value.

    The closest alternative I’ve seen that seems really good is the more curated style of “This Week In” that e.g. Rust and Servo already use. The way they do it also seems interesting; I think they just have a GitHub repo and allow anyone to contribute stuff to it (although it still requires something of a strong owner).

  10. Posted August 18, 2016 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    I think Planet is great for getting a sense of what all of Mozilla is doing, in a way it’s difficult to get from anywhere else, including the Weekly Meeting. I think it’s also valuable to learn more about other people in the project, not just the mission-based activities – a remote organization lacks a water cooler, and posts about people’s other interests allow us to make connections and understandings beyond those purely necessary for “work”. In a world where social media algoritms mean we are all increasingly only viewing “relevant” content, there’s actually value in a feed which no-one is trying to tailor specifically to me.

  11. Posted August 18, 2016 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    I’m pretty happy with the status quo. I use a reader (NewsBlur) that supports training, so I can filter out the topics and weekly posts that I know I’m not interested in, and scan past headlines that I haven’t filtered out but don’t interest me.

    If we end up using a commercial service instead of open standards then to me that would be a failure for Mozilla’s mission.

  12. Posted August 18, 2016 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    I’m in the camp of non-destructive augmentation. The data feeds seem to be a known good (evil?), so messing with those is a good way to lose people who know it without gaining people who’d come across it via the ancient Web 1.0 rituals. There is no going back.

    Changing the web-facing part seems like a fun project to throw at some groups of people. The data sources are open, after all, so maybe a CFP “We Are Planet Mozilla” to actively solicit designs of what planet could be? “Want to have a meaningful impact on Mozilla but don’t want to/can’t hack on Firefox? Design our new Planet. Here’s the project’s MDN page for links to brand resources; helpful twitter accounts, email addresses, and IRC channels; and a sample redesign for you to pull apart.”

  13. Posted August 18, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Planet is in the default tab group on my work browser. I generally use it to get an overview of the Mozilla and web world, and to try to get a heads-up on forthcoming changes that might affect us without having to follow specific newsgroups or other sources.

    The variety of content is what appeals. I regularly skim past some topics, but I’ve gained a huge amount by following links in others. Please don’t lose it entirely, and don’t change it *too* much. But adding a few new features would be nice.

  14. Posted August 19, 2016 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I was surprised to see the proposed new Mozilla brand identities on [Brand New](http://www.underconsideration.com/brandnew/archives/mozilla_logos_round_1.php), not on Planet Mozilla.

    It seems that Planet Mozilla isn’t making itself known to some of our newer community members, who would be unfamiliar with our culture of “syndicate your blog posts to the Planet” and more familiar with the mainstream web’s culture of “post it on some centralised publishing platform and your audience will inevitably find it”.

    That mainstream web culture is itself a problem – centralisation harms freedom – that Mozilla should aim to improve.

  15. mhoye
    Posted August 22, 2016 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Huh, that’s a good point. Why don’t they have this stuff on Planet? I’ll figure that out. Thanks!