tl;dr: Drawing from research and data collection I did on the contribute page as well as a focus group, I am thinking about pathways workflows and how to increase participation within Mozilla and other communities. This post is a wrap-up of some of my internship work.
This post by Adam Lofting is great and everyone should read it, so I am going to begin this piece about onboarding contributors and Mozilla culture with a quote from it:
You’d be forgiven for thinking that working with data and metrics is a clean and scientific-like process of running queries against a database or two and generating a report. In many ways, I’m glad it’s not as simple as that.
Metrics are only as good as the things they enable us to improve. Which means while metrics need to be grounded in good clean data, they are primarily for people; and not just for people to read. In their best incarnation, metrics motivate people to change things for the better. At this scale, motivating people is definitely more art than science…
Over the past few weeks, I’ve analyzed the emails that have come into the “I want to volunteer in other ways not listed on this page” as well as the “I want to contribute Documentation and Writing” categories on the Contribute page at Mozilla.
Some highlights:”seafaring” “All bissnessman can achive a lot” “HIIIIIIIII and THANKSSSSSS” “easy and fast searching the webs” “learnining more about the computer and how it works.” “poker” “i am happy to see you” “firefox” “I want to help”
I read hundreds of examples, and I pulled out only some of the more entertaining above, but here is my data using the controlled vocabulary outlined below.
Emails Received December 1-15, 2013 from “other” category:
Total number of responses collected: 203
Number of spam/porn-spam: 28 (14%)
Number of suggestions: 7 (3%)
Number of random: 67 (33%)
Number of complaints: 5 (3%)
Number of total lost: 48 (24%)
Number of general “I want to help”: 31 (15%)
Number of donation: 17 (8%)
Number of kudos: 6 (3%)
Number of lost: new pathways: 12 (6%)
(some of these categories overlap, so if the numbering seems off, that’s why)
Of the 203 people who chose to email from the “other” category, almost a quarter of them were lost and intended to contact another team, and a third of them were random. (IE “hello” “d” “yes”) Judging from this data, on the high end, about 43% of the people who write into the “other” category on the website are viable contributors. (I am being generous.)
According to a recent survey given to the people who answer these emails (called “Stewards,”) most categories (like “coding” or “education”) receive less spam or random comments than the “other” and “documentation and writing” category. (Over 50% of stewards said that this comprises 25% or less of the total emails they receive.) About 20% of stewards say that they onboard over 50% of their potential contributors, and approximately 33% claim that less than 10% of potential contributors become active contributors to the project.
So where’s the breakdown with the “other” category? There are a few issues at play, as I see it:
1. The screenshot below shows what the Get Involved page looks like now:
The “other” category is hidden and difficult to see and all words in the dropdown are very small.
2. The actual descriptions of what you can do for Mozilla are after the fold and below the input box, which can be confusing. Feedback from Ake is to make a distinction between the MoFo opportunities (Education and Webmaker) and more support oriented opportunities (SUMO, Coding, etc). He says that Education, a robust and viable form of participation, is difficult to see on the page. He suggested to prioritize local events on the page as well. Many local sites on the page are deeply under developed. (Like the poor US community!)
3. Some of our lost potential contributors wanted to make suggestions for other Mozilla projects like Thunderbird or Nightly, not just Firefox, and found this form limiting.
In the pathways working group, we put a lot of emphasis on this page to make it better and open the funnel. Automated emails are not enough, and the act of empowering someone means reaching out means personal connection. As one of my focus group participants put it, “Even if someone says they’re available by email, I assume they’re not.” Excitingly, these issues will largely be solved with a series of refreshes on the page in the next few months.
In order to begin to answer this question of making contact, I drew a loose flow chart that outlines how I see some workflow. (the thing at the end of the broken pathway is a pretty bad drawing of a bomb, signifying that we only have a limited amount of time before we lose someone…)
After going through workflow graphically, I came up with a few community building issues, many of which we’ve talked about in our working groups, meetups, etc.:
1. Where a contributor finds an opportunity is a relevant issue.
My focus group taught me that “hooking” people into contribution pathways is very often a product of face-to-face communication and “demystification” of the sign-up process. HIVEs, Maker Parties, workshops are all common ways to get involved. I personally would have felt far less connected had I not attended the CBT Meetup in December. Stewards make an effort to respond to every email they receive, but receiving an email, even from someone “on the inside” can still feel a bit impersonal. It can similarly feel strange to reach out in writing to a person, and often takes a lot more courage than connecting with someone locally for, say, a cup of coffee. How can we personalize and empower these interactions? What language are we using? How do we deliver on our promises?
As someone who lives in an area with a limited Mozilla presence, I am beginning to think about relative space and the imaginary community and empowerment through the local as a mode for increased participation to 10x contributors in the next year. I have to be the local community in order to create the local community.
2. Focus on the local, or IRL beats URL.
I’ve been reading Jono Bacon’s excellent book The Art of Community, and he talks a lot about “belonging” as a key tenet of building communities, particularly within open source. Belonging is deeply correlated with belief and social capital. This capital can be leveraged in order to create meaningful, scalable contributor flows. Though a community like Mozilla is widely dispersed, becoming a part of that community provides people a sense of belonging to something greater, but every community needs unicorns: that one person (or group of people) who wants to build Mozilla in their community.
Maryann pointed out last week that most people are willing to contribute tons of time to conferences, but when it comes to volunteering over the long term in their community, the response can be a bit lame. It’s the same reason why you may get 100 people to an event but only 2 to your meetings. People get a lot out of events, but they often don’t get much out of meetings. What if we can retool the meeting so that every meeting resembles an opportunity for growth beyond: “You can list this as a thing you do on your resume.” What if every meeting provided a growth opportunity? What if we can rethink meetings in a dynamic way? (I’m also thinking here of Dia Bondi’s storycraft videos)
2. We can assist and collaborate with existing structures (universities, libraries, public schools, other non-profits) to develop a diverse contributor base without poaching.
After reading Lyre Calliope’s proposal to collaborate with Code for America, I was inspired to rethink my own proposals for larger library and academic contributor bases. As they write:
There are limits to growth that come from motivated volunteers having to choose which organizations and causes they spend their time aligning with. And as a community organizer, building a local community is super hard when you’re starting from scratch.
When people put their trust and faith in organizations, they can become very motivated, very fast. Most students want to impress their professors or teachers. University or school or a well-run volunteer organization provides people a sense of belonging and a chance to increase their skills. Opening the pathways to contribution could be as simple as drawing on these contexts. Competition does not always have to foster growth; instead one can draw on the organic alignments that their potential community members already feel in the university or volunteer context. This is a missed opportunity within the community building team. Continuing to build Student Ambassadors and aligning with universities globally as well as presenting innovative programming to schools and libraries will bring in contributors, both one-off contributions and longer term communities of LLLs (life long learners.)
On a personal note, I feel like a lot of university technology work is outdated before it has begun, particularly in the humanities. A few years ago I managed a Digital Humanities project that was built on an outdated API that rendered it useless before it was released. Last year I learned PERL at university, the most rapidly shrinking programming language. Aligning with the university or school through innovative curricula or programming is one way to grab attention and provide NEWTs (new and exciting web technologies) to students and professors alike.
3. Never underestimate the power of free.
As most of us who work in education or libraries know, much of the world’s knowledge is owned by a very small group of corporations. I did a recent research project on Open Access Journals, only to find that the majority of the most respected OAJ are owned by Springer and Elsevier. In my focus group, someone said “Librarians are trained by vendors.” An acronym I recently heard for OCLC (the integrated library system) is “Our Company Loves Cash.”
Similarly, most educational tools are prohibitively expensive and proprietary, which frustrates teachers, administrators, and lawmakers. How did we get into this mess?
Mozilla can provide some free solutions to these issues, but we do ask for help in return. There are a lot of issues with this; on the badges research call today, we talked about the question of “equity vs access” and attempting to provide the same resources across the board to a group of students. However, resources go further than what a student is provided in a classroom. Similarly, the computer classes I teach at the Cybrary in Carrboro, the students who are able to go home and practice the skills they learn (obviously) learn much faster than the students who cannot. We cannot expect all people to provide the same amount of time, energy, and resources to a project. We have to cast the net wider to include people and provide them belonging at various stages of contribution. We have to make contribution something you can do with freely available resources and a reasonable amount of time.
Technology has drawn the questions of availability, time economics, and capital into sharper relief than ever before. I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think that Mozilla can do a better job thinking about conversion points (the point where someone becomes an active part of the community) for contributors and designing not only for participation but also inclusion.
4. No need to reinvent the reinvented wheel all the time (just some of the time.)
At Mozilla we tend to think in the abstract, floating nebulous of excitement. Someone told me recently that it appears to outsiders that we largely operate in a state of buzzing, controlled chaos at all times. (pretty accurate.) We tend to innovate all the time within community at Mozilla and do not always stick to our end goals or always lay out projects coherently from the beginning in order to ship what we want (but really, who does?) We have succeeded thus far through motivation, excitement, and the sweat of a few thousand brilliant people, but I’m beginning to wonder if we can sometimes do more to take into account what we already have, what works, what doesn’t.
This is why I am excited about documents like “What Makes a Pathway?” and our Pathways Roadmap; this is reflective, reflexive work that helps us take stock and be accountable for our actions, learning about what we do well before launching a new project or product that will solve a problem that is not a problem.
5. Communication is key across the organization.
About a month ago I checked my twitter and by chance saw a tweet from someone named Ake Nygren who calls himself a “Mozillarian.” “Huh!” I thought. Through Ake I discovered what I have been lovingly calling the “Mozillarian Sleeper Cell”: a group of librarians already working with innovative educational tools and contributing to the project in various ways.
I would love to see a chart of all the projects we have, both at MoFo and MoCo, to be able to contact someone at each stage, and to leverage the social media that we’re already using (I am particularly excited about our new social media tool Discourse because it’s open and searchable and in this way more graphically accessible than mailing lists.) We have so many modes of communication: IRC, email, facebook, twitter, and now discourse. We need to reach out to someone if we know that they are doing aligned work or know of a resource that will help them, not tomorrow, but right this moment. We need to create a little starter kit or MOOC that will provide people tools across Planet Mozilla through each stage of the Contributor Lifecycle. We need to open the communication, work in the open, and through that, open up communication pathways.
6. Internal education and community culture matters.
Last week a co-worker sat in on a meeting while on vacation. I often receive emails from Mozillians on Sundays, Saturdays, whenever. Mozilla has taught me that you receive what you give. Treat people well, and you will receive good work. Recognition is as much a part of the community as initiation.
Similarly, something that I like about Discourse is that it reminds users to comply with community norms and honor codes before they post, encouraging everyone to behave civilly to one another. I see these kinds of structures as a move to a more thoughtful Internet where trolling and attacking is not an issue because people simply don’t put up with it. I’m sitting in on the Education Working Group now, and I look forward to actively increasing the level of internal learning, communication, and kindness towards one another. I would love to see some of the learning that happens on the staff side (like Tribe) extend further out into the community. Another useful initiative could be to increase mediation through the organization, both on the staff side and the community side. These are the ways in which people learn and grow; as a global movement, we have to do this gingerly and sensitively, and I look forward to exploring these issues further. It is unfair to invite someone into a broken community. We have to be robust and considerate in our actions both with each other and the outside world.
I suppose that this post is as much a wrap-up of my internship as anything, and I am happy to share the news here that I’ll be continuing on in my work at Mozilla. It has been an incredible experience to become enmeshed in this community so quickly and has taught me about the nature of my own work dealing with organization of information, community development, project management, and data-driven opportunities in Open Source.
I still believe that the Mozilla community is self-aware, reflective, and open (and hopefully will for a long time.) I am motivated by the community to stay culturally sensitive and locally minded while working together for our common goal: achieving an open and free web.