It’s coming up on ten years at Mozilla for me, by far the longest I’ve held any job personally and exceedingly long by the standards of the technology industry. When I joined up in Summer 2011 to work on Engineering Productivity1, I really did see it as a dream job: I’d be paid to work full time on free software, which (along with open data and governance) I genuinely saw as one of the best hopes for the future. I was somewhat less sure about Mozilla’s “mission”: the notion of protecting the “open web” felt nebulous and ill-defined and the Mozilla Manifesto seemed vague when it departed from the practical aspects of shipping a useful open source product to users.
It seems ridiculously naive in retrospect, but I can remember thinking at the time that the right amount of “open source” would solve all the problems. What can I say? It was the era of the Arab Spring, WikiLeaks had not yet become a scandal, Google still felt like something of a benevolent upstart, even Facebook’s mission of “making the world more connected” sounded great to me at the time. If we could just push more things out in the open, then the right solutions would become apparent and fixing the structural problems society was facing would become easy!
What a difference a decade makes. The events of the last few years have demonstrated (conclusively, in my view) that open systems aren’t necessarily a protector against abuse by governments, technology monopolies and ill-intentioned groups of individuals alike. Amazon, Google and Facebook are (still) some of the top contributors to key pieces of open source infrastructure but it’s now beyond any doubt that they’re also responsible for amplifying a very large share of the problems global society is experiencing.
At the same time, some of the darker sides of open source software development have become harder and harder to ignore. In particular:
- Harassment and micro aggressions inside open source communities is rampant: aggressive behaviour in issue trackers, personal attacks on discussion forums, the list goes on. Women and non-binary people are disproportionately affected, although this behaviour exacts a psychological toll on everyone.
- Open source software as exploitation: I’ve worked with lots of contributors while at Mozilla. It’s hard to estimate this accurately, but based on some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I’d estimate that the efforts of community volunteers on projects I’ve been involved in have added up to (conservatively) to hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars in labour which has never been directly compensated monetarily. Based on this experience (as well as what I’ve observed elsewhere), I’d argue that Mozilla as a whole could not actually survive on a sustained basis without unpaid work, which (at least on its face) seems highly problematic and creates a lingering feeling of guilt given how much I’ve benefited financially from my time here.
- It’s a road to burnout. Properly managing and nurturing an open source community is deeply complex work, involving a sustained amount of both attention and emotional labour — this is difficult glue work that is not always recognized or supported by peers or management. Many of the people I’ve met over the years (community volunteers and Mozilla employees alike) have ended up feeling like it just isn’t worth the effort and have either stopped doing it or have outright left Mozilla. If it weren’t for an intensive meditation practice which I established around the time I started working here, I suspect I would have been in this category by now.
All this has led to a personal crisis of faith. Do openness and transparency inherently lead to bad outcomes? Should I continue to advocate for it in my position? As I mentioned above, the opportunity to work in the open with the community is the main thing that brought me to Mozilla— if I can’t find a way of incorporating this viewpoint into my work, what am I even doing here?
Trying to answer these questions, I went back to the manifesto that I just skimmed over in my early days. Besides openness — what are Mozilla’s values, really, and do I identify with them? Immediately I was struck by how much it felt like it was written explicitly for the present moment (even aside from the addendums which were added in 2018). Many points seem to confront problems we’re grappling with now which I was only beginning to perceive ten years ago.
Beyond that, there was also something that resonated with me on a deeper level. There were a few points, highlighted in bold, that really stood out:
- The internet is an integral part of modern life—a key component in education, communication, collaboration, business, entertainment and society as a whole.
- The internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.
- The internet must enrich the lives of individual human beings.
- Individuals’ security and privacy on the internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional.
- Individuals must have the ability to shape the internet and their own experiences on the internet.
- The effectiveness of the internet as a public resource depends upon interoperability (protocols, data formats, content), innovation and decentralized participation worldwide.
- Free and open source software promotes the development of the internet as a public resource.
- Transparent community-based processes promote participation, accountability and trust.
- Commercial involvement in the development of the internet brings many benefits; a balance between commercial profit and public benefit is critical.
- Magnifying the public benefit aspects of the internet is an important goal, worthy of time, attention and commitment.
I think it’s worth digging beneath the surface of these points: what is the underlying value system behind them? I’d argue it’s this, simply put: human beings really do matter. They’re not just line items in a spreadsheet or some other resource to be optimized. They are an end in of themselves. People (more so than a software development methodology) are the reason why I show up every day to do the work that I do. This is really an absolute which has enduring weight: it’s a foundational truth of every major world religion to say nothing of modern social democracy.
What does working and building in then open mean then? As we’ve seen above, it certainly isn’t something I’d consider “good” all by itself. Instead, I’d suggest it’s a strategy which (if we’re going to follow it) should come out of that underlying recognition of the worth of Mozilla’s employees, community members, and users. Every single one of these people matter, deeply. I’d argue then, that Mozilla should consider the following factors in terms of how we work in the open:
- Are our spaces2 generally safe for people of all backgrounds to be their authentic selves? This not only means free from sexual harassment and racial discrimination, but also that they’re able to work to their full potential. This means creating opportunities for everyone to climb the contribution curve, among other things.
- We need to be more honest and direct about the economic benefits that community members bring to Mozilla. I’m not sure exactly what this means right now (and of course Mozilla’s options are constrained both legally and economically), but we need to do better about acknowledging their contributions to Mozilla’s bottom line and making sure there is a fair exchange of value on both sides. At the very minimum, we need to make sure that people’s contributions help them grow professionally or otherwise if we can’t guarantee monetary compensation for their efforts.
- We need to acknowledge the efforts that our employees make in creating functional communities. This work does not come for free and we need to start acknowledging it in both our career development paths and when looking at individual performance. Similarly, we need to provide better guidance and mentorship on how to do this work in a way that does not extract too hard a personal toll on the people involved — this is a complex topic, but a lot of it in my opinion comes down to better onboarding practices (which is something we should be doing anyway) as well as setting better boundaries (both in terms of work/life balance, as well as what you’ll accept in your interactions).
- Finally, what is the end result of our work? Do the software and systems we build genuinely enrich people’s lives? Do they become better informed after using our software? Do they make them better decisions? Free software might be good in itself, but one must also factor in how it is used when measuring its social utility (see: Facebook).
None of the above is easy to address. But the alternatives are either close everything down to public participation (which I’d argue will lead to the death of Mozilla as an organization: it just doesn’t have the resources to compete in the marketplace without the backing of the community) or continue down the present path (which I don’t think is sustainable either). The last ten years have shown that the “open source on auto-pilot” approach just doesn’t work.
I suspect these problems aren’t specific to Mozilla and affect other communities that work in the open. I’d be interested in hearing other perspectives on this family of problems: if you have anything to add, my contact information is below.
This includes our internal communications channels like our Matrix instance as well as issue trackers like Bugzilla. There’s also a question of what to do about non-Mozilla channels, like Twitter or the Orange Site. Although not Mozilla spaces, these places are often vectors for harassment of community members. I don’t have any good answers for what to do about this, aside from offering my solidarity and support to those suffering abuse on these channels. Disagreement with Mozilla’s strategy or policy is one thing, but personal attacks, harassment, and character assasination is never ok— no matter where it’s happening. ↩