Wednesday, May 13rd, 2015

A Product Journal: Community Participation

I’m blogging about the development of a new product in Mozilla, look here for my other posts in this series

Generally at Mozilla we want to engage and activate our community to further what we do. Because all our work is open source, and we default to open on our planning, we have a lot of potential to include people in our work. But removing barriers to participation doesn’t make participation happen.

A couple reasons it’s particularly challenging:

  1. Volunteers and employees work at different paces. Employees can devote more time, and can have pressures to meet deadlines so that sometimes the work just needs to get done. So everything is going fast and a volunteer can have a hard time keeping up. Until the project is cancelled and then wham, the employees are all gone.

  2. Employees become acclimated to whatever processes are asked of them, because whether they like it or not that’s the expectation that comes with their paycheck. Sometimes employees put up with stupid shit as a result. And sometimes volunteers aren’t willing to make investments to their process even when it’s the smart thing to do, ‘cause who knows how long you’ll stick around?

  3. Employee work has to satisfy organizational goals. The organization can try to keep these aligned with mission goals, and keep the mission aligned with the community, but when push comes to shove the organization’s goals – including the goals that come from the executive team – are going to take priority for employees.

  4. Volunteers are unlikely to be devoted to Mozilla’s success. Instead they have their own goals that may intersect with Mozilla’s. This overlap may only occur on one project.  And while that’s serendipitous, limited overlap means a limit on the relationships those volunteers can build, and it’s the relationships that are most likely to retain and reward participation.

I have a theory that agency is one of the most important attractors to open source participation. Mozilla, because of its size and because it has a corporate structure, does not offer a lot of personal agency. Though in return it does offer some potential of leverage.

I am not sure what to do with respect to participation in PageShot. If I open things up more, will anyone care? What would people care about? Maybe people would care about building a product. Maybe the building blocks would be more interesting. We have an IRC channel, but we also meet regularly over video, which I think has been important for us to assimilate the concept and goals of the project. Are there other people who would care to show up?

I’m also somewhat conflicted about trying to bring people in. Where will PageShot end up? The project could be cancelled. It’s open source, sure, but is it interesting as open source if it’s a deadend addon with no backing site? Our design is focused on making something broadly appealing such that it could be included in the browser – and if things go well, the addon will be part of the browser itself. If that happens (and I hope it will!) even my own agency with respect to the project will be at threat. That’s what it means to get organizational support.

If the project was devolved into a set of libraries, it would be easier to contribute to, and easier for volunteers to find value in their participation. Each piece could be improved on its own, and can live on even if the product that inspired the library does not continue. People who use those libraries will maintain agency, because they can remix those libraries however they want, include them in whatever product of their own conception that they have. The problem: I don’t care about the libraries! And I don’t want this to be a technology demonstration, I want it to be a product demonstration, and libraries shift the focus to the wrong part.

Despite these challenges, I don’t want to give up on the potential of participation. I just doubt would look like normal open source participation. I’ve expanded our participation section, including an invitation to our standup meetings. But mostly I need to know if anyone cares, and if you do: what do you care about and what do you want from your participation?

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This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.