What is radical participation?

Last year, we started talking about radical participation and Mozilla — the idea that we need to get more creative and aggressive with our approach to getting people involved if we want to win the current battles we’re fighting on the web.

Radical Participation Doodle

The response has generally been positive. People like the poetry. But a number of people have also asked, what specifically do you mean by ‘radical participation’? Fair question.

Personally, I don’t have a firm definition yet. But I do have thoughts. I’ve jotted them down below with the hope of getting other people to do the same. If people share their thoughts, I’ll try to synthesize what I hear into some sort of working definition or discussion paper over the next few weeks.

Mark’s notes on radical participation at Mozilla:

As a starting point, why do we care about radical participation? Because we want to have an impact on the world. We want to shape the web for the better. For this to happen, we believe that we need an approach participation that is at once massive and diverse, local and global. Without these things, we neither have the diversity nor the number of people we need to confront the huge challenges that Mozilla and the web face today.

The kind of radical participation we need includes:

  1. Many more people than today are working on Mozilla activities around the world in their own small groups.
  2. Some of these people participate by helping to build, improve or promote our products and programs. Our products and programs get better all the time because people are participating. This is traditional open source participation, but not just limited to software and updated with current methods and approaches.
  3. Others are coming up with new ideas for products, programs, whatever — things that move the mission forward in ways that others in Mozilla see as valuable. This is more of an ‘open innovation meets distributed leadership’ definition of participation. IMHO, this is something we want to do but haven’t done well in the past.
  4. Still others are connected to Mozilla because we have designed participation into what we’ve built — there is deep integration of participation into the *use* and *value proposition* of our key products and programs. E.g. people are helping to create an open maps databases as they use Firefox OS or people are teaching others about the web by offering casual advice to other users inside of Mozilla products like Firefox. This is about designing participation into the experiences that Mozilla offers people. We’ve never really done this before.
  5. The result: all these people are having impact that we can see. Our products get better. Our programs succeed. New (and good) ideas for how to move the mission emerge and get acted upon.
  6. All this is decentralized, but it aligns well with our brand, priorities and mission. We find good ways to balance creativity and emergence with coherence and crispness of message.
  7. We have clear programs and infrastructure to support all this: people know how to *act* and get things moving under the Mozilla banner.
  8. Ultimately, there are more Mozilla activities taking place around the world than employees can keep track of, let alone control.

For this to happen, we need an architecture of participation that includes:

  • A clear (and updated) framework for starting something — a project, a local group, etc.
  • Plans and working methods that are as transparent as possible — people see what we’re doing and where we’re going, and can join in. We used to be good at this, but we’re not right now.
  • High quality on boarding and eduction: a way to for people to understand our philosophy, goals and ground rules; and a way for people to quickly get started in doing something useful.
  • A way to recognize — and possibly to rank — people’s participation and contributions. This can both motivate people and help them find a path to what they should do next.
  • A clear *volunteer* leadership structure, where people anywhere can get involved in leading and shaping the direction of Mozilla once they have proven themselves. Education and recognition are key drivers of this.
  • Software that is embedded into the workflow of products and programs that makes participation in that work easier (e.g. SuMo does this well). This lets people who want to do standard stuff have impact fast.
  • Software that lets groups and project organize, communicate and work under the Mozilla banner. This lets people with new ideas or new local communities get going easily.
  • Explicit ways to talk about and evaluate whether a specific group or project is succeeding. On the one hand, a way for teams to brag. On another, a way for teams and the overall org to know when things aren’t going well.
  • Data and metrics that let us optimize, improve and troubleshoot the overall system.

Ultimately, we need better versions of the participation models we have today and we also need completely new approaches that we invent or borrow from others. Taking radical participation at Mozilla will require us to make these kinds of improvements quickly and in ways that show real impact.

As I said above, this are just notes. I don’t think this is the final or complete way to talk about radical participation at Mozilla — we need language that is crisp enough to inspire and specific enough to act on. And, I suspect there is lots missing and much to disagree with. But, hopefully, these notes are enough to spark others to think about how we build more participation and more impact into Mozilla.

My question, especially if you are a Mozillian: what does high impact radical participation look like to you?

If you have ideas on this, please add comments at the end of this post. Or, do your own post and send me a link. I’ll review whatever I see in the next two weeks and then come back with a post that synthesizes what I hear.

PS. A concrete plan of action on community and participation — including increased focus on ReMo and our regional communities — is in the works. Mitchell, myself and others will be posting about this next week.


  1. Elio Qoshi replied on | Reply

    (Elio, Mozilla Rep from Albania here)
    I always personally believed that at Mozilla we need to advocate more regarding the importance of the open web and FLOSS in general to potential contributors. Our mission is very important and vital, if you can make contributors understand that, so they see what impact it has on their lives, you already won. Contributing at Mozilla shouldnt just be a cool and fun thing to do (although it highly is) it should be a passionate mission for everyone, a mission which is so important, that we could hardly imagine the world without it (because frankly, I would be unable to live the life I live without an open web and free software.

    To spark this flame, one needs to be more radical in the mission’s importance. (For example, at Mozilla we use too many closed formats than we really need to or use sometimes proprietary software for our core goals). If we want more people to feel the importance of such movement, we shouldn’t compromise with stuff like that.

    This “philosophy evangelism”, in my humble opinion, might be a tad more important than raising efforts to get more contributors on board.

    Thanks for raising this Mark!

    1. msurman replied on | Reply

      Elio, good point re: talking about our mission and vision to potential contributors. A number of us are thinking we could build a simple Mozilla 101 onboarding course — and that it could be run by experienced Mozilla volunteers. This doesn’t exist right now. Do you think it would be helpful?

  2. Axel Hecht replied on | Reply

    I’d claim that we had radical participation 10 years ago. Y’know, old guard speaking.

    Where did it go? When did it go? When did it start?

    I wonder if there’s a “bug”, a point where we lost it and a reason why. Because if there is such a bug, it’ll be more important to fix it, than to add systems to work around it.

    That’s one side, the other side is, I don’t think we can build systems to engage with people. Systems, processes, tools, those can help to avoid or limit frustrations. But I don’t think they can engage with people.

    1. n8chz replied on | Reply

      I don’t think it’s a bug. I think it’s some kind of a law of economics to the effect that a business model (and this may include non-profit operational models) will tend to lose “innocence” as it “matures.” If my pet theory were true, they key to renewal of purpose would be not so much fixing the bug as “beating the system” or even “escaping the inevitable.”

      But yeah, 10 years ago. I remember the “get firefox” links on practically every site on the web that was about open source, noncommercial content, computer enthusiasts, you name it. Now the same people maybe are still Firefox users, but maybe as the lesser of five evils, but at any rate you just don’t see the evangelism of the “get firefox” campaign (which of course should be revived).

    2. msurman replied on | Reply

      Axel, I agree. Only people can engage with people. But we can build systems that help organize this — making it possible for more of us to be involved in onboarding, mentoring and collaborating w/ new contributors.

      1. msurman replied on

        Question: do you think there is a bug in the system re: participation? Or that we’re just being hard on ourselves?

  3. Lawrence Mandel replied on | Reply

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. There is both how do we enable people to do new things and how do we enable them to contribute to existing projects. For the latter, there are some areas of contribution that are already well defined (code, l10n, reps) and there are many others that are difficult if not impossible to contribute to today (IT, release operations, hr, legal). To me, radical participation includes opening up these traditionally closed areas of the Mozilla project.

    2. As an open question, does radical participation at Mozilla require that we all have the same vision for the Web? Can we include different visions and different directions from people who we would include in the Mozilla? (Can we have projects that take the Web in conflicting directions?)

    1. Larissa replied on | Reply

      (Responding to your second point here – I fervently agree with the first)I think people who are Mozillians can. Not that Mozilla needs to “endorse” every project a Mozillian does! I think that goes hand in hand with the idea that there will be more Mozilla-identified people and projects going on in the world than Mozilla staff can keep track of.

  4. Ian Bicking (@ianbicking) replied on | Reply

    “Others are coming up with new ideas for products, programs, whatever — things that move the mission forward in ways that others in Mozilla see as valuable. This is more of an ‘open innovation meets distributed leadership’ definition of participation. IMHO, this is something we want to do but haven’t done well in the past.”

    This is the thing that interests me the most. But it’s hard.

    One problem we have is pacing. It’s hard for people with very different paces to work together. Employees have the benefit of being able to dedicate a lot of time to a task. When volunteers have onboarded they still often aren’t able to keep up – things change underneath them too quickly and they have to onboard all over again. This is fatiguing for everyone.

    Oddly, the decisiveness of our corporate work doesn’t help either – we dedicate a lot of effort to something, then we suddenly stop. It’s a hard stop. And once again the volunteer, who is happy to plug away at something slowly over a longer period of time, can be left out in the cold.

    That said, I wonder if some of Mozilla Corporation’s most important work is corporate-style work. The open source world does a ton of great things, but most of it is either volunteer work – relatively slow, chaotic, sometimes whimsical – or else it’s infrastructure work done by employees. Other people employed to do open source work are nearly all enabling commercial and enterprise systems – places like Redhat, Canonical, and Rackspace are all focused on building tools for developers. But there’s some work that can’t be done by volunteer open source groups – often involving the coordination of a broad set of skills, executing on a shorter term in a competitive landscape, and working towards product goals when they conflict with personal motivations. Mozilla has the gift of substantial resources, and the ability to support its employees long-term concentrated attention. Our contribution to the world should look different from everyone else’s!

    That said, it might also mean that Mozilla can be a powerful lever for a person to increase their impact on the world. We might think about how Mozilla can increase its impact on the world via its volunteers (I think that’s embedded in a couple of your bullet points), but we can invert that: can we attract engaged volunteers by making their participation deeply impactful?

    I’ll digress. Right around the time of the Brendan Eich controversy, I was listening to an interview where they talked some about BitCoin. (Maybe this: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2011/04/andresen_on_bit.html) And this person, Andresen, who had committed professionally to supporting this currency, was asked: what if BitCoin fails completely? What if there’s a security problem, a collapse, something big? And he noted that there already had been, BitCoin has had all sorts of problems. But people fixed them, because the community was deeply invested in BitCoin’s success. Not just emotionally committed, but very financially committed. The community was not going to jump ship. At the same time I was not feeling the same thing from the Mozilla community. Or maybe the Mozilla community was not as broad as I thought. Or maybe the people who talked loudest about Mozilla weren’t really on our side.

    It made me think: we need people who have are committed to Mozilla’s success because Mozilla is essential to their own success. We need volunteers who have skin in the game – volunteers who aren’t just feeling altruistic, but who feel like partners. Can we build an economy around Mozilla? In our employees we have this little economy, and our employees are partners in a sense, but can we make that participation much larger?

    1. axelhecht replied on | Reply

      I don’t think that the money we pay keeps the talent we have.

      If making paid and non-paid contributors more like each other, I’d think that we need to get paid staff to be volunteers, rather than the other way around.

      “be volunteers” in how we act and why, not necessarily in spending nights and weekends.

      1. Benjamin Kerensa replied on

        I disagree I frequently see staff join things like Reps Program or other initiatives and then minute they leave the company more often then not they disappear… There is no Mozillian in them anymore.

        While this is not the case every time I think it is the case more often then not that not all staff are Mozillians because they care about the mission. Many have other motivations: Financial, Career, Gaining Experience and then they move on and we never see them again.

        Some employees actually go to work for competitors on closed products and that alone speaks volumes about their commitment to some of our values.

        It seems to be pretty rare for a staff to leave MoCo or MoFo and still be involved as a unpaid contributor.

    2. Rabimba Karanjai (@rabimba) replied on | Reply

      “At the same time I was not feeling the same thing from the Mozilla community. Or maybe the Mozilla community was not as broad as I thought. Or maybe the people who talked loudest about Mozilla weren’t really on our side.”

      I will perhaps agree a bit in this point. But that is an inherent problem that is going to stay with us. But that is the difference between Mozilla and any other organization where we are invested financially or for other reasons. In Mozilla we are invested for our passion, we devote our time, code, expertise so that something “we” use gets better. So that “we” can shape the way a product gets better that at the end we will use.
      We don’t get to have our say in lot of the products we use everyday. This empowerment, passion makes us align, attach to Mozilla.

      However I still agree with your sentiment of ‘unreliable’ community. And I have my own take of it.
      You see a community thrives in participation and recognition. Once there was a time I would have been very happy to just see my name in a fedora release note or in a commit message. But things have changed. New and better rewards and recognition programs are everywhere and with that a new wave of voices for the community ‘encouraged’ by the R&R. But…..often they are not really aligned (probably never got chance) with the mission, product. Not emotionally invested enough so that when their life calls or the encouragement of R&R dies. They too get ‘replaced’ by a new wave of voices.
      I am not saying this wasn’t there ever, community is always (mostly) a place of rolling contributions. But this is something I have noticed lately.

      1. msurman replied on

        Rabimba, are you saying the reward and recognition programs create a false sense of connection? And, if so, that Mozilla shouldn’t rely on these programs? Alot of people in Mozilla are talking about investing more in rewards and recognition. I wondering if you are making a counter point?

      2. Rabimba replied on

        I am. Or rather I was at that time. Unfortunately I still am.

        Even with participation team and Participation Leaders. That comment I made was now more than one years back. What improvement do we see which counteracts this argument?

  5. Ian Bicking (@ianbicking) replied on | Reply

    From the MoCo side there’s also something interesting in this concept of hiring: http://betterworkworld.com/

  6. Greg Slepak replied on | Reply

    There are different levels of participation.

    Fixing bugs seems easy. The path there seems pretty well documented and clear.

    Creating new things seems hard, as you note in item #3:

    > Others are coming up with new ideas for products, programs, whatever — things that move the mission forward in ways that others in Mozilla see as valuable. This is more of an ‘open innovation meets distributed leadership’ definition of participation. IMHO, this is something we want to do but haven’t done well in the past.

    How are you doing it now?

    I’d like to fix the broken X.509 system [1], and Firefox could play a big role in helping with that. Firefox is misleading users currently with its little line of “The connection to this website is secure” (when it might not be), but fixing that requires both “radical participation” as well as “radical change”.

    Is Mozilla actually open to “radical participation” if doing so sometimes means “radical change”?

    You have my email…

    [1] https://github.com/okTurtles/dnschain

    1. msurman replied on | Reply

      Hey Greg, the challenge with this one is I just don’t know who the right person is to connect you to on this. So, the email sits there. :/

      The high level bug here is a) we get hundreds of people regularly saying they have big and radical fixes for serious problems that b) require rigorous and highly technical review to see whether we should even engage in conversation and c) we have a very limited number of people who can do that evaluation and who are already working 80 hours a week.

      I think it’s worth solving that bug — but it is not something we’re well set up to do today. It’s a good topic for us to dig into as we go through the current phase of all this.

  7. Greg Slepak replied on | Reply

    Seems relevant (if you haven’t seen it):

    Firefox Contribution Process Debt


  8. Greg replied on | Reply

    I am rather new to the Mozilla crew of volunteers (<2 years) and my contributions have more to do with #teachtheweb than anything.

    When I think of radical participation I am drawn to the "modifier" of radical and wonder if we really need to upend the root or if it is a matter of returning to the root. We don't need to overthrow the web but continue to help realize its full potential as a basic human right.

    This is where the I take issue with the "war" metaphor. I wonder if our efforts to #teachtheweb also have to do with a positive discourse on the web. The "war metaphor" drum is beating louder in Mozillian circles. You personally refer to Google and Facebook as the evil "Kraggle" trying to locked down the open web.

    As Mozilla's efforts to #teachtheweb move into developing nations I wonder how this metaphor looks to people who maybe victims of actual wars. People who have lost do to actual wars and not just allegorical battles.

    Maybe we need to be radical and look past the male Western dominated discourse of comparing everything to war. War is awful and the people you are trying to reach most may know this first hard.

    So when I think about "radical participation" I will think not in terms of subversion but in returning to the roots of the web.

    After all the metrics you lay out for "radical participation" are not really that different. Many boil down to the new user/returning user/active user conversion metrics we have all used for years.

    So I think a "returning to the roots" in terms of "radical participation" has more to do with engagement and creation. Be radical in your metrics. Keep telling us awesome stories of Mozillians from around the globe. Keep giving us opportunities to find mentors. Support your existing tools that allow us to make cool stuff and #teachtheweb.

    Maybe be radical and take the long view. I have to reiterate what Ian said. A hard stop for volunteers and your radical participants does not make active engagement easy.

    Overall I am very excited to contribute to the Mozilla mission. In the past two years I moved to being more open, used webmaker to learn basic coding, and connected with great friends.

    So maybe Mozilla needs to do something really radical: Stay the course.

  9. Andre replied on | Reply

    Sounds to me a bit like what the Mozilla OpenXLab people are doing. 😉

    Concerning the management and rating software I am not sure if that is worth the effort or just adds layers of complication. If it is enabling software it is not forced on an organisation as “solutionism” but picked up because it meets specific user needs.

    Do you consider launching national Mozilla large-scale membership associations? If so, CiviCRM is your tool.

  10. Mark Boas (@maboa) replied on | Reply

    I imagine that globally that there are many people with ideas for projects that could ‘shape the web for the better’ and they’d be happy to work on these projects openly with Mozilla.

    I think that Mozilla has the experience, the resource, the support and the heart to bring some of these projects to fruition.

    One of the issues I see is that volunteering is only an option for a privileged subset of the population that have time to take on the extra responsibilities. My somewhat radical suggestion then, is that Mozilla experiments in finding ways to compensate ‘volunteers’ financially. Of course this goes against the grain of volunteering as a concept but I imagine even if the compensation was a small amount, you would see a marked uptake in participation.

    But how to distribute these funds fairly and wisely? Perhaps by running campaigns to attract ideas, planting small seeds of funding where projects show potential, releasing further funds should milestones be achieved. Mozilla could perhaps adapt lessons learned from the Knight Foundation (and similar organisations) funding models.

    Alternatively or additionally Mozilla could create something similar to Kickstarter for Mozilla projects, perhaps introducing some sort of matched funding.

    The key I think is that all contributions to projects should be compensated in some way. The overall aim, to create an incentivised and vibrant contributors community building and running projects sponsored by Mozilla in line with Mozilla’s core values.

    After all if I had an idea for a project that aligned with Mozilla’s values why wouldn’t I take part in programs that would provide prototype funding, community, discussion, legal advice, visibility and all the other things that Mozilla could help with? Essentially Mozilla would become a low-barrier-to-entry incubator for open web projects. I’m guessing that even the most privileged in society might reconsider going the route of angel, VC, seed funding dance and all issues and compromises associated with it.

    You could encourage a new open-source, non-profit, transparent, indie-web model. The new blogging platform Ghost is a great example of this and it gives me hope to see it working out http://blog.ghost.org/2014-report/

    To support this initiative I imagine you would take lessons learned from WebFWD, Mozilla Ignite, Mozilla Labs and other initiatives. In many ways Mozilla has touched on all this before and has the people and experience to support it.

    I feel this would work better as a bottom up process with Mozilla providing support and facilitating aspects such as community participation.

    Ownership will be important to many and so perhaps these new projects should be seen more as projects sponsored my Mozilla rather than owned by Mozilla, the leaders of the projects would be contributors and the Mozilla Foundation the facilitator. Perhaps they could even be co-funded by other like-minded parties.

    Much of this appears to be happening already within Mozilla, I think what might be needed is some awareness raising, formalisation of the contribution and compensation process – a process that truly makes it open and attractive to a wealth of global contributors.

  11. msurman replied on | Reply

    Thanks to everyone for comments so far. Really thoughtful stuff here. I’m going to try a couple of follow up posts this week and next — including posting a link to the emerging Mozilla participation plan.

  12. Janet Swisher replied on | Reply

    This is probably old news for folks in MoFo, but I really like the ideas in Beth Kanter’s book “The Networked Nonprofit”. Mozilla embodies many of the concepts of a networked nonprofit (no “brick and mortar” boundaries, transparent organizational access), and just needs to do it better, to reap more of the benefits (giving people the latitude and resources to do great things).

  13. Rittam Debnath replied on | Reply

    Reblogged this on RittamDebnath and commented:
    I liked the concept of Radical participation , yup we must built a community that can forecast the problem we’re facing today .

  14. Garth Graham replied on | Reply

    As I understand the nature of distributed or self-organizing systems, isn’t the phrase “distributed leadership” and oxymoron? If radical means changing the frame, perhaps walking away from leadership might be a useful direction contemplate?

  15. Srikar Ananthula replied on | Reply

    Reblogged this on Srikar's Blog.

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