Phillip Smith
commentary

Is it time to throw out the Planet with the Universe?

The Daily Planet covered the news in Metropolis

This is a long-overdue follow-up on two posts from last year about the opportunity for Planet Mozilla to play a more central role in Mozilla’s community.

It’s a particularly opportune time to start thinking out loud again, given the recent dust-up over the direction of Planet Mozilla.

The gist of the issue is that a Planet Mozilla contributor posted an ask for people to sign a petition that they believed in, but that petition was offensive to other people in the Mozilla world that read the Planet. The issue, ostensibly, dances the line between free speech and hate speech, depending on your point of view, and has forced Chief Lizard Wrangler, Mitchell Baker, to wade into a conversation that asks: What role does Planet Mozilla play in the Mozillaverse?

Reading through the various Mozilla governance newsgroup threads provides sausage-factory-level insight into how Mozilla’s governance works – it’s an awesome thing to behold, but betrays the inherent challenges of governance in a distributed organization that has an institutionalized meritocracy behind the official org chart. (But it also provides an inspiration example of “open governance” – kudos!)

However, the conversation appears to have slipped into a default pattern of “thinking inside the box,” i.e., the people involved in the discussion are limited by their view the problem space, or are so attached to their experience of Planet Mozilla, or to their belief of what Planet Mozilla should be, that the solutions are limited to that context. Thus, the conversation to date has focused a handful of questions and ideas:

  • Staying “on message”: Should Planet Mozilla be limited to Mozilla-specific content? Other planet initiatives specifically encourage personal posts, and posts that are not project-related, as a way to help the community get to know each other. Some in the Mozilla community believe this should be the case. Others feel that posts should be limited to Mozilla project updates.

  • Ethics: The trickier question about, and slippery slope of, the ethics police. Should there be a “code of conduct,” or a way of limiting “free speech” on Mozilla’s technical infrastructure. If the answer is “yes” for Planet Mozilla, then what does that mean for newsgroups, mailing lists, IRC channels, and so on? And, ultimately, who gets to decide on the rules?

  • Technical plumbing: Of course, being an organization of software engineers, no conversation would be complete without a discussion of re-vamping the technical underpinnings of Planet Mozilla as a way to solve the problem. Maybe up-voting and down-voting? A range of dials, knobs, and sliders to fine-tune the Planet Mozilla signal so it’s just right – nothing too offensive, or too creative – nothing that will raise people’s blood pressure.

  • Reproducing the problems elsewhere: Last but not least is the proposal to create yet another Planet – Planet Mozillians – that is less well known and that moves all of the non-Mozilla content to its own little quiet corner of the Interweb. Now the problem has multiplied in size, scope, and technical investment.

It’s unfortunate that the conversation about solutions is so limited, because I think that Mitchell and a few others see the opportunity and possibility for Planet Mozilla to be a centerpiece of the Mozillaverse, but there doesn’t appear to be a way to “get there from here,” and – in light of the emotions involved – I sense that Planet Mozilla’s future reach and role is going to be fairly limited.

But, one person’s problem is another’s opportunity.

Before these events, I was optimistic enough believe that Planet Mozilla could be re-invented as something awesome: something that would meet the information needs of both those new to Mozilla’s mission, and those who have been a part of the community since the beginning of time. Now, however, I see the likely futility of that idea – too many people are overly invested in what Planet Mozilla was supposed to be, or was once in the past – and it’s unlikely that it will ever be anything more than reflection of the software that underlies its origins.

I’m pretty fskin’ stoked to have gotten this glimpse inside the sausage factory, and to more fully understand the dynamics of the situation: it makes it much easier to move forward by starting a conversation about something new. An exploration what Planet Mozilla could be if it was invented today without the limitations of its past.

Go we go. :)

About

Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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