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Beyond the black hole

The post goes on:

At the same time, the competitive landscape has changed substantially since 2004. While we still relish, support and celebrate grassroots marketing activities, Mozillians have been collaborating to create an extended marketing team that spans paid and volunteer staff. The team grew to over 300 around the Firefox 4 for desktop and mobile launches and has the heft of a major commercial software marketing organization.

Sadly, that misses the point completely. However wonderful the "heft" of a major commercial software marketing organisation may be, it is fundamentally and qualitatively different from grassroots marketing. Moreover, by shifting towards such a commercial approach, Mozilla has thrown away its unique advantage – community participation – and made the mistake of fighting the battle on the enemy's terms. That may even go some way to explaining its recent decline in market share.

The post concludes:

To be clear – this doesn’t mean we’re minimizing our focus on community marketing, but growing it. In line with our pioneering spirit, we’re looking to open up new programs and venues for engaging people globally and to empower them as Mozilla and Firefox supporters.

Well, it's true that there is a page on the MozillaWiki on Engagement/Contributor Engagement, but I can't really see much that has come out of it. It's also true that Mozilla instigated a major project called Drumbeat recently, but like Spreadfirefox, that too has fizzled out:

About two years ago, the Mozilla Foundation started experimenting with a set of big ideas, using “Mozilla Drumbeat” as an umbrella brand and laboratory. Our thinking:

  • Grow the Mozilla community. In size and diversity.
  • Reach out to new audiences. People working in other spaces that matter. Like education, journalism, filmmaking, and youth.
  • Collaborate on new projects and software. Lock web developers in a room with these new audiences, shake vigorously, and wait for lightning to strike.
  • Work open. Template and package Mozilla’s uniquely open way of working along the way.
  • Invite the world. Extend that out to anyone who wanted to play.

All worthy goals. So why is the project being shut down?

Drumbeat was so successful, we’re shutting it down.

This is not to pick on Mozilla; indeed, the reason I have concentrated on it here is that it has done more than practically any other free software project, for which it deserves kudos. But mostly I have focused on it because, at its height, Spreadfirefox showed exactly how huge numbers of ordinary users could be massively engaged and motivated to have a big impact on the computing world. Today, all of that has been lost, and that's deeply troubling.

The Mozilla experience shows that making ordinary users part of the open source process is hard (although it's not entirely clear why Spreadfirefox faded away quite so dramatically). Certainly, it does not augur well for implementing a wider democracy in the open source world. But maybe in the wake of the massive protests against SOPA and ACTA, something has changed and it's worth trying again.

It's therefore good to see that at least one organisation is stepping up to that challenge, albeit on a modest scale:

The Open Source Initiative (OSI), the non-profit organization that advocates for open source software and builds bridges between open source communities, announced at the annual Open Source Convention (OSCON) that it is accepting applications for Individual Membership, starting immediately. Open source community members worldwide are invited to join OSI now at opensource.org/join and help shape the future of open source.

Specifically:

The new Individual Membership category allows individuals who support the mission and work of the OSI to join discussions about that work, to be represented in the evolving governance of the OSI, and to spin up task-focused Working Groups to tackle open source community needs.

Simon Phipps, OSI President, is quoted as saying: "The transformation of the OSI into a member-based organization is a timely and important step for the worldwide open source community." If the experiment succeeds, it could certainly offer inspiration for other projects to become "member-based", and to move back closer to their community roots.

Against that background, then, now would be a good time to start thinking about and debating what democracy for free software might mean today: what exactly its purpose might be, what its limits are – and even whether it is still possible 21 years after Linus posted his message that started it all.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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