a new participation infrastructure project: Gossamer

I have a confession to make.

I’ve been a volunteer contributor at Mozilla for a number of years now.. and during this time, I haven’t even begun to do the work that motivated me to join to Mozilla in the first place. I’ve made all sorts of excuses like needing to cultivate new skills, or thinking that Mozilla’s organizational culture needs to change somehow.. and then I can finally do the real work I’m here to do.

Well, I’ve been working to level up my skills and in the past year Mozilla has shown strong signs of becoming the organization I’ve been dreaming it could be! All the excuses I give myself are disappearing, and yet I still don’t feel ready to participate where I think I can make the biggest difference.

Maybe I’ve been looking a this all wrong. Maybe what’s missing isn’t something intrinsic to Mozilla as a whole, nor something within myself. Maybe what’s missing is a process, a clear contribution pathway for me to participate in the work I’d like to do within Mozilla.

The work I’ve long felt driven to participate in is facilitating the design of new architectures for personal data ownership and sovereignty. I want to help find answers to questions around what the web looks and feels like when your user agent is no longer a browser running on top of an operating system, but a networked ecosystem of devices, data services, physical objects, and contextual identities all tied together securely by open infrastructure you can choose to delegate to companies like Google and Microsoft, or completely host under your bed without loss of functionality or experience.

Like so many of the technical challenges facing Mozilla right now, working towards such a vision requires figuring out whether the chicken or the egg comes first. In Firefox, this often translates to Platform or UX. I see a path towards the web I want that begins with UX, but Mozilla doesn’t really have a viable contribution pathway for volunteers (especially non-coding volunteers) to participate in proposing ambitious new browser features.. especially features tied to a longer-term vision. Rapid prototyping is difficult because not only would I have to recruit a developer, but technical overhead is also a barrier (the dev environment, learning how to create browser extensions which often means learning some XUL, etc) for whomever I recruit. And don’t forget the step of sharing an experiment with Mozilla UX to vet the idea and make the case for getting it into Mozilla’s bloodstream.

Provided a volunteer-driven project could get to that point, would the UX team even have the bandwidth to engage volunteers let alone vet and possibly champion their ideas? For my own efforts, I’m confident I could make this happen. I could totally recruit a team, build some prototypes together, and essentially create my own process for pipelining new experimental features into Firefox. But something about this pathway just doesn’t sit right with me. Other people should be able to participate through such a pipeline, but the process I could surgically create for myself definitely wouldn’t scale. Is there a more Mozilla way to do this that paves a viable path for others to follow?

There are many parts of Mozilla that face challenges like this where by increasing volunteer participation, staff would be stuck with the crippling administrative burden of processes meant to drive innovation. What’s needed is trailblazing participation infrastructure that empowers volunteers to largely self-administer their participation while at the same time transforming how Mozilla staff gets work done day to day. An integration of new processes and tooling that unlocks creative possibilities for volunteers and staff alike.

At the recent Mozilla Whistler Work Week, Mark Surman surreally illustrated the need for new tools by first coming on stage with an axe, and then later bringing a chainsaw on the stage. (Or at least, that’s what I think happened.. I was following #mozwww on Twitter and it basically looked like pure insanity. Never change, Mozilla.) To use Surman’s metaphor, the surgical process I described above is an axe I could build to personally accomplish my mission at Mozilla. (And no one should ever do surgery with an axe.)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been collaborating with Jonathan Wilde to build an experimental chainsaw!

Since the #Mozlandia work week last December, Jonathan and I have been talking about how the browser.html project could be used for more than just platform level research, but to bootstrap participation infrastructure that enables research and development in browser UX. A little over a month ago we began work on just that, and refer to it using the codename ‘Gossamer’. You can read more about the technical inspirations and details behind Gossamer on Jonathan’s blog.

We’re not quite ready to share a demo just yet, but we have enough momentum that we want to begin working in the open. We’re also trying to work via Heartbeat-style sprints pioneered by MoFo and recently adopted by the Participation Team.

We’d love your feedback as we work towards our first few rounds of demos! Join us on the irc.mozilla.org channel #gossamer, file some github issues located in the gossamer repo, and tweet at us via @CaptainCalliope and @hellojwilde!