A Note To Some Friends

December 8, 2009

I’ve been threatening Beltzner with this for a few weeks but I haven’t had a good time to talk it out with him privately. What brought this on was a presentation of his that was all about Firefox the product and what the community has to do, but as far as I could tell, not at all about how to grow the community and get more people onboard. But it occurred to me that doing this privately would just make me part of the problem, so here goes. To whom it may concern, I have never stopped loving you.
I don’t work for Mozilla – this is strictly outsider-looking-in stuff – but I know a few people who work at there and I like and respect them all quite a bit. But I’ve been concerned about a couple of things that I’ve seen recently, less facts than trends I’d like to be wrong about.
And it’s getting close to Festivus anyway, so let’s air some grievances. Mostly, this is out of pure self-interest: you guys aren’t blogging like you used to.
I’ve heard some of you mention that it’s all gone to Twitter, but the thing is: Mozilla is flat out not radiating information the way you used to. Strictly speaking there’s more of it available, sure, from more places, but it’s all official-channel stuff; individual Mozillian blogging seems like it’s gone way down. Maybe I’m just not looking in the right places, but I used to like reading that stuff a lot – technical details on the internals of what you’re working on, processes, decisions you’re making or (better!) trying to make. Not just content that’s limited to (and effectively hidden by) Bugzilla but actually out-in-the-wild somewhere blog post, next to music reviews and clever jokes and pictures of cats.
I think this started happening at about the same time as a bunch of Real Browsers appeared in the world; suddenly advocating browser choice wasn’t effectively synonymous with advocating a Mozilla product. Another thing is that I’ve heard recently is that Mozilla has moved their hiring efforts strongly away from bringing people up through the community and has started hiring grads and executives directly. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these things have been happening at around same time as mozilla.com and mozilla.org were split off to do fundamentally different jobs.
It’s not that I don’t think either one of those jobs isn’t important – I really do – but I think it’s symptomatic of the larger issue that, to my eyes, has pulled a sharp scalpel down between Mozilla the ideology and Mozilla the product. Blogging, discussing issues in really open, really public fora was at some point a thing Mozilla people just did, loud and often. It wasn’t a task or expected or whatever, it just happened. People talked about what they were doing, and people brought up through the community talked about the new problems and responsibilities they were taking on; I don’t know if anyone ever spelled it out, that was just the process. These new hires, though, why would they? It doesn’t look like it’s an integral part of the culture anymore. I think a lot of important tendons got cut with that move.
Things have kind of changed since the old days, I know! Now, instead of having zero competitors who were interested in building an innovative web browser to open standards and one who didn’t now there’s a bunch of them out there, and they’ve got big shiny buildings and deep pockets. And I can see how it would change your approach, when all of a sudden you’ve got competitors who can drop a billion dollars on your market whenever they feel like it. That’s scary stuff, but I don’t think it means you should collectively start playing it close to the chest. Mozilla’s never going to be big enough or rich enough to compete with huge, incredibly rich organizations; small organizations can’t ever compete on those terms.
And that’s why the successful ones don’t. You don’t need money or staff, or even much in the way of resources compared to the other guys in the field; you need zealots. You need cult members, True Believers, and you can’t just harvest those fresh out of fourth year. Not with boring old money, at least.
What I miss most about those early blog posts wasn’t so much the technical information, but the basic joy of solving these problems and rolling these things out into nightlies, betas and shipping products that underpinned them all. The jouissance of solving hard problems that underpinned novel new tech and making people’s lives better thereby, it radiated from these feeds directly into the eyes of whoever stumbled over them. That enthusiasm was awesome, it was infectious. And I bet that’s where most of the contributors you’ve leveled-up to employees have come from, isn’t it? People who started out maybe not even filing a bug or writing a patch, but people who found out that filing a bug could be rewarding, that writing a patch to solve some problem could be fun.
That’s fundamentally why I’m worried about this encroaching radio silence, about the separation of Mozilla.org and Mozilla.com. How do you get people to care about the idea of an open Web, without caring about the technology that underpins it? Do you want people to care about the technology, without caring about the goal of an open, accessible Web? How much traction can one really get without the other?
Here’s what I know: you can’t buy cult followers, you don’t just stumble over them. You need them to find you. And then you need to grow them, to make them into the people whose contributions, whose basic joy of participation can reel in the next generation. In fact, I think the only way to bring in that next generation is by bringing the technical staff and ideologues back under the same roof, on the same org chart. And then get back to the business of telling us this great stuff you’re working on, how great it is to be a part of all this.
Am I just looking in the wrong places, here?
I love you guys; I think you’re doing critically important work, and I know you love doing it. But I know because I get to see you every couple of weeks, and I get to see the joking around, the laughing and, now and then, the huge, exhausted smiles on the faces of people who’ve been busting their asses for weeks for something more important than money, who’ve just shipped a product they’re proud of. I know it because I’ve seen it in your faces when you’re watching your download numbers surge.
I know because when I walk up to you, there it is. And I think that everyone else should get to see it too, and it’s the best recruiting tool you’ll ever have, that nobody can buy.