Mozilla and the web makers

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?

NextBeat: a generation of web makers

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:

  1. We set up Drumbeat to figure out how to extend our mission beyond Firefox (and beyond software).
  2. What we found: Mozilla has an opportunity to build the next generation of web makers. This opportunity is huge.
  3. This is partly about teaching: helping people learn how to use the building blocks that make up the web.
  4. It’s also about making tools: tools for creativity, tinkering and invention. Built by and for web makers.
  5. 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.

Media, freedom + the web: berlin talk

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:

It’s a long talk: 40 minutes. If you just want to get a feel, you can flip through the PDF version. Or, you can download an mp3 audio version or an ogg video version.

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:

MFW Berlin - The Web is Made of Freedom

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.

MFW Berlin - We Get to Make Choices

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.

Drumbeat: what’s next?

September 2, 2010 § 17 Comments

We’re eight months into Drumbeat. We’ve built a bit of a brand. People are interested. They want to get involved. More importantly: new people have shown up. Educators. Filmmakers. Artists. Not Mozilla natives. These new people are doing interesting things. And their peers are noticing.

It’s is a good start. We have some momentum. There is potential. Which begs the question: now what?

One thing is clear: we need to turn interest into action and impact. With 2011 on the horizon, I’m asking: how do we best do this? What does Drumbeat do next?

I want to know what you think about this. As comment fodder, here are three + one things I think we should focus on as Drumbeat moves into 2011:

0. Narrow our focus. Pick grokkable, magnetic topics.

Drumbeat started with a very broad call to action: ‘help keep the open web open‘. This didn’t work as well as we’d hoped. Some people responded. Most just stared back blankly.

Recently (and somewhat by accident), we’ve shifted focus to more specific mashups of Mozilla’s mission and other people’s big ideas. Re-invent cinema using the open web. Use the culture of the web to transform education and learning. And so on.

These mash ups have been much more magnetic. People already excited about the big ideas in question have looked up and said: ah, the web people are interested. Cool. How can I join in?

No matter what else we decide to do, one of our next steps should be to consistently use these ‘somebody’s big idea + open web tech and culture’ combos to focus what we’re doing. On the flip side, we should (dramatically) turn down the volume of the generic ‘help the open web’ angle.

1. Follow through on what we’ve started. Amp up participation and impact.

During the last eight months, we’ve dug our teeth into some awesome and substantial projects — Web Made Movies, Mozilla / P2PU School of Web Craft, Universal Subtitles. And it’s possible we’ll start work on a couple more by year end.

Each of these projects has big dreams. They also have clear goals for the coming year. A web developer education program that is 10,000 learners strong. A bustling open video studio pumping out productions with leading directors from around the world. Grassroots subtitling taking hold on well known, globally important video sites. These are amongst the 2011 goals Drumbeat projects shared in Whistler.

One answer to ‘what’s next for Drumbeat?’ is ‘follow through and help these projects reach these goals’.

There are three primary ways we can do this. Help with the technology side of these projects (e.g. P2PU leveraging Labs’ open social tools). Build fundraising capacity by actually designing and running campaigns with the projects (we’re doing major campaigns this fall and into next year). And, bring more people and profile to the table (e.g. volunteer recruitment in mainstream Mozilla newsletters and more promotion on Mozilla sites).

Helping in these ways will drive participation and impact in the projects we’ve already started. This, for me, is the baseline of what Drumbeat should do next. If that’s all we did in 2011, would it be enough? Personally, I don’t think so.

2. Get get good at open innovation. Find and grow more promising ideas.

We’ve always seen Drumbeat as a way to get many good ideas on the table, and then to back the best. A decent number of people have responded to this aspect of what we’re doing — there are now over 220 projects on drumbeat.org.

We’ve highlighted and helped a handful of these projects in small ways. Promoting them in our newsletter. Setting up peer coaching on our community calls. But, overall, we haven’t yet figured out a good and sustainable way to help these projects evolve, expand and succeed.

What we need is a simple, systematic way to find and grow promising ideas. One approach: combine the Mozilla labs open innovation process with the ‘magnetic topic mashups’ described above. Pick a topic. Run an innovation challenge. Back the best ideas that come out of the challenge.

For example, we might run a challenge around the question: how can the culture and technology drive innovation in the world of journalism? The challenge process would get many ideas on the table, spark collaborations. We’d offer fellowships or grants to the ‘winners’ of the challenge.

If Jetpack for Learning was any indication, this approach is more likely to yield results than the general Drumbeat  ‘propose a project that helps the web’ call to action we’ve been using so far. One of our priorities for 2011 should be to put this open innovation model centre stage, pick some awesome topics and see what we learn.

3. Spark people’s imagination. Make it easy for them to connect. Focus on (big) visibility.

While our existing projects are awesome and important, Drumbeat (and Mozilla as a whole) needs another side to it — a side that is lightweight, easy to engage and, well, sexy.

Why? Because part of our goal with Drumbeat is to spark people’s imaginations — to get millions of people excited about how the open web can liberate, empower and delight them.

If you look at this from a ‘what’s next?’ perspective, this is partly a matter of linking what we’re doing already to things people care about. Making Web Made Movies with well loved producers and artists. Connecting Universal Subtitles to widely known content brands. Showcasing robots, lasers and other shiny open tech toys at Drumbeat events. The good news: we’re working on all these things.

However, ‘sparking imaginations’ need not — and probably cannot — be completely tied up in the idea of Drumbeat projects and events. We should embrace anything we can dream up that delights and engages, and the connects people to Mozilla outside of their day to day experience of using our products.

Google showed how you can do this with it’s recent HTML5 Arcade Fire video. It was a lightweight, fun, internet-scale way to demo what HTML5 video can be. And people loved it.

We hope to do something similar with our upcoming Firefox 4 parks campaign with the World Wildlife Fund — using sexy demos to make the link between the forests of the amazon and the web ecosystem that Firefox helps sustain. We’ve got other ideas up our sleeves as well (including some involving cats!)

But, the fact of the matter is, Mozilla isn’t naturally good at this. We’re more often than not too earnest about the web. We need to develop or lighter sexier side. Especially if we want millions of people across the web to join and support our cause. In terms of Drumbeat next steps, this is a major area we need to work on.

These are early thoughts that need much shaping and refinement. I’m interested to know: Which sound right? Which sound exciting? Which sound unachievable? You’ve been watching Drumbeat unfold. Where do you think it should go next?

I’ve posted an etherpad version of this content for people to hack on. And you can also make comments below. I’ll feed whatever people post into a Mozilla board discussion mid-September. And, if there is alot of interesting changes, I’ll repost the full etherpad version here.

PS. I know this post is too long. Sorry about that. I really want to see how people react to the whole set of ideas here — so my attempts at chopping it into a bunch of smaller posts didn’t work.

10 days of freedom in Barcelona

August 27, 2010 § 3 Comments

I just had a fun breakfast with Simona Levi from ExGAE/ / oXcars. What I learned: Learning, Freedom and the Web isn’t the only interesting thing happening in Barcelona two months from now. There are at least seven open internet / open education / free culture events happening over the span of 10 days.

Between October 28 and November 6, Barcelona will host: the 2000 person oXcars free culture festival; the Free Culture Forum; the P2PU summit; Open Education 2010; Drumbeat Learning, Freedom and the Web; an open ed play day in the Raval; and possibly a Communia meeting. Phew.

We should find a way to shout and promote all of this. Barcelona will be the global epicentre of free culture / open education / open web stuff for 10 days this fall! We need a phrase or a name for it. ‘10 days of freedom‘? ‘Barcelona abierto‘? Not sure, but Simona and I agreed to call out for suggestions. If you have ideas, post them below.

PS. goes w/o saying -> book an extended trip to Barcelona if you can.

Experiment: badges, identity and you

August 12, 2010 § 10 Comments

Figuring out who to pay attention to and who to work with is a big challenge in a community like Mozilla. Using the Whistler Science Fair as example, Les Orchard points out the underlying issue — we don’t have a quick way to parse through all the awesome to find out who’s good at what / who’s contributed what / who is doing things relevant to me. This is a common problem in online life overall. We don’t have an easy, portable and reliable way to represent our skills, achievements and social capital.

Over the last two months, I’ve been talking to people about this same challenge in another context — learning and education. Historically, we’ve used degrees and certificates to show what we know. This breaks down online — partly because we have no good way to show these credentials and partly because so much of our learning is now informal that degrees aren’t really relevant. People like P2PU, Remix Learning and others have come same conclusion Les has — we could use online badges to represent these things. Sites like Stack Overflow already use badges like this. We’re going to do the same for the Mozilla / P2PU School of Webcraft.

Which brings me to the experiment I want to do: a digital ‘backpack’ that lets you store and display badges you pick up from many different sites across the web.

Badges can provide a good way for potential friends, collaborators, co-workers and employers to size you up. However, that’s only true if they can associate all your badges with you. You don’t want to send them traipsing around the web to look at sites like P2PU, iRemix and Badger to see your badges. Instead, you want to all the badges from these different places reliably associated with your online identity.

With this in mind, I’ve been talking to Mike Hanson and others about an experiment that displays badges from multiple places as a part of the identity you build up through Firefox. Someone wanting to check you out would see something like this:

At an implementation level, this would work by storing your badges (or references to your badges) in both a personal data vault like Weave and some sort of claims system. It could work something like this:

The main ‘layers’ of this system are the 1. the badge issuer, 2. you and your online identity and 3. badge display and badge viewers. Specific to my proposed experiment are:

  • P2PU, Badger and iRemix -> these are places where you *get* a badge for some skill or activity. They act as ‘badge servers’ and would expose all the badges they have awarded to you in a structured and standardized way.
  • A personal data vault (e.g. Weave) and a claims system (Mike Hanson is working on a general system like this) -> from a user perspective, these items combine into a ‘personal badge manager’ that you access via identity tools in your browser or on a web site.
  • Your identity profile (webfinger?) plus social media sites like LinkedIn -> these display all of your badges and associate them with the rest of your identity.

At a practical level, we need a system like for P2PU School of Webcraft and the kind of badge platform Les is proposing for Mozilla. Connecting badges a version of your online identity the you control also presents a huge opportunity in informal digital learning – everyone working in that space needs something like this as well.

With this in mind, my proposal is to roll out an proof of concept for the idea described above using badges from Mozilla, P2PU and various orgs in the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Network. I’m going to work with Mike, Les, Philipp, Robert and others on this in the next few months, with the hope of showing the prototype at the Drumbeat Learning, Freedom and the Web Festival in Barcelona this November. If you’ve got ideas or want to help out, please post comments below.

What challenges do hybrid orgs face?

May 20, 2009 § 6 Comments

It’s probably clear by now that I’m a keener for orgs mashup public benefit mission + market disruption + the participatory nature of the web. Mozilla is one such organization and, as I look around, I see others. There is alot of up side to how these orgs work, especially the potential to move markets towards the public good at a global scale. But there are also a ton of very real challenges in making these orgs work. That’s what I want to write about today.

hybrid challenges

From where I sit, the biggest challenge is explaining ourselves. The hybrids that I am talking about tend to have both missions and org models that people haven’t seen before. As shaver said to me in a tweet, this means we ‘…have to use 500 words to explain what we do, vs. five words for a pure for-profit or non-profit play.’ Fixing this is no small task, and it quickly cascades out into other problems.

Think about this in the Mozilla context for a moment. First off, we need to explain that we exist to promote and protect the open nature of the internet. While this mission fits well within the centuries old tradition of public benefit organizations, it’s not easy to point to similar examples that help people immediately understand what kind of beast we are. Red Cross? Sierra Club? Public radio? There are overlaps with all of these, but none provide a perfect parallel. The result: a whole bunch of long winded explaining.

Even if the mission comes across, there is still the organizational model to communicate. This matters less at first blush. Who but the taxman really cares whether an org looks like a company, a charity or a little bit of both? It turns out that many people do. As I travel around talking to people about Mozilla, I am finding that everyone loves Firefox (no surprise) but almost noone knows it’s made by a global community of volunteer contributors backed by a public benefit org (this has surprised me). When I explain a bit, I get happy surprises. Things like “wow, that makes Firefox even cooler’ and ‘I didn’t know I could get involved’. Once people get Mozilla’s model, it excites them. However, the lack of a shorthand way of explaining all that is bundled up in ‘hybrid org’ means it takes a bunch of explaining to get to that point of excitement.

hybrid challenges

This challenge of explaining ourselves is what lilly might call a ‘big poetry problem‘. Getting the poetry right is an essential element of success. However, hybrid orgs also face a ton of significant challenges on the pragmatic front. Decision making. Structure. Engagement. Investment. Staff recruiting. Management. Participation. Product. Public relations. Organizing resources. Revenue. Leadership. It’s not that other orgs don’t face challenges in these areas. However, the nature of these problems is often quite different when you’re working with a hybrid model.

Take the intersection between ‘participation’ and ‘product’ as one example. Many non-profits are focused on public participation. These orgs use well honed engagement and facilitation techniques to get people out, harnessing community effort to raise important issues, clean up parks and so on. However, until recently, this kind of mass participation was rarely used to make specific, high quality products (or services) that need to ship at a specific time and succeed in the market. Until recently, creating products and services that will be used by large numbers of people has been the domain of big companies and governments who can marshal trained specialists and set up big management structures.

hybrid challenges

Organizations like Mozilla turn this upside down and sideways. They combine the mass participation of social movements with the ability to create high quality, desirable (public) goods that people will use every day. This is where the challenge comes in: we don’t have well established models managing, facilitating and leading in this kind of environment. Hybrid orgs are inventing these models, finding ways to create good goals and scaffolding, focus on participation, let people scratch their own itch. The thing is, there is no clear roadmap on how to do this and the daily pragmatics are hard. There is a need for constant reflection, tweaking and a kind of personal + collective honesty that’s hard to come by.

Structure‘ is another good issue to look at from a hybrid org perspective. We have well established legal structures for create non-profit, public benefit organizations. Yet, in every country that I know about, these structures work poorly when people try to hybridize and innovate what it means to do public benefit work. They have trouble keeping up with new and emerging public benefit roles in society (example -> Wikipedia providing universal access to all human knowledge). They aren’t well tuned for organizations that participate in the market with a public purpose (example -> Firefox pushing open standards back into the mainstream of web development). And they don’t account for the critical role that volunteer contributors play as a form of public support and participation (example -> Mozilla localizations). The frameworks we’ve developed for charities over the last few hundred years just haven’t caught up to these new ideas yet.

hybrid challenges

The result is that many hybrid organizations must engage in pretzel like contortions in order to find a structure that works. In Mozilla’s case, we’ve set up a charitable foundation as well as a number of wholly owned commercial subsidiaries. All of these organizations share the same mission of promoting the open nature of the internet. All of them engage with community members to create products and services that advance this mission. And all all of them can demonstrate huge public support and participation. Yet, we run them as separate organizations. In some ways, this isn’t the end of the world, and it certainly seems like the safest option given the ambiguities of charity law. But there is no question this pretzel like structure adds strategic and operational overhead, and can just plain confuse people. There are definitely days where I wish we could just be one public benefit organization called ‘Mozilla’.

Of course, ‘participation’ and ‘structure’ are only two examples of pragmatic challenges that hybrids face. You could also dig into the question of investment, and in particular the fact the hybrids are percieved as a bad fit for both private investors and traditional grantmakers. This makes it tough to scale, compete and move the market. Or you could explore the revenue side. Hybrids must constantly ask: what kinds of income are going to align with — or at least not disrupt — our public benefit mission? Leadership — and how you balance it with distributed decision making and the culture of the web — also seems pretty central. The list of questions and challenges is pretty long.

My goal here is not to go deep on every major challenge, but to set the tone and get others talking. What do you see as the biggest challenges that hybrid orgs face? And do you know of hybrid orgs that have overcome these challenges? I’d love to see responses to these questions as comments and trackbacks. Also, we’re planning to talk about these questions with a few organizations that feel similar to Mozilla at a small gathering next month. My hope is that simply mapping the challenges and looking at how people have tackled them will go a long way towards helping us make our hybrid organizations better. Once we’ve done a bit more of this, I promise to loop back and synthesize what people are saying. Should be interesting.

Why do hybrid orgs matter?

May 12, 2009 § 10 Comments

I’ve been poking at the question ‘why do hybrid orgs matter?’ for a couple of days now. Emailing friends and colleagues. Grilling people over dinner. Drawing little doodles. As I did this, I kept stumbling around ideas like ‘huge impact’ and ‘creating public goods’ and ‘massive participation’. Important ideas, but not quite what I was hoping for. It turns out that coming up with a crisp, helpful ‘why hybrids matter’  statement is tough.

Why do hybrids matter?

It’s tough because the ideas we’re playing with here are (in part) very new, and the term ‘hybrid organization’ is still quite fuzzy (there are many different takes on hybrids beyond what I am talking about). However, the more I dig, the more I am convinced that organizations like Mozilla, Wikipedia, Kiva, Miro and so on that mashup mission, market and the culture of the web represent a new pattern worth understanding. Even if we don’t yet have the right words to describe this pattern yet, we need to dive in, think and play.

Elements of what matters

So, that’s what I did. I rolled up all the notes and email comments I gathered in the last few days into a short ‘why do hybrid orgs matter?’ blurb that goes like this:

Mission + market + web hybrids matter because they can wield the power needed to move markets at a global scale, while still looking out for the small guy, taking the long view and staying true to their public benefit mission. They show us how organizations could — and maybe should — work in the future.

It’s pretty awkward and wordy, and in a number of ways not quite right. That’s okay. Even more than earlier, my hope here is to spark conversation. Why do mission + market + web hybrids matter to you? What would you add to this statement?

As a way to feed the conversation, I figured it would be useful to share some quotes from the email conversations I’ve been having and notes on my own thinking. They break down into six things that matter about hybrid orgs:

1. Power to move markets …

This one comes from something johnolilly said in email: “Sometimes we need organizations with financial and market strength but mission-orientations to keep capital-only-organizations doing the right things for the commons. Historically, those with money, and money-missions, have had all the power. Hybrids are important because they have the potential to let mission-oriented orgs wield similar power, but for human-oriented needs.” No question this is at the core of what matters.

2. … at a global scale …

tonyasurman agreed but pushed one step further: “What’s unique about hybrids is the ability to take move market but also the ability to do this at a global scale without losing the integrity of the small. This is really important. Non-profits and social enterprises have never had the potential for this kind of impact. Hybrids can take public benefit products and services to a scale never before imagined.” The global scale that comes w/ the web also seems critical, and not just on the market transformation side. It’s an essential part of creating high quality products and services using peer production.

3. … while still looking out for the small guy …

Global scale, high quality product and public benefit mission mean that hybrids tend to be good at getting great stuff into the hands of incredibly tiny, otherwise-ignored markets. nreville said: “These hybrids are able to bring the full benefits of market influence to underserved constituencies that would otherwise be completely ignored a big company or poorly served by traditional charity. If someone made a special browser for just for people who speak Telugu it would probably suck. But Mozilla is willing to put energy into translating Firefox into Telegu, even when it’s not profitable to do so. The result is that a small constituency gets a world-class product.”

4. … taking the long view …

Similarly, hybrids can think beyond short term gain and consumer support. beltzner wrote: “Hybrid organizations have a distinct advantage over traditional organizations in acting for long-term benefits. Many traditional organizations, concerned with quarterly performance and growth, are consumed with what they can do to increase their immediate position at all costs. Hybrid organizations, concerned with public benefit and ecosystem growth, can trade off immediate short-term advantage with long term development more easily. For example, while a traditional organization may find it difficult to stop activities which have a short term benefit but a long term detriment, a hybrid organization approaches that decision differently. Practically speaking, this also means that hybrid organizations are as concerned with *how* they do things or develop systems as they are concerned with the things themselves.”

5. …. and staying true to their public benefit mission.

Responding to my first post, stephendeberry asked: “how do you ensure the public benefit remains core to the hybrid model?” This is actually a huge challenge for both traditional non-profits (grantmaker demands trigger mission drift) and social enterprises (can become more about the market than the mission). And it’s somewhere I think hybrids built on the idea of mass participation and peer production have a special advantage. They not only have boards and leaders committed to the mission, but they also have huge communities actively involved in interpreting the mission every day by helping to make something. The aggregate decisions of people who contribute to Firefox, or Wikipedia, or Kiva help shape what these things are in very real ways, which is in turn likely to make sure things stay more or less on mission. This isn’t to say peer production is democracy. Usually, meritocracy is the rule. Still, having a massive number of stakeholders involved in building things helps hybrid orgs stay public benefit focused.

6. Hybrids can show us how organizations could — and maybe should — work.

The organizational tools available to us as a society are quite broken, or at least don’t fit all the things we need and want to do. The current economic crisis shows this. The overly bureaucratized world of grant dependent non-profits shows us this. And, on a more positive side, the growth of massive informal social movements shows this. We don’t have good organizational models (or legal incorporation structures) to figure out how to channel the energy of huge numbers of people who want to play across mission and market make things better in a coherent, collaborative, high-impact and sustainable way. The hybrids I am talking about are taking a shot at fixing this, inventing and evolving new ways to organize as they go. This is pretty meta, I know. But it’s also pretty important.

7. ….?

I think there is some good stuff in here. But it definitely isn’t completely right yet. So, the question now is: what’s the seventh item on this list? The eighth? And the ninth? I really want people to add to this list, to poke at it further and to call out the bits that feel like just plain bull. The more I struggle with these ideas, the more I think conversation is useful.

Why do they matter to you?

Why? Because figuring out why these organizations matter, what makes them tick and what challenges they face (my next post) is a part of making them work better. Working in uncharted waters is hard. Sharing what we’re learning along the way helps. It helps those of us trying to nurture organizations and communities that mix mission, market and the web. And it provides fuel and encouragement to people who want to set up such organizations anew.

Hybrid orgs. What’s old? What’s new?

May 7, 2009 § 7 Comments

It’s been fun reading reactions to my first post on hybrid organizations. The conversation so far has underlined one very critical point: we are talking about something that is at once very old and very new. While I hinted at this last time, it feels like its worth digging deeper on which bits are old and which bits are new.

The idea of people organizing for the public benefit is almost as old as the hills. England started calling these organizations charities and created a law to support them around 1600. Before that, maybe people just called it ‘community’, or took for granted that we should get together to help each other out? Whatever we call it, this impulse to make things better — and to organize around it — runs deep. It is not new.

What is new is the toolbox that hybrid organizations draw from. Cheap global networks. A willingness to use markets as a channel to drive change. Collaborative peer production. Combined with the 500 year tradition of public benefit organizations, these new tools make it possible to organize huge numbers of people to create massively scaled, tangible public goods that out-compete what’s broken and make things better on a global scale. For me, it’s this mix that makes hybrids interesting.

If we push on ‘what’s old?’ for a moment, it’s clear that the hybrid orgs I am talking about build upon well established public benefit roles and traditions:

1. Championing important ideas. One of the first things we think of when we hear ‘public benefit organization’ is championing a big, important idea. History is filled with examples of organizations gathering millions to do everything from claiming their civil rights to protecting our planet to toppling colonial governments. The public benefit organizations behind such movements have not just been important, they have in many cases been transformative. When successful, they have changed the thinking of not only governments and businesses but whole societies for the better.

2. Protecting the commons. The idea of building and protecting things we hold in common like ‘bridges, seabanks and highways‘ has been recognized as a public benefit right from the outset of charity law. And of course, organizing people — and money — to protect the commons remains a major role for public benefit organizations today. Just think of libraries. Or the neighbourhood watch. Or organizations that protect forests and wildlands. These common assets are not just ‘nice to haves’. They are essential ingredients in a rich, healthy society. They make it easier to learn, keep us safe and clean the air. And, in the end, they even make it easier to do business. Organizations that protect common public goods play an essential role in our world.

3. Making markets wiser and more humane. Companies and markets don’t always do the right thing. In the last 50+ years, we’ve seen an increasing number of organizations that have tried to ‘move the market’ in ways that make it wiser and more humane. Organizations like the Forestry Stewardship Council, which has become the gold seal for planet friendly wood products, have shown that creating incentive for market players to improve their behaviour can make the world better for everyone. Many other organizations try to move markets in similar ways, using everything from humour to boycotts. The goal is not to be the market, but to make it easier for markets to feed, strengthen and respect the rest of what makes the world tick.

All three of these public benefit roles and traditions are important. But pursing these roles using the traditional organizing models of the not-for-profit sector has significant limitations and challenges. Turning big ideas and mass movements into concrete change is hard, and a bit of a crap shoot. Scaling the commons and out-competing enclosure requires — or at least has required — huge resources. Finding enough strength and influence to truly move markets has proven tough for players who are not in the market themselves. For these reasons, public benefit organizations often struggle to have the impact they want to have, or accept that their impact will be small and local.

What’s happening with hybrid orgs is a mashup of old traditions with new tools and ideas in ways that make it more likely that public benefit organizations will have the massive impact they want and need to have. Some of the new tools include:

a. Cheap networks, global scale. Clay Shirky has made it trite to say that the cost of organizing has gone through the floor. The thing is: he’s right, and it’s important. Cheap networks have made it possible for a very small group of people to organize effectively on a global scale. This is especially important for public benefit organizations which have typically had limited impact just because they couldn’t afford to reach out far and wide. The networked world makes it possible — in some cases even easy — to champion big ideas, build the commons and move markets on a global scale. This is genuinely new.

b. Mixing mission and market tactics. The idea of mixing tactics from the mission (volunteerism, calls to action, donations) and market (products, competition, earned revenue) worlds is also fairly new. Social enterprises that develop products and services as a way to pursue their mission have really only been around since the 1980s. Organizations like Mozilla and Kiva that try to keep markets doing the right things for the commons on a massive scale are even newer. Despite this newness, the idea that mixing mission and market is a legit public benefit strategy is seeping into the public (and more slowly government) consciousness.

c. Collaborative peer production. In the past, it the public goods created by non-profits and charities were by there very nature small and local. Collaborative peer production — the idea that many people on the internet can pitch in a small amount of effort to make something big — has changed that dramatically. A top quality, standards-based web browser. A massive, high quality encyclopedia. A huge alternative financing pool for poor entrepreneurs. No — or certainly few — public benefit orgs could have created such things 25 years ago. Peer production and open source changed this. The result: there are now organizations that can create public goods of a quality and scale that can directly move markets in ways that benefit the commons. These organizations don’t just describe big new ideas. Using the power of mass contribution, they make them real.

It’s the mashup of all these old and new elements that is the hallmark of the hybrid organizations I am talking about. Mozilla protecting the Internet commons by engaging millions of people to move the market. Wikipedia organizing people to create tremendous public asset that gathers the sum of all human knowledge. Kiva building a collaborative bank to move the finance market for the poor. These organizations are mixing the old and the new. They are in the public benefit remix business, figuring out how to get beyond the limitations of the past. From where I sit, that’s exciting, and important.

In my next post, I want to dig deeper into the question of ‘why do hybrid orgs matter’? The fact that we are seeing innovative public benefit organizations mash up the old and the new is cool. But what specifically does it get us? After that, I want to loop back to the challenges faced by public benefit orgs and look at the Mozilla case in a bit more detail. In the meantime, please comment, post and trackback to keep this hybrid org conversation rolling.

What is a hybrid organization?

April 23, 2009 § 30 Comments

When I first met Mitchell last year, she talked alot about Mozilla as a hybrid organization. I didn’t know exactly what she meant. But it felt right. Personally, I’ve been mashing up mission-based orgs, products, services, philanthropy and the web for well over a decade. It’s what I love most, and something the world needs alot more of. It is also one of the most powerful forces that drew me to Mozilla.

Hybrid Org

Over the last six months, I’ve found ‘hybrid org’ rolling off my tongue more and more. It’s as good a moniker as any for the organizational mashup that is Mozilla (and Miro, and Kiva, and so on). But every time the hybrid term drops, it begs (or I get asked) the question: hybrid of what? I figured the time has come to push on this question a little with a series of posts about hybrid orgs and why they matter. This is the first one.

So, what is a hybrid org? In the case of Mozilla — and an increasing number of other orgs — it’s a mix of social mission, disruptive market strategies and web-like scale and collaboration. Or, at least, that’s the definition I see emerging.

img_7179

If we take ‘social mission’ as the first element, then a hybrid organization looks alot like a traditional charity or not-for-profit. Public benefit is the core reason that these organizations exist. For Mozilla, the mission is to promote and protect the open nature of the internet. This means ensuring that the internet remains a public commons where anyone can innovate, experiment or express themselves without asking for somebody else’s permission. On our increasingly digital planet, we clearly need public benefit organizations that care about such things.

... now let's add the market ...

When we move on to ‘disruptive market strategies’ hybrid orgs start to look a little different. These organizations use products, services and consumer choice to promote the ideas and move the issues that they believe in. Think about this in the context of Mozilla’s mission: the internet is shaped far more by the choices of people who build and use it than by regulation or high minded ideals. By creating products that a) many millions of internet users love and b) have open standards, security and innovation from the edge baked into their core, Mozilla leverages consumer choice to make the internet more open. With Firefox, this approach not only shifted the browser landscape from near monopoly into a more diverse ecosystem but also helped build the foundations for an era of standards-based web applications. Mozilla jumped into the market with a great product not to make money, but as a way to grow and protect the internet as public commons.

Of course, there are thousands of organizations that use the market and consumer choice to pursue their mission. Social enterprises like Jamie Oliver’s 15. Market-standards organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council. And, in some ways, even traditional charities like Goodwill. All advance their cause (and sometimes to sustain themselves) through the market in one way or another.

... and the scale of the web.

The thing that makes these hybrid orgs unique is mixing mission and market with the scale and collaborative nature of the web. The culture and technology of the web make it possible to grow a global community of passionate people who can pitch in to build stuff. The things they can — and want to — build are often quite complex: software that makes the web more open; an encyclopedia that offers free access to knowledge; a system of cheaper and better credit for the poor. With the web and collaboration, they can not only build these things, but they also have the potential for impact at a scale that only governments or huge corporations could have imagined in the past. From the programmers who contribute code to the localizers who make Firefox available in 70+ languages to the thousands of people who funded the first Firefox ad in the New York Times, Mozilla is filled with examples of web scale and collaboration.

Does this mix of mission, market and the collaborative nature of the web really represent a new kind of organization? Some days, I wonder about this. But there is no question that there are an increasing number of organizations that combine these elements. Mozilla. Kiva. Participatory Culture Foundation. Donors Choose. Wikipedia. All of these organizations are trying to ‘move the market’ on the web in a way that both engages and benefits a broad public. As they do so, they are charting new territory.

Hybrid Org Overview

Over the next couple of weeks, I want to ask a few questions about this new territory. Why do these hybrid organizations matter? What challenges do they face? And what role does optimism and the desire to create play in hybrid orgs? I’d love to get people’s comments, blogs or tweets about these questions, and will definitely be posting more myself. Hopefully, there is an interesting conversation in all of this.

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