Advocating for web literacy

July 20, 2015 § 3 Comments

I often throw around big numbers when I talk about web literacy: “Soon we’ll have five billion people on the web. We need to make sure they all understand how it works and how to wield it.” I believe this. And, I believe that Mozilla needs to play a key role here. But the question is: how?

Advocating for web literacy

Moving through Mozilla Learning planning, we’ve concluded we need two interlinked strategies: leadership development and large scale advocacy. Leadership development is fairly straightforward: Mozilla already has programs focused on this. Advocacy — or shifting understanding and thinking about the web — is harder. We have experience and talent here, but it is more nascent. Where to invest and how to move forward is less clear. This post lays out baseline thinking on a Mozilla Learning advocacy agenda with an aim of fueling a deeper discussion about our approach.


The first step toward figuring out where we want to invest is agreeing on the impact we want to have. At the core, it’s something like:

Impact = everyone knows how to read, write and participate on the web.

This is ultimately what we’re aiming at. It’s big and abstract, but substantively it is what we want: universal web literacy. Like universal language literacy, we will never fully reach the goal. But we can meaningfully make and measure progress across the globe.

Within this overall goal, there are specific places that might be more or less important to have impact. For example:

Impact = new internet users understand the full scope of the web.
Impact = more people know how to protect their privacy.
Impact = gov’ts, foundations and companies value web literacy.

We need to pick two or three focusing impact statements like these to guide our work, at least for the next few years. There could be dozens of impact statements like this that are worthy — but we’ll only succeed if we know which ones we’re going after, and then drive hard toward them.


Mozilla is already doing good work that improves public understanding of the web and promote web literacy.

For example, we run advocacy campaigns on topics like net neutrality and mass surveillance. As a result, Firefox users learn about these complex issues in a simple way and are able to talk to others about them. They become more literate about the issues facing the internet today.

Or, a very different example: we give talks, create curriculum and offer software to encourage other organizations to participate in our web literacy agenda. This makes it easy for the kinds of organizations that belong to Hive or run Maker Parties — or, eventually, for governments or philanthropies — to connect the educational work they already do everyday to our cause of teaching the world the web.

While we’re already having an impact in areas like these, we want to have impact at a larger scale. What we need to do is take a look at which tactics are most impactful. Some options are:

  1. Advocating for the web: building a strong educational element into a regular series of political and advocacy campaigns. E.g. our recent net neutrality campaigns.
  1. Advocating for web literacy: promoting the importance of web literacy and giving others around the world the tools to teach it. E.g. lobbying governments and educational orgs to deploy curriculum from Mozilla Clubs, MDN, etc.
  1. Consumer education: building educational messages about topics like privacy into our product channels, advertising or other places where we have a large audience. E.g. Smart On campaigns or internet onboarding programs w/ phone carriers.
  1. Ambient learning: putting features and cues inside our mainstream consumer software in ways that are likely to help people better understand the web. E.g. tinker mode in Webmaker or private browsing in Firefox.
  1. Thought leadership: defining an agenda around the future of the web or web literacy and then talking about it loudly in public. E.g. a more robust version of Shape of the Web backed by an extensive public relations and media campaign.

Part of our work with Mozilla Learning is to: a) look at these tactics and others; b) line them up against our impact statements; and c) decide which ones should be at the center of our overall strategy. Specific questions we’ll need to answer include:

  • What concrete impact do we want in the next three years?
  • Where are the best opportunities to reach a large audience?
  • What tactics help us grow our constituency? (aka relationships)
  • How do constituency and audience lead to impact?
  • How do we measure impact and change?

As we do this, we need to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the Mozilla Learning strategy is universal web literacy. Whatever we do needs to be driving back to that goal in a way that we can understand and measure, at least over time.

Finding the right mix

When I think about other organizations I admire, they use an artful mix of reinforcing strategies. National Geographic mixes mass media with environmental education with adventure travel packages. The American Lung Association mixes anti-tobacco policy work with stop smoking programs with social marketing. The Sierra Club mixes environmental activism with hiking and canoeing. This kind of mix makes for effective and lasting organizations, with impacts at scale.

As we refine the Mozilla Learning plan, and our overall strategy as an organization, I think we need a mix something like:

A. Mainstream software with Mozilla’s values

complemented by

B. Leadership development
C. [still to be defined large scale advocacy efforts]

We already have A (Firefox). And we’re getting close on B (Hive, Clubs, fellows, etc.). The chunk of work we need to do now is figure out C.

As part of the next phase of Mozilla Learning strategy, Ben Moskowitz and David Ascher are going to lead a series of discussions on this ‘moving the needle on massive web literacy’ topic. Key people from MoFo’s advocacy and product teams will also play a leadership role in this process. And there will be chances along the way for anyone who has interest to join the conversation. More info will be available when the process kicks off in mid-August. In the meantime, I wanted to throw out these questions for discussion and debate.

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