What Mozilla Has to Teach Government

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* Book: Peer Participation and Software. What Mozilla Has to Teach Government. David R. Booth. MIT Press, 2010

URL = http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=12237&mlid=703


From the publisher:

"Firefox, a free Web browser developed by the Mozilla Foundation, is used by an estimated 270 million people worldwide. To maintain and improve the Firefox browser, Mozilla depends not only on its team of professional programmers and managers but also on a network of volunteer technologists and enthusiasts—free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) developers—who contribute their expertise. This kind of peer production is unique, not only for its vast scale but also for its combination of structured, hierarchical management and open, collaborative volunteer participation. In this MacArthur Foundation Report, David Booth examines the Mozilla Foundation’s success at organizing large-scale participation in the development of its software and considers whether Mozilla's approach can be transferred to government and civil society.

Booth finds parallels between Mozilla’s collaboration with Firefox users and the Obama administration’s philosophy of participatory governance (which itself amplifies the much older Jeffersonian ideal of democratic participation). Mozilla's success at engendering part-time, volunteer participation that produces real marketplace innovation suggests strategies for organizing civic participation in communities and government. Mozilla's model could not only show us how to encourage the technical community to participate in civic life but also teach us something about how to create successful political democracy." (http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=12237&mlid=703)

David R. Booth is Creative Writing Professor in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco. His work has appeared in Washington Square, The Missouri Review, Opium, and other periodicals.


Richard Poynder:

"Booth looks at how the Mozilla Foundation manages the development of the open source web browser Firefox, and then seeks parallels in Obama’s attempts to persuade citizens to participate in the process of government.

Booth's analysis is interesting in a number of respects, not least because he reveals that (with all due respect to Raymond) Firefox is not the product of a chaotic bazaar, or indeed a hierarchy-free process. In reality, says Booth, Mozilla operates a “hierarchical meritocracy” — a meritocracy “predicated on the utility of the developer's contributions and his resultant visibility and effectiveness within the online community.”

To become a member of the Firefox developer community developers must first demonstrate they can write effective code; having done so they can acquire increasing responsibility in the community, and a concomitant rank. These ranks include “module owner”, “committer”, “voucher”, “super-reviewer”, and “release driver”. In addition, non-technical volunteers can promote and evangelise Firefox.

With 350 million Firefox users not everyone can participate. It works, however, because only a small minority ever volunteer, says Booth. “[W]e estimate that one thousand individual programmers help to develop and maintain the Firefox browser.”

One important characteristic of open source communities, adds Booth, is that they are, in the words of Christopher Kelty, "recursive publics". Unlike interest groups, corporations and professions etc., recursive publics, argues Kelty, are “publics concerned with the ability to build, control, modify, and maintain the infrastructure that allows them to come into being in the first place and which, in turn, constitutes their everyday practical commitments and the identities of the participants as creative and autonomous individuals."

Booth then moves on to what he calls the "parallels between the technology used to create Firefox and the technological innovations used by the Obama administration to solicit public participation in a variety of programs.


Booth’s thesis is a fascinating one. But does he overplay the significance of what he describes? While he maintains that the Obama campaign did not seek to control events, some would disagree. When, for instance, Obama supporter Joe Anthony, on his own initiative, recruited 160,000 "friends of Obama" using MySpace, the campaign seized the account and dismissed Anthony.


In fairness, Booth does not claim Obama is practising open government today, conceding for instance that CBB was "designed more as a national poll than a conduit through which private citizens could participate in policymaking”. Rather, he says, Obama’s plans are a "work in progress".

Certainly there is no doubt Open Source has something to teach governments. But is Mozilla the right model? As Booth points out, in assuming minority participation it has limitations. "Group-based participation systems, while potentially more manageable and useful, could also impede the individual First Amendment right to participate.”

Nevertheless, Peer Participation and Software should begin a valuable debate." ([1])