Open web definition for

A common Drumbeat questions is ‘what do you mean by open web?‘ Having a solid answer is especially critical as reach out to teachers, lawyers, filmmakers and other people new to Mozilla.

two people talking about the open web

Of course, there are many good answers. Nonetheless, we need a single, simple list of ‘open web ingredients’ to explain what we mean to people interested in Drumbeat. Here is what we thinking about using:

The open web is made up of four primary ingredients:

  • Freedom: built with technology and content that anyone can study, use or improve.
  • Participation: anyone can participate or innovate without asking permission from others.
  • Decentralization: the architecture is distributed and control is shared by many parties.
  • Generativity: we can make new ideas from old ones. As we use, we also hack and innovate.

Or, for short:

  • Open web = freedom, participation, decentralization and generativity.

This definition is inspired in part by Mitchell Baker’s ‘better internet’ talk from about a year ago. It was also shaped by responses to Mozilla’s what is the open web? contest from earlier this year and by other attempts to define the open web.

One issue we bounced around on was whether to talk about transparency (we had that in earlier edits) or freedom (the ‘study’ element of software freedom covers ‘transparency’). The current version uses freedom both because of its breadth and because free software and content are clearly core building blocks of the open web. Could be too arcane for the Drumbeat audience?

Keep in mind: our goal is a working open web definition for, not something canonical. It should speak to people who aren’t necessarily technical and suggest how they can shape the web. At the same time, it needs to be sound, encompassing the primary ingredients we believe make up the open web.

The plan is to put an expanded (and likely evolved) version of this definition up on later this week. If people like it, maybe we can use it more broadly in other venues. Who knows.

Comments and suggested improvements welcome, as always.


  1. Glyn Moody replied on | Reply

    Please, please, please, not “generativity”, it is the most off-putting neologism in the dictionary – well, almost – guaranteed to alienate normal human beings.

    What’s wrong with “hackability”? You even say: “As we use, we also hack and innovate.” That’s pure hackability….

    1. msurman replied on | Reply

      I’ve struggled alot with whether or not to use generativity. Every time I do, two things happen:

      a) I worry that it’s a totally arcane concept that is not widely understood and that will completely confuse people (your point)


      b) I look for other words that encompass the ideas of ‘usable for any purpose + hackable + evolving + spawning + bigger than the sum of its parts’, and I can’t find any.

      After doing this, I conclude that it’s worth the effort to popularize ‘generativity’ — or to come up w/ another word that works.

      I imagine that the same sort of challenge existed w/ the word ‘ecology’ 40 years ago. Pretty abstract and scientific, but essential to creating a public consciousness around the fact that all things in nature are connected. Popularizing ‘ecology’ has worked, and has been worth it.

      More close to home: convincing people that free software is about freedom has also been an uphill battle. Probably worth it as well.

      I’m pretty convinced that we need a word like ‘generativity’ in the same way. Could be wrong, of course.

      1. mar replied on


        I love the definition, but a synonym for generativity is procreative.

        The term feels innovative and a sense of proactiveness. In my opinion it a better fit.
        (hope you revisit some of your older blog posts ;o)


      2. msurman replied on

        Marco: not quite sure about procreative, although maybe more clear to understand. Generativity is growing on some people.

  2. Chris replied on | Reply

    This is a great definition of “open”, but I don’t think there’s enough in there about the “web”. For example, cool urls (as defined by tbl). Or why not mention the ability to connect using hyperlinks.

  3. Salve J. Nilsen replied on | Reply

    Yeah, generativity is quite a mouthful. I prefer hackable too. 🙂

    And FWIW, here are a few more words:

    Inclusive: Anyone is welcome!

    Real: You’ll meet real opinions, real people and real engagement.

    Significant: Want to change the world? On the web, you can find support.

  4. rolfkleef replied on | Reply

    Hi Mark, I haven’t followed all the incarnations of definitions, so I hope I have something useful to add.

    Since you link to the Wikipedia entry for “generativity” as my first entry into what that word could mean: it actually still doesn’t really mean anything specific to me after reading… 🙂

    Your words with generativity (“we can make new ideas from old ones. As we use, we also hack and innovate.”) sound very similar to those with freedom (“built with technology and content that anyone can study, use or improve.”)

    Something like “a democratically designed and operated web” comes closer to the sense of ownership and responsibility that I consider important: “the open web and its enemies”?

    I want a “freedom of information” equivalent of having access to how it works and how it affects me in specific cases, the right to “elect” the standards, technologies and tools I use, and to “be elected” by providing (alone or in collaboration) standards, technologies and tools to others; grounded in an “internet bill of rights” to limit the power others can build up over me by the web.

    It may resonate with people who don’t necessarily open boxes, but understand that “closed” (dictatorship, monopoly) is not what they want, even if they don’t plan to run for government or start a business?

  5. Eli Malinsky replied on | Reply

    I think “participation” and “generativity” are contained in the other two.

  6. johnjbarton replied on | Reply

    Does this definition help us explain why Open Web is important? For that can we find “positive outcomes” rather than “abstract properties”?

    Maybe you’re trying too hard?
    # Open: built with technology and content that anyone can study, use or improve.
    # Web: anyone can participate or innovate without asking permission from others.

    Does it help us make decisions?

    Sorry, only questions.

    1. msurman replied on | Reply

      Could definitely be trying too hard :)!

      I LOVE the simplicity of your Open + Web, and would be interested in getting to that.

      However, your definition could apply just as well to a piece of free software used by a single person (people *can* participate, but do they?).

      For me: there needs to be a sense that there is an evolving organism that is *made up of participation* and is bigger than the sum of it’s parts. That’s why I am trying (poorly) to capture with the participation, decentralization and generativity bullets.

      Can you think of a way to simplify?

      On the does this help us make decisions question, there is a good thread here in the Drumbeat newsgroup:

      Atul talks about using the four elements as measures or heuristics to determine whether something is ‘open webby’ enough. Still fuzzy, but I think Atul has the right idea.

  7. Pascal Finette replied on | Reply

    What I’m missing in this definition (and this is true for all Open Web definitions I have seen so far) is the actual definition. The question a definition should answer (by definition I guess) is: What *is* the Open Web?

    How do I explain to someone who knows about the Internet in general (i.e. your average web user) what the Open Web is? The above lays out the ground principles but doesn’t make it tangible…

    And no – I don’t have the answer either, as it is damn hard (which might indicate that the idea of the Open Web is probably somewhat flawed and we need a different approach – what is an idea worth, which you can’t explain?).

    1. msurman replied on | Reply

      Pascal: maybe I’m confusing ‘definition’ with ‘litmus test’. The later is what I think we need most — something to be able to explain why we think HTML5 is better than Flash, or help in a discussion of whether is more open than Twitter. Like the free software definition, but for the web. I’m convinced this would be a helpful thing to have.

      Brad Nueburg tried to do both a definition and a litmus test here:

      Focuses too narrowly on the technology and platform for me, but has alot of goof elements.

  8. Steven Nelson replied on | Reply

    I liked reading about the ways to define the open web. Here’s another one from an ordinary person, not a web professional or anything:

    1. msurman replied on | Reply

      Steve: just looking at this again 9 months later. It really is an awesome slide deck. Did you ever do anything with it? Present it anywhere? If you are still interested in all this stuff on communicating about the open web, would love to get you more involved. We’re going to be doing more and more on this in 2011.

  9. Evan Prodromou replied on | Reply


    I liked this definition quite a bit!

    I’d like to first point to the Open Cloud Principles, which is a similar attempt at defining a closely-related term:

    One thing I like about the OCP is that it layers the requirement for Free and Open Source software and Open Data at a higher level than “basic” Open Cloud.

    This resonates with me better. When I use “the Open Web”, I think of open standard document formats and protocols that anyone can participate in.

    It seems like the federated nature of the Web makes implementation details (like Free and Open Source software or data licensing) relatively opaque.

  10. Dharmishta replied on | Reply

    I really meant to do a quick edit of the “open web” four bullet point definition we had going, but the more I looked at it the more necessary changes emerged — we were defining participation with participatory and had many of the same words in more than one definition: use, innovate and anyone.

    In trying to re-word things, I discovered a lot of conceptual overlap and simplified it to two words (solving the remix/generativity/whats-that-hackability-thing-called problem)

    The open web is Freedom and Decentralization.

    Freedom: built with technology and content that anyone can share, study, use or improve, without asking permission from others.

    Decentralization: the architecture is distributed and control is shared by many parties, ensuring continued user choice.

    Love it? Hate it? Missing something?

    it’s also here:

    and here:

  11. Jonathan Zittrain replied on | Reply

    I’ve shared Mark’s ambivalence about “generativity” before, during, and after using it frequently in a book, The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It. I think “open” means too many things to too many people, and it’s too fraught with the tension between the free software movement and the open source initiative.

    Ultimately I like generative because it points to a future outcome/goal, not just to a current condition (the way “free” and “open” do). That outcome is one that surprises us, that takes us in new directions, thanks to the fact that the current condition is free, open, etc. So maybe it’s an open, generative Web made possible by broad-based participation; freedom to make big, disruptive changes.

    Decentralization is important because it’s an insurance policy. Apple could make the centralized iPhone environment extremely generative overnight — just approve all apps — but then change its mind the next day. A decentralized space is one for which genarativity can’t be turned on and off like a faucet.

  12. Henri Sivonen replied on | Reply

    While freedom and participation are good things, it bothers me that the proposed definition is so fuzzy and isn’t really connected to the Web. (If something has freedom, participation, decentralization and generativity but has nothing to do with the Internet or browsers, is it, too, the Open Web?)

    The Web itself is very hard to define. Any definition you come up with has some edge case that doesn’t fit. Even though the Web is of the “we know it when we see it” kind, I think it’s pretty accurate to say that a thing is “on the Web” if you can view it in a Web browser from any Internet-connected computing device. Circularly, a Web browser is a piece of software suited for browsing the Web.

    I think the Open Web is the part of the Web that uses plug-inless client-side technologies that are supported by multiple vendors and also have at least one Open Source implementation. For all practical purposes, the “Open Web” for the past few years has meant “not Flash or Silverlight”, which isn’t captured in your proposed redefinition. I’d love to constrain this by saying something about the openness of the server side as well, but I have trouble coming up with a definition that weren’t obvoisly wrong.

  13. Erik Moeller replied on | Reply

    I think that an open web definition needs to reflect the emerging practices and principles of data portability and free content licensing. In these general, high-level terms, I think the word “choice” is appropriate: at minimum, we want to ensure that users can move from one service provider to another, and that communities or individuals can exercise choices about the licensing of data. Choice, of course, speaks to many other ideas as well, such as platform and browser choice.

  14. Peter Bihr replied on | Reply

    You most likely have discussed and dismissed this at some earlier point; but what about using – instead of generativity – the slightly more accessible “improvability”?

  15. Dharmishta replied on | Reply

    OK new take on my previous comment:

    The open web is freedom, decentralization and collaboration.

    Freedom: The open web is built with technology and content that anyone can share, study, use or improve, without asking permission from others.

    Decentralization: The open web architecture is distributed and control is shared by many parties, ensuring continued user choice.

    Collaboration: The open web fueled by participation, in ideas, energy or media from more than a billion Internet users.

    1. Glyn Moody replied on | Reply

      I like this direction…maybe the collaboration part could be tightened up: what’s media (floppy discs? CD-ROMs) got to do with it? Do you mean content? and energy sounds like oil…

      How about “ideas, passion and content” or similar?

      1. Dharmishta replied on

        hmm, good point about the ‘media’ and ‘energy’ descriptions.

        re: media
        i did mean content, but also something broader — for things like code and even hackable hardware (arduino anyone?) the creators of/collaborators on might feel a bit excluded by the term ‘content’

        re: energy
        I was going for a way to describe excitement/engagement that doesn’t turn into deliverables like ‘media’ or ‘content’ on the web. things like asking a friend ‘hey do you use firefox?’ or ‘come to the arduino meetup with me.’ These fuel openness. (and it’s hard to describe these type of interactions in a way that can mean events, comments, innovations, enthusiasm, etc.)

        would love any more thoughts/suggestions!

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