September 12, 2011 § 28 Comments
We need to teach the world to code. Not just future engineers and web developers (although this is essential). But also teachers, journalists, filmmakers, artists, scientists and curious kids. These are the people who make much of the web. They need to understand code.
This has been the premise behind much of what we have done with Mozilla Drumbeat: people who make stuff on the internet are better creators and better online citizens if they know at least a little bit about the web’s basic building blocks. Even if they only learn a little HTML, the web gets better.
This premise has been most explicit in Hackasaurus and School of Webcraft. Hackasaurus invites teenagers to learn the basics of HTML by remixing and making web pages, embracing the idea that that web is infinitely rewriteable. School of Webcraft offers study groups where people can learn more advanced web skills.
While less explicitly educational, similar learning is happening in other Mozilla Drumbeat projects. For example, MoJo‘s fellowship program is all about bringing open web skills and thinking into newsrooms. It includes a learning lab with weekly guest lectures from mentors like Chris Heilmann and John Resig. And our partnership with the Bay Area Video Coalition introduces young filmmakers to the web as a canvas for their work, using tools like Popcorn to show what HTML5 can do for budding filmmakers.
Of course, ‘teacher’ isn’t quite the right word for the role Mozilla is playing in all of this. Everything we’re doing is about learning through making and collaborating on the web. Everyone involved is teaching each other. But the point remains: Mozilla can — and should — be a driver of learning code. And in many ways, it already is — a global community of passionate experts constantly sharpening our skills through hands-on collaboration, learning what we need from each other as go.
As we reviewed Drumbeat projects over the summer, the idea that teaching and learning about code is central to what we’re doing became clear. Our review also raised the question: could this idea of ‘Mozilla as teacher’ be a central part of what our community is about over the long run?
Personally, I think the answer is yes. As I said in previous post, I believe Mozilla has an opportunity to become the most important technology learning and research org on the planet: a whole new kind of learning institution based on the principles of the web.
Obviously, this is something much bigger than the few educational programs we’ve started in the last 18 months through Mozilla Drumbeat. But we do have the building blocks. School of Webcraft, Hackasaurus, Open Badges, Popcorn, MoJo, etc. all have elements that could be rolled into a much bigger, more ambitous vision for gettting people to teach each other to code.
I have some concrete ideas on how this might work, spinning what we’ve started with Drumbeat into something bigger. Also, I’m thinking through how we connect a ‘Mozilla as teacher’ persona with a ‘Mozilla as inventor’ persona. I’ll post on these things soon.
In the meantime, I’m wondering how this theme of ‘Mozilla as teacher’ resonates with people? Does the general idea feel right? Is there a different and better way to express it?
September 7, 2011 § 6 Comments
When I say ‘maker’, most people understand what I mean: a DIY ethic, a hankering to create. Often, makers are into robots and gadgets. Physical things. But the web is also filled with people who love to tinker, create and make.
In my last post, I argued that Mozilla should engage these ‘web makers’ as we refine and evolve what we started with Drumbeat. Which begs the question: who are the web makers?
Looking at the people who have joined our community recently, I see teachers, filmmakers, journalists, artists, game makers and curious kids who a) want to be part of what Mozilla is doing and b) are making things using the open building blocks that are the web. I believe Mozilla has alot to offer these people, and vice versa.
To understand this, it’s worth looking at the people who have gotten involved Mozilla as a result of Drumbeat. Here are three examples:
Jess Klein is a designer who teaches kids about technology. She’s designed games. She’s worked for Sesame Street. And now she’s helping Mozilla bring Hackasaurus to life, designing a whole new way for kids to learn about the web.
Kat Cizek is a documentary filmmaker. She’s chronicled the participatory media org Witness. She’s won an Emmy for a web documentary she made in Flash. And now she is making a whole film with Popcorn and WebGL, a film made for the browser and solely with the open building blocks that make up the web.
Cathy Davidson is an iconoclastic professor at Duke University. She let’s her students choose their own grades. She wrote a book about how the web is rewiring our institutions. She also built out a huge part of last year’s Mozilla Festival, and now is helping us figure out where to go next in education.
These people have some things in common. They share Mozilla’s open spirit and maker ethic. They see the open web as a canvas for their ideas. They are building things with the web. And they are all actively contributing to Mozilla.
I like to think Mozilla offers these people something special: a chance to build — and learn– alongside people from Mozilla’s more traditional community who are creating the cutting edge of the web. This is what we’ve started with Drumbeat.
On the flip side, these people clearly have something to offer Mozilla: help building a world where millions more people understand that the web is about making things.
This is why I want these people actively involved in shaping where Mozilla goes in the future. In my next few posts, I will talk about how these people can help us build on the work we’ve started with Drumbeat, especially how we teach and build tools for web makers.
A question in the meantime: what do others think about the role the people I am describing here can play in Mozilla?
August 31, 2011 § 5 Comments
We started Drumbeat as an experiment to bring new people and new ideas into Mozilla. Some results from the first 18 months: 20,000 people signed up, dozens of new community leaders and solid core projects like Hackasaurus, School of Webcraft, Popcorn, MoJo and OpenBadges.
While I’m proud of all this, I actually think Drumbeat’s biggest achievement has been carving out a new way for Mozilla to work: teaching and building things with people I call ‘web makers’.
The projects at the core of Drumbeat have been built by matching teachers, filmmakers, journalists, artists, game makers and curious kids with the kind of developers who make up Mozilla’s more traditional community.
While these new community members come from different backgrounds, they have two things in common: 1) they share Mozilla’s open spirit and maker ethic, and 2) they want to use the open web as a canvas for their ideas.
As part of Mitchell’s broader conversation about the next era of Mozilla, I want to explore how we can work with these web makers to refine and evolve what we’ve started with Drumbeat.
Specifically, I want to explore how we weave teaching and building things with web makers into the core of Mozilla’s work. The MoFo team came up with some early thinking on this over the summer:
- We set up Drumbeat to figure out how to extend our mission beyond Firefox (and beyond software).
- What we found: Mozilla has an opportunity to build the next generation of web makers. This opportunity is huge.
- This is partly about teaching: helping people learn how to use the building blocks that make up the web.
- It’s also about making tools: tools for creativity, tinkering and invention. Built by and for web makers.
- We can — and should — do these things. They will keep the Mozilla spirit alive, advance our mission, and build our values into the future of the web.
Of course, Mozilla should continue to invent and evolve the core building blocks that make up the web. That is what we’ve always been good at.
But — as our early work in Drumbeat has shown — teaching people how to use and extend these building blocks also has huge potential to advance Mozilla’s cause. As Mitchell said last year in Barcelona:
One of the values of Mozilla is that we *build* things. Moving individuals from consumption to creation is Mozilla’s goal.
Reaching this goal will take millions of individuals teaching each other how to build things, and then extending how things are built. I can imagine Mozilla as a new kind of learning institution and open research lab that brings these people together. That’s something that can — and should — be a part of who we are.
In my next posts, I plan to explore this web maker concept and introduce some of the new people who have joined Mozilla through Drumbeat. I will also float some concrete ideas on how we can refine Drumbeat with the help of these people, rolling it back into the mainstream of Mozilla and growing it into something bigger at the same time.
June 29, 2011 § 1 Comment
The June Mozilla board meeting included extensive discussion of Hackasaurus: a program that teaches kids how to remix the web.
I just put my TEDx Kids presentation on Hackasaurus in another post — this describes the general motivations and the concept behind the project. The board slides in this webcast provide a more detailed picture of our plans:
If you want to flip through quickly, here is a PDF version of these slides. Key highlights from the slides include:
- What: Curriculum + software + community for out-of-school learning on webmaking and digital literacy.
- Long term: Opportunity to create a generation of ‘web makers’ actively participating in Mozilla.
- Status: Promising alpha software + successful events. Partners excited about concept, money lined up.
- Resources: have treated as experiment so far. Need full time product manager / more staff.
Coming out of the board conversation we decided to up-level Hackasaurus to a full scale Drumbeat project. That means we’ll be putting additional resources into the project. We’ll also be hiring a design lead and a product manager.
June 29, 2011 § 2 Comments
Earlier this month, I had a chance to talk about Mozilla’s new Hackasaurus program at TEDx Kids in Brussels.
It was especially fun as they encouraged me to talk about both Hackasaurus (kids learning to remix the web) and my personal motivations (a hackable, webbish world). Here is the video:
A PDF version of the slides is here, although they aren’t much use without the video and voice over narration. I’ve also put slides and a webcast of recent board meeting presentation on Hackasaurus plans in this post.
May 3, 2011 § 9 Comments
Recently, we’ve seen a huge change in video online. The advent of web native <video> makes it possible to mash up moving images with social media, tie clips to data from across the web or, more simply, create simple transcript-based interfaces for navigating long pieces of video. Yet, despite the these capabilities, we’ve seen almost nothing in the way of new kinds of storytelling. Telling stories with video online today looks pretty much the same as it did when I used to shoot local TV news 20 years ago.
This is something we hope to change with the first Knight Mozilla news innovation challenge topic. We’re inviting hacks and hackers from around the world to answer the question: how can new web video tools transform news storytelling? People with the best ideas will get to bring them to life with a full year paid fellowship in a world leading newsroom.
The next ‘montage moment’
What do I mean by transform storytelling? Just that: taking today’s online video tools beyond the mechanical and obvious, bringing people, ideas and events to life in ways we haven’t seen before. To get your imagination going, think back to how visual storytelling emerged in the world of cinema.
The Lumiere brothers made some of the worlds first films. Workers going to a factory. A train arriving at a station. Etc. The Lumiere’s fixed frame wasn’t much to write home about in terms of story. But seeing moving photographs was hugely impressive to most people at the time. It was a technical wonder.
It took 25 years for Eisenstein to grab hold of this technical wonder and then say: wow, I bet you we could tell a more powerful story if we varied the shots a bit and then edited them together. With Potemkin, he invented the visual language we still use to tell stories today: montage.
The fundamental technology didn’t change in those 25 years. The Lumiere’s knew how to splice film and move the camera around. Eisenstein’s breakthrough was to use basic film technology to tell a story in a new and creative way. Which is very much like where we are at with web native video today: huge technological potential just waiting to be seized for creative storytelling. What we need now is a ‘montage moment’ for the web era.
Open video: a huge palette of awesomeness
The potential of web native <video> truly is awesome: we can now link any frame within any video to any other part of the web. This was hard to do in the world of Flash video. The introduction of the HTML5 <video> tag over the last two years has made it easy.
Early experiments and demos hint at the potential of this new open video palette. With the recent State of the Union, PBS used Mozilla’s popcorn.js tools to synchronize their live blogging with the timecode of the President’s speech:
The same tools have been used to show how transcripts can be used to search and then navigate immediately to anywhere within a long clip. This demo from Danish public radio shows how this can work with web native <audio>. The same thing could easily be done with video.
Of course, the big potential is in connecting video to the massive amount media and data that already exists all across the web. Imagine if you could weave the sum of all human knowledge seamlessly into your news story or documentary. That’s now possible. This book report demo shows the basics concept, with a student connecting her narration to wikipedia articles and news reports.
Google and Arcade Fire took this idea a step further, pulling moving images from street view and Google Earth into a rock video. If you enter your zip code, your neighborhood becomes a character in the narrative in real time.
The Japanese based Sour-Mirror went even further, pulling you into the video. Enter your Facebook ID and turn on your camera, and then you become a character in the band’s video. Again, in real time.
These demos make an important point: the line between what’s in the frame and what’s on the web is dissolving. Or, put nerdily, timecode and hypertext are fusing together. They are becoming one.
Are you the next Eisenstein?
Despite all the niftyness, there is a problem: these demos do not yet tap the open video palette to tell stories in meaningfully new ways. Open video tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn and Butter provide a starting point. But they need people with a creative flair for both web technology and storytelling to bring them life. Which is exactly why Knight and Mozilla threw out ‘how can new web video tools transform news storytelling?’ as our first MoJo challenge question.
We’re hoping that you — or someone you know — is up to this challenge. If you think you are, you should enter the MoJo innovation challenge. All you need to do is: draw up a napkin sketch showing how you might tell a story in a new way with open video, write a brief paragraph about it and then submit it online. If your idea is solid, you’ve got a good chance at a fellowship where you could actually bring it to life at the Al Jazeera, BBC, the Guardian, Die Zeit or the Boston Globe. Who knows, maybe you could be the Eisenstein of open video?
April 14, 2011 § 14 Comments
I believe we have an internet literacy problem.
Well over a billion people know how to get online. But a much smaller number understand basic concepts like how to read a URL or how to make a good password. Without these conceptual building blocks, it’s hard to get around, be safe or shape your little corner of the net. Or, as Mitchell might say, it’s hard to have control over your online life.
It’s on us to fix this. Or at least to help. Mozilla’s products take us part way: they give people powerful tools to interact with the web. I think we also need to offer conceptual tools that help people gain even more control of their lives online. With this in mind, I’m proposing an experiment: a distributed, open sourced social marketing campaign to help people become more internet literate.
Marketing the open internet
What do I mean by social marketing? If you are old like me (42), just think about Schoolhouse Rock: ubiquitous Saturday morning cartoons that used catchy jingles to help kids get abstract concepts like grammar and civics. Or, if you are Canadian, think back to the Participaction ad campaigns used to promote exercise from the 1970s to the 1990s. These are classic social marketing: using simple messages and popular media to drive mass understanding of important and socially beneficial concepts.
I’ve been asking myself recently: what does effective social marketing look like in the internet era? How could it improve internet literacy?
The core of social marketing is extremely simple messaging that makes people care about seemingly hard to grok concepts. It’s difficult to imagine millions of people getting excited about ‘how to read a URL’ — but this is what social marketing is about. Simple messages on tough concepts is something that should work as just as well on the web as it did on television.
The other key element is popular media. Of course, popular media has changed dramatically — what worked on tv 30 years ago won’t work on the web today. However, one can easily imagine hundreds of thousands of people reinterpreting, retweeting and remixing a few simple messages. This could knock internet literacy out of the park, giving a whole generation a meme or two to remember.
A 5 step experiment
Which brings me to the experiment: a social marketing mashup of traditional simple messaging and web era distributed pop culture. Imagine 5 steps:
- Ask, what are the 10 things we wish everyone on the internet knew.
- Come up with extremely simple messaging on each of these topics, messaging that a very broad audience could relate to.
- Build an open source communications toolkit around these messages: write out key messages, give people remixable bits of media, etc.
- Get everyone with a stake in internet literacy spreading these messages in their own way. Recruit some movie stars if you can.
- Watch what happens. Improve the campaign toolkit, rinse and repeat.
Like Google’s 20 Things book, this experiment focus on explaining core internet concepts in accessible terms. But in Mozilla style, we’ll create a collaborative, open sourced, open ended messaging toolkit that’s modular and remixable. And we’ll borrow the best social marketing wisdom to spread those ideas as far as possible.
Using the principle of start small, about a dozen people will gather in Toronto in early May to start the experiment. It’ll be a mix of Mozillians, educators, privacy experts, net neutrality advocates and web companies — all people who both want and need internet literacy to improve.
Our goal will be to prototype the messaging toolkit I describe above. We’ll we’ll write together on just a few topics: producing a raw messaging and reusable assets on each topic. We’ll share what we create, and discover which kinds of content and which kinds of messages help ignite the kind of remixable, distributed campaigns we need. And if those campaigns need more fuel for the fire, we’ll organize a bigger sprint to build out more topics and materials that people can use to market the web.
I don’t know exactly how this experiment will unfold, but as I was reminded recently, there is power in uncertainty. It’s the same power that drives the web: the power of staying open to contribution, to re-invention, to inspiration. I hope you will join in this experiment once it gets going, and help us fill in the blanks.
PS. Thanks to Rob Cottingham for the awesome cartoon above.
March 24, 2011 § 5 Comments
As I pointed out a while back, this year is Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. It’s a good time to be thinking about media and the web: in particular about how the free and open medium of the web is shaping all media that came before. Increasingly, this is a theme for Mozilla Drumbeat in 2011.
Why now? Yes, partly because it’s Marshall’s birthday. But more importantly, we’re at a key juncture: traditional media are increasingly reinventing themselves by tapping into the essence of the web; at the same time monopolies in spaces like social networking and mobile apps are calling the freedom of the web into question. Things could go either way: open or closed.
Back in February, I explored this theme in the annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture at the Canadian Embassy in Berlin. I’ve re-recorded the talk and posted it here:
At a high level, I believe we have to make a number of critical choices in coming years that will impact media and society for decades to come. My three top level points are:
We rarely call it out, but the same basic principles that make free software and open source great are also baked into the very fabric of the web itself. The web gives us the freedom to use, study, remix and share — that’s what we are all doing at a massive scale. We do these things because they are baked into both the technical building blocks and the culture of the web. When we think about the web as the medium that is shaping our times, it’s important to remember that this kind of freedom that is central to what’s going on.
McLuhan said: “The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form.”
This has happened. And it hasn’t just happened to television. All media have become the content of the web. As a result, all media are wrapped in this context of freedom: in a world that lets you bend and share without asking permission. The initial reaction from old media was push back. But times are changing. We’re very clearly entering a phase where smart media players are using the essence of the web to reinvent themselves. Eg. witness the Guardian and Wikileaks or Al Jazeera in Egypt.
The context is a web built on freedom. The opportunity is that all media are reinventing themselves in this context. If we seize this opportunity, we can bake things like transparency, remix and sharing into the media culture and practice for the next 100 years. That’s what we’re trying to do with Mozilla Drumbeat projects like popcorn.js: build tools that give filmmakers and journalists access to the essence of the web. If we succeed, we also bake the web into how whole industries work and think.
Of course, there is another direction we can choose: we could close down the web. Tim Wu talks eloquently about this in his book the Master Switch. Talking about media empires in the last 100 years, he says: “Open eras tend to last for about 15 – 20 years. And then they flip into being more closed. We may be at the beginning of the closing with the internet.”
Specifically: we could give up our privacy and identity to one or two social networks; we let one or two companies decide who gets to innovate and create software; we could let governments decide whether we get to access the internet at all. The result would be a very different web than the one we have now.
It’s this point about choice that makes media such an important theme for Mozilla and Drumbeat in 2011: now is the time to aggressively, creatively and playfully promote web technology and web thinking in the broader world of media. What we do now will shape media — and society — for a long time to come.
I’d love to get people’s feedback on the ideas in this talk. And, even more, I’d love to see people building things and playing with the theme of media, freedom and the web as part of Mozilla Drumbeat in 2011.
This is the third in a series of posts about media, freedom and the web. I’m hoping to do more, including a few posts on the future of cinema.
February 22, 2011 § 4 Comments
A little over two years ago, I did a bunch of posts about the idea of recruiting ‘the next million Mozillians’. My thinking at the time: we need to grow our community dramatically. We need to build even more creativity, reach and resilience into who we are. This is how we build a 100 year organization for the open web.
I still believe we need to do this. However, it turns out, finding a million more Mozillians (or whatever number we need) requires more than good intentions and a snap of the fingers. It requires a crisp understanding who we want to recruit and why they’d want to get involved. Getting to this takes time, experimentation and conversation.
The good news: I think we are closer than ever to having broad and solid strategy to dramatically grow the Mozilla community. As I look across Mozilla, I see three common goals emerging:
- Grow and strengthen our existing community of contributors
- Expand our scope: invent new ways for people to contribute
- Build a massive base of supporters who contribute in small ways
This list is not a top down set of marching orders. Just the opposite. It’s a pattern I see in experiments and initiatives from all across Mozilla. Experiments and initiatives with serious people and resources behind them. This gives me a great deal of hope.
There are conversations going on about bits of this strategy all across Mozilla: Contributor Engagement, Drumbeat, Join Mozilla, MDN. I figured it might be useful to share the overall pattern I’m seeing to feed into these more specific conversations. So, here’s my take …
1. Grow and strengthen our existing community
Depending on who you talk to, we have between 25,000 and 50,000 active Mozillians: people who contribute time and passion to making, improving, testing, localizing and promoting Mozilla software.
This is an awesome number. But it’s also a number that is hard to grow (or even sustain). Finding your way into this core community is often hard. And some community members feel they don’t get the support they need.
Of course, Mozilla has always focused on keeping this community strong. Summits. MozCamps. Community calls. Yet, there is increasing recognition we need to do more. Recognition is solidly turning into action.
Mary Colvig has formed a contributor engagement team with this exact goal: doing more. Mike Shaver is looking at ways to optimize how we make software, including a strong community component. David Boswell is trying to improve our Get Involved page. Gerv Markham is working on a community directory for all Mozillians. People like Alina Meirlus and FuzzyFox are investigating ways to make it easier for people to find their way into the Mozilla community.
These are only the initiatives that I know about. I am sure there are more. However, just looking at these I am convinced that people in Mozilla are broadly embracing the goal of growing and strengthening our contributor community.
2. Expand our scope: new ways to contribute
If we think about keeping the web open for the long haul, then Mozilla needs to get good at more than just building Firefox. And probably at more than just building software.
This is an easy thing to say in the abstract. But what exactly might we do beyond Firefox? What are the threats and opportunities on the web? What do we want to build? Who would want to contribute? Why?
Over the last few years, three new groups have formed to address these questions: Mozilla Drumbeat; Mozilla Labs; and Developer Engagement. All have a mandate to innovate and venture into new territory — and to bring new kinds of people into the Mozilla community.
What has me most excited is the fact that our once vague aspiration for new ways to participate in Mozilla started to become more concrete. The path to becoming a Mozilla / P2PU School of Webcraft course leader is clear (but clunky). The idea of Mozillian as news hacker is coming into focus. The chance to pitch in on Mozilla innovation thinking through a Labs Design Challenge is well established.
Also worth noting: many of these ‘beyond Firefox’ initiatives have started to become Mozilla community software projects. The Popcorn and Butter hypervideo tools. The processing.js toolset developed by Seneca and others. The Batucada open social platform we’ve developed for Drumbeat. All small scale, but notable as software projects aimed at the challenges and opportunities we face today on the web.
While all of these initiatives are interesting in their own right, the bigger story is about community. As they scale, these initiatives will allow many more people to contribute and become Mozillians. This is critical for growth. Ultimately, it’s the difference between being able to support 50,000 contributors and 500,000 contributors. Growing our community means expanding the number of things they can work on. Slowly, this is starting to happen.
3. Build a massive base to contribute in small ways
Personally, I believe that we need a third strategy for growing our community: a way for large numbers of people to simply stand up and support Mozilla. To simply show their affinity.
The main reason: this is the best and fastest way to spread our message, to explain to the world that we are more than just a browser. We know from other movements that ‘joining’ turns supporters into informal evangelists. They wear tshirts. They feel pride. They talk to their friends over dinner about why.
The other reason is that simple ‘support us’ programs are almost always the best way to scale a community of active volunteers and contributors. We saw this in the Obama campaign. And in online environmental organizations like 350.org. First people make a small pledge of money or affinity, then the most active are invited and supported in doing much more. Traditional campaigners call this a ladder of engagement.
Mozilla is trying to build this kind of supporter base through ‘Join Mozilla‘, newsletters and a number of other user engagement programs. The strategy is simple: we want people with a strong affinity for Firefox to understand that we are about something more, and then to express their support for our cause.
Of course, we can do much more once people have joined. We can activate supporters as informal evangelists. We can invite them to local meet-ups or parties. And we can encourage the keenest amongst them to become active Mozillians. And, if we look at other campaigns and movements, it’s clear that the starting point needs to be very simple. And, its still fantastic for the cause that the broad majority of people will be happy to do no more than just show their support.
Mitchell has talked informally about 2011 being ‘the year of community’ for Mozilla. I agree. When I look at the rough community strategy that is emerging across Mozilla, I think the opportunity for major growth is real — it’s an opportunity we can’t miss. I believe the Whistler goal of 1000x-ing the size of our community can actually be achieved.
The caveat: we need to dive in and take some risks now to make this happen. We need Mozillians from around the world to take a leap of faith — that we can scale our already awesome global community into a community that’s even more diverse, powerful and world changing.
Practically, this means moving quickly on everything from a community directory to innovation challenges to Drumbeat projects to the new Join Mozilla program. It means trying things and then trying them again, even if we don’t get them right the first time. As I say, I’m pretty hopeful about this. It’s exactly what the Mozilla community is good at.
January 31, 2011 § 3 Comments
I had a good conversation with John Udell the other day (thanks!). We were making a list of concepts people need to internalize if they want to think like the web. The next morning, a particular concept jumped to mind: Openendedness. The web is never finished. It’s built to be built on.
The idea of openendedness is a striking one when comparing the web to other media. Newspapers. Films. Books. Television. Comics. Long playing records. Every important medium since the printing press has organized itself around discrete objects that have a start and a finish. The web does not.
As I posted last week, I hope to spend a good chunk of 2011 exploring the openended nature of the web and the way it’s shaping other media. Riffing on last year’s Mozilla Drumbeat theme, I’m using the phrase media, freedom and the web as an umbrella to throw ideas and projects under. Given this, I figured it would be useful to unpack what these words mean to me. Let’s start with …
The kind of freedom I am talking about: The openendedness of digital things. Bulding things we can build on.
Loosely, I’m talking about software freedom here. In 1986, Richard Stallman declared that software should have four freedoms. Paraphrased they are: the freedom to use, study, remix and share. While many people don’t buy into the four freedoms per se, the basic ideas are widely accepted. Some rough approximation of use / study / remix / share is what most people mean when they say ‘free’ or ‘open’ in relation to technology.
Freedom in this sense is useful conceptual frame that not only helps us understand the web but may also give us tools to reinvent the media of the past. It’s use / study / remix / share that make the web openended. The same frame offers a useful set of design tools as we start to reinvent media more widely.
My simple web definition: An infinite box of LEGO that lets anyone build (almost) anything.
Consciously and unconsciously, we have baked freedom and openendedness into the very fabric of the web. At the most literal level: huge parts of our internet culture and economy rest upon a foundation of free software (Google, Amazon, etc.). But the essence of these ideas reaches even further: web wouldn’t be what it is today without the ability to look under the hood, get your hands dirty, and fix what doesn’t work.
Openendedness is central here. The network and the LEGO blocks are built to be built upon. They are built this way not only technically, but also culturally and conceptually. People steeped in the web — and many people who have grown up with it — don’t think about finishedness in the same way we their parents did. Iteration. Adaptation. Extension. These are the things they value, and that might benefit all media.
My simple definition for media: The things that connect us. The stories we tell. The people who tell them.
We all talk about media. But we talk about it differently. Some of us talk in the abstract sense that McLuhan meant: the material essence of a particular medium. Print. Film. Web. Others talk more tangibly about the stories we tell and how we tell them. Books. Movies. Social networks. Still others personify ‘the media’, talking about the people who make it. ‘The media is screwing up politics and democracy’ or ‘the media sucks’.
As the web era moves from disruption to reinvention, it’s important to contemplate what is happening with all of this. Things are changing at all levels. The material essence of what we used to call print or film. The ways we tell stories as books and movies. And, most dramatically, the people who make media (which we increasingly recognize to be ‘all of us’). All of these things are in play.
For me, the most interesting aspect of this reinvention is this question of finishedness vs. openendedness. Typesetting and the printed page were rigid and closed. The wiki and the web page are openended. We use them for seemingly similar purposes, but to very different effect.
As we reinvent and make choices, we have a chance to build the openended nature of the web into all media.
Why hop through these three concepts? Partly to map the terrain for a series of experiments. I’m hoping Mozilla Drumbeat can explore media, freedom and the web in some very practical ways during 2011.
However, McLuhan also urged us to ‘contemplate what is happening’ with media if we want to shape it. This requires a shared vocabulary, a broadly understood set of concepts. For me, the openended nature of the web is one of these concepts. Many more people need to understand that the web is built on freedom, even if we end up using different words.
In my next post, I want to do an old media / new media case study. I started out my career as a filmmaker, so it’s probably about how cinema might be reinvented on the web.
This is the first in a series of posts about media, freedom and the web.