The Open Web is a social movement

Social movements are collective actions in which the populace is alerted, educated, and mobilized, over years and decades, to challenge the powerholders and the whole society to redress social problems or grievances and restore critical social values.
– Bill Moyes in the Movement Action Plan

The mission of the Mozilla Foundation is to create and promote the Internet as an open platform that supports the principles set out in the Mozilla Manifesto.
– Mozilla Foundation’s Statement of Direction

The open web is a social value. It’s not a fact, it’s not necessity, and it’s not a requirement. It’s a value – one that a growing community of people believe in and are willing to fight for. Indeed an emergent community in support of this value, initially composed of coders and technophiles, has steadily grown in size and scope. Today, there are hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who believe in the open web. They want the internet to be an open platform, indeed, they know the internet must be an open platform.

This means the message and goals of organizations like the Mozilla foundation and others that promote an open web, have broad appeal and resonate with a increasingly diverse community.

This is exciting.

It will also create new challenges.

Those involved in promoting an open web need to know that they are part of a social movement. Yes, it is language and terminology that make some of us uncomfortable. But it is the reality of our situation.

Embracing the notion that the open web is a social movement does not mean that we must start lobbying politicians or chaining ourselves to Microsoft servers (although some people may already be doing these things). I will be the first to admit that this social movement is very unlike those of the past. We do not need to employ the industrial and hierarchical model of influence and power that underlies the Bill Moyes document that, in part, inspired this post. It is for another era, or at least, for other movements.

This social movement is different in that, so far, it has been able to derive its power from a narrow set of people – mostly coders – who by volunteering their labour, have given the movement neither political power, nor economic power, but hard consumer power. This power has enabled projects like Mozilla to out-create, out-innovate, and out-perform the largest, best financed, and most successful software and IT companies in the world. As such, it does not need to rely on persuading government to create structural changes the way past social movements have. It has simply been able to force change though its market position.

This success however, does not mean it has nothing to learn from the past. Indeed, understanding and embracing the fact that the open web is a social movement would not only give the open web project structure – an organizing principle – upon which further success can be built but it would also allow it to reflect and leverage on the lessons of past movements.

Possibly the most important of these past lessons is that social movements may emerge organically but often do not succeed until at least some primitive form of organization or basic structure takes form around which resources, supporters, and eventually the general public, can coalesce.

This structure does not need to be hierarchical, but it does need to at least anchor or provide a platform around which the movement can build identity and direction. I sense a number of people look to Mozilla to be that rallying point. Indeed, last year when Chris Messina ranted online about Mozilla – which some in the Mozilla Corporation incorrectly felt was an unhelpful critique of the corporation – he was asking this very question. (I know Chris’ comments weren’t very popular with many people and that a major motivating factor for his rant was an effort to bring attention to his new consulting firm, but I’m still going to address his comments at face value) I don’t think Messina was being critical of the corporation per se, a large part of what he was asking was why Mozilla wasn’t serving as a rallying point for people (like him) who cared about the Open Web and Open Source.

The Berkman Center at Harvard, the CIS at Stanford, the Mozilla Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Shuttleworth Foundation, along with a handful of other organizations are already part of the movement’s ecosystem. Perhaps one of them could credibly take on a leadership/organizing/convening role for such a social movement. Perhaps not. At the moment, it seems unclear if anyone is.

Again, this social movement can and probably should be more decentralized than any past movement. But could we push ourselves harder? Are we creating enough hooks for new participants to latch on to? Are we creating an ecosystem where non-coders, but passionate open web believers, can find a niche? What are the big harry audacious goals that a larger community can get behind, and support? Are we willing to talk about ourselves as a social movement? What are the opportunities and dangers in doing that? I’m not sure. But it would be great if someone were thinking about who, or whom, might be asking these questions.

Please know this post is a draft and treat as such. Please tear it to shreds or build on it in the comments or in an email to me.

32 thoughts on “The Open Web is a social movement

  1. Chris Messina

    Hey David, this is a great post and I generally support your theme and premise.

    I did want to clarify the point you made about my “Leave Britney Alone-esque” rant… specifically: “that a major motivating factor for his rant was an effort to bring attention to his new consulting firm”.

    I mean, it’s okay for folks to think what they want about the comments I made. But it’s another thing to re-interpret the intent of my post. I think promoting my company was the last thing on my mind — and in fact, I hesitated to post the thing in the first place out of concern for how it might come across.

    Anyway, it’s no big deal, and you don’t have to believe me, but it’s just laughable (to me at least!) that I would waste 50 minutes at 1am decrying what I felt was Mozilla’s lack of direction to somehow promote my company. I mean, I spent 9 months working on Spread Firefox for free, and then I went on to help found Flock, which was built on the Mozilla platform… I was seriously concerned about Mozilla’s potential ability to preserve the freedom of the Open Web if they didn’t wake up and counter proprietary technologies like Silverlight and Air…!

    So that’s that. Otherwise, great post. ;)

    Reply
  2. Chris Messina

    Hey David, this is a great post and I generally support your theme and premise. I did want to clarify the point you made about my “Leave Britney Alone-esque” rant… specifically: “that a major motivating factor for his rant was an effort to bring attention to his new consulting firm”. I mean, it’s okay for folks to think what they want about the comments I made. But it’s another thing to re-interpret the intent of my post. I think promoting my company was the last thing on my mind — and in fact, I hesitated to post the thing in the first place out of concern for how it might come across. Anyway, it’s no big deal, and you don’t have to believe me, but it’s just laughable (to me at least!) that I would waste 50 minutes at 1am decrying what I felt was Mozilla’s lack of direction to somehow promote my company. I mean, I spent 9 months working on Spread Firefox for free, and then I went on to help found Flock, which was built on the Mozilla platform… I was seriously concerned about Mozilla’s potential ability to preserve the freedom of the Open Web if they didn’t wake up and counter proprietary technologies like Silverlight and Air…!So that’s that. Otherwise, great post. ;)

    Reply
  3. Pingback: JeremyVernon.com » Blog Archive » Open Web as Social Movement

  4. Mark Kuznicki

    Great post David. What is interesting to me is how technology and social movements in general appear to be co-evolving, locked in a dance with no apparent control centre. I think Paul Hawkens’ ideas (Blessed Unrest, http://www.wiserearth.org/) are important here, which I wrote about recently.

    The starfish of the Open Web movement mirrors that of other global social, economic and environmental justice movements. There is no central control, no unifying ideology; only a set of values and a complex, decentralized network of humans who hold those values and collaborate (sometimes explicitly, sometimes serendipitously) to solve practical problems of human need, usually with the intent (expressed or implicit) of dispersing pathological concentrations of power.

    Taking these lessons and applying them here, I think that attempts by individuals to create an ideology out of this decentralized movement will fail. I also think it is unrealistic for believers to expect any one organization to take on a central role organizing a set of values, beliefs, standards, technologies, products and ideas as complex as those we could wrap up in the term the “Open Web”.

    I’m sympathetic to Chris’ hopes and dreams for what Mozilla could be. But maybe we all need to take a step back, try to see the bigger pattern of what is emerging, and realize that there are many strategic points of influence in our movement(s).

    Reply
  5. Patrice Collin

    David,
    Great post, I might be out of the loop, however it’s the first time that I see someone specifically mention the fact that part of the success of this movement will come from the consumer power which will in the end beat out corporate infrastructure..in my opinion.

    Having said this however, one issue I have always struggled with is the: techies vs non techies involvement…I lived this with the Linux debate/movement as well.

    It seems everytime you want to get involved or help advance the movement or push the technology their is really not much you can do….because you are told you don’t really “get it” ;-)

    That just might be my experience with soe of the purists, but I believe it doesn’t help advance the movement as a whole!

    I am confidant it is getting better! And I agree that for this to go to the next level some form of leader organization will need to step forward.

    Reply
  6. Mark Kuznicki

    Great post David. What is interesting to me is how technology and social movements in general appear to be co-evolving, locked in a dance with no apparent control centre. I think Paul Hawkens’ ideas (Blessed Unrest, http://www.wiserearth.org/) are important here, which I wrote about recently.The starfish of the Open Web movement mirrors that of other global social, economic and environmental justice movements. There is no central control, no unifying ideology; only a set of values and a complex, decentralized network of humans who hold those values and collaborate (sometimes explicitly, sometimes serendipitously) to solve practical problems of human need, usually with the intent (expressed or implicit) of dispersing pathological concentrations of power.Taking these lessons and applying them here, I think that attempts by individuals to create an ideology out of this decentralized movement will fail. I also think it is unrealistic for believers to expect any one organization to take on a central role organizing a set of values, beliefs, standards, technologies, products and ideas as complex as those we could wrap up in the term the “Open Web”.I’m sympathetic to Chris’ hopes and dreams for what Mozilla could be. But maybe we all need to take a step back, try to see the bigger pattern of what is emerging, and realize that there are many strategic points of influence in our movement(s).

    Reply
  7. Patrice Collin

    David, Great post, I might be out of the loop, however it’s the first time that I see someone specifically mention the fact that part of the success of this movement will come from the consumer power which will in the end beat out corporate infrastructure..in my opinion. Having said this however, one issue I have always struggled with is the: techies vs non techies involvement…I lived this with the Linux debate/movement as well.It seems everytime you want to get involved or help advance the movement or push the technology their is really not much you can do….because you are told you don’t really “get it” ;-)That just might be my experience with soe of the purists, but I believe it doesn’t help advance the movement as a whole! I am confidant it is getting better! And I agree that for this to go to the next level some form of leader organization will need to step forward.

    Reply
  8. CircleReader

    +1 on the recommendation of Hawken’s Blessed Unrest as a movement model; Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody springs to mind as well.

    Those questions in the last paragraph are great! As a mostly non-coder and homeschooler, I am always looking for places to participate and learn that are open to non-professionals and newbies. It is an effort for passionate techie geeks to Make sure that “Joe six-pack” has a legitimate way to participate in the movement and become a passionate believer in the open web, with the values and practices it promotes, but it is an effort well-spent. The discipline of bringing newbies along forces experts to ask and answer deep questions about what they are doing and why it matters.

    Doing that is, of course, another community practice that the open web community is learning how to manage. Alison McKee wrote in Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves that, “we did not need to know everything, we simply had to have a desire to help one another learn together.” Asking where we can push harder on this in the open web movement is the right question.

    Reply
  9. CircleReader

    +1 on the recommendation of Hawken’s Blessed Unrest as a movement model; Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody springs to mind as well.Those questions in the last paragraph are great! As a mostly non-coder and homeschooler, I am always looking for places to participate and learn that are open to non-professionals and newbies. It is an effort for passionate techie geeks to Make sure that “Joe six-pack” has a legitimate way to participate in the movement and become a passionate believer in the open web, with the values and practices it promotes, but it is an effort well-spent. The discipline of bringing newbies along forces experts to ask and answer deep questions about what they are doing and why it matters.Doing that is, of course, another community practice that the open web community is learning how to manage. Alison McKee wrote in Homeschooling Our Children, Unschooling Ourselves that, “we did not need to know everything, we simply had to have a desire to help one another learn together.” Asking where we can push harder on this in the open web movement is the right question.

    Reply
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  11. commonspace

    The Next Million Mozillians…Last week, David Eaves blogged about the potential for Mozillato energize — and maybe even lead — a mass movement for the open web.My response: hear! hear! More thinking, experimenting, conversing,inventing, definitionizing, evangelizing, polit…

    Reply
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  16. Michael Anton Dila

    David,

    This is a great post. There are many things in it to praise. I particularly like that you chose the word “open” among many others you could have chosen.

    I think they way that you call attention to the fact the the Open Web is a value or, to put it another way, an ideal, is HUGELY important. Lessig has tried for years to call to attention the fact FREEDOM is not something simply given, but that must be defended and struggled for.

    I think the most critical point you make in your suggestion that people who value the Open Web are part of a movement is the the dynamics of power (and implicitly those of action) are different that from those of previous “mass” movements.

    I know why you say, “This social movement is different in that, so far, it has been able to derive its power from a narrow set of people…”, but I think you are a bit wrong about this. I think that the deliberate agents may be small in number, from hacktivists to the Mozillites, but that it is precisely the mass character of the collective action represented in things like your Mozilla download maps that indicate the social power these few have awakened/enabled.

    I think this is more than a semantic point and I suspect it is something you already agree with. Your suspicion about this movement’s tolerance (perhaps its requirement) of decentralization is dead on.

    If I may make a suggestion, derived in part from a recent conversation with Mark Kuznicki: it occurs to me that one of the shifts we are seeing in the dynamics of social networks as online tools become more central to their organization and growth is the emergence of a type of social network based on connection rather than relationship. This means or may mean, that traditional social bonds like kinship, cultural values, political values, moral values give way to apparently more superficial forms of identification, like affinity, aesthetics, and the language and attitude of dissent. Its not the fact that these things are new per se, but that new technologies of connection make possible forms of collective action that do not require mass agreement on values as a precondition for action. It is precisely this feature that enables the “ridiculously easy group forming” behavior that Shirky is rightly so interested in.

    In such circumstances, leadership remains powerful but is ultimately more important in providing focal points for action than in providing a unifying ideology. So while to some, things like the Mozilla Download Day might look like marketing, I think the deeper phenomenon in play is that of focusing the force of a social movement into the effort to punch daylight into formerly closed markets.

    What is it, after all, that we most want to open? the “we” implicated in the myriad networks spawned by the social or Open Web? Aren’t we after the Open Society that is the promise not only of the ideal of democracy, but of market capitalism before it was hijacked and separated from its twin: democracy. It is not just the Web that is at stake in this struggle, but the web behind the web, the power of human connection beyond narrow institutions and organizations, beyond states and nations: a web of the People, unified by nothing more than the architecture of freedom.

    Reply
  17. Michael Anton Dila

    David,This is a great post. There are many things in it to praise. I particularly like that you chose the word “open” among many others you could have chosen.I think they way that you call attention to the fact the the Open Web is a value or, to put it another way, an ideal, is HUGELY important. Lessig has tried for years to call to attention the fact FREEDOM is not something simply given, but that must be defended and struggled for.I think the most critical point you make in your suggestion that people who value the Open Web are part of a movement is the the dynamics of power (and implicitly those of action) are different that from those of previous “mass” movements.I know why you say, “This social movement is different in that, so far, it has been able to derive its power from a narrow set of people…”, but I think you are a bit wrong about this. I think that the deliberate agents may be small in number, from hacktivists to the Mozillites, but that it is precisely the mass character of the collective action represented in things like your Mozilla download maps that indicate the social power these few have awakened/enabled.I think this is more than a semantic point and I suspect it is something you already agree with. Your suspicion about this movement’s tolerance (perhaps its requirement) of decentralization is dead on.If I may make a suggestion, derived in part from a recent conversation with Mark Kuznicki: it occurs to me that one of the shifts we are seeing in the dynamics of social networks as online tools become more central to their organization and growth is the emergence of a type of social network based on connection rather than relationship. This means or may mean, that traditional social bonds like kinship, cultural values, political values, moral values give way to apparently more superficial forms of identification, like affinity, aesthetics, and the language and attitude of dissent. Its not the fact that these things are new per se, but that new technologies of connection make possible forms of collective action that do not require mass agreement on values as a precondition for action. It is precisely this feature that enables the “ridiculously easy group forming” behavior that Shirky is rightly so interested in.In such circumstances, leadership remains powerful but is ultimately more important in providing focal points for action than in providing a unifying ideology. So while to some, things like the Mozilla Download Day might look like marketing, I think the deeper phenomenon in play is that of focusing the force of a social movement into the effort to punch daylight into formerly closed markets. What is it, after all, that we most want to open? the “we” implicated in the myriad networks spawned by the social or Open Web? Aren’t we after the Open Society that is the promise not only of the ideal of democracy, but of market capitalism before it was hijacked and separated from its twin: democracy. It is not just the Web that is at stake in this struggle, but the web behind the web, the power of human connection beyond narrow institutions and organizations, beyond states and nations: a web of the People, unified by nothing more than the architecture of freedom.

    Reply
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