Mozilla is unique. The project gets more media, more publicity and more buzz than virtually any other open source project. It is, in much of the public’s mind, the poster child for open source and the open internet. More critically, this isn’t some interesting observation, why this is the case, and what it means, is profound implications for the success of Mozilla, the open web and the future of the internet.
I would argue that Mozilla’s uniqueness is not a result of being the most successful open source project. (I’m sure there is much heated debate over which is the most successful, largest, most complex, most important, etc… open source community/project). The fact is, it’s irrelevant.
Mozilla matters because Firefox is a consumer product. And not just any consumer product, it is THE consumer product that allows people to interact with the world wide web, the most consumer oriented part of the internet. Thus, while Apache, Linux, Sendmail and the million of other open source projects matter (a great deal!) the simple fact is, Mozilla is the brand that represents both the potential of open source and the importance of an open internet. This matters because it means a) Firefox and Mozilla are the catalysts in creating social awareness among millions of consumers about the importance of the open internet and b) as a result, Mozilla will likely be the first port of call of these newly awakened activists who wish to find ways to contribute.
This, of course, is both a blessing and a curse.
One the one hand it often seems that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, has an opinion about Mozilla (and boy am I guilty of this). I’m not inside Mozilla but I can imagine the constant barrage of “helpful” ideas or suggestions or worse, outright complaints or threats, must feel exhausting. The banging on the gates never ends and engaging in it could distract the community from its important work.
On the other hand… how great that an increasing number of people have this energy and passion for Mozilla and, by extension, the open internet. Many of those banging at the gate – and a good many more who are simply too intimidated or too unsure to even do that – are primed and ready to be among the next million mozillians. The banging (or loitering) is a symptom of a desire to contribute – indeed it may be the only outlet they know of or have.
The real question is – how do we engage these people?
Should Mozilla do more to shape and lead the social movement around the open web? As David Ascher also notes, the opportunity of broadening Mozilla’s tent by absorbing these newly minted activists into streams of activities and helping channel their energy and enthusiasm is an exciting prospect. But I’m not sure the answer is a definite yes. As Mitchell Baker – in part – points out, the risk of diluting Mozilla’s mission or its culture is a serious one.
However, the social movement around the open web is going to keep attracting supporters. Again, because Mozilla is one of the leading catalyst in creating this social awareness these supporters are going to show up at it’s doorstep first. Regardless of the choice (absorb or not absorb) to successfully support the movement I’d argue that at the very minimum Mozilla needs a plan to a) greet these newcomers and make them feel welcome; and b) some capacity to point them in the direction of a variety of institutions, organizations, projects and activities, where they can channel their energy. The more people the movement can engage – or to reframe – the more communities of action with can create within our broader community of interest, the more likely we will be successful in acheiving an open internet.