personal life

Body as natural disaster


On supporting a loved on with chronic illness

Originally published on Medium

My mother’s disease is like a natural disaster: It’s not always a raging storm, but when it is, it’s incomprehensible, devastating, and random.

For reasons not entirely understood, my mother’s immune system has been slowly destroying her liver for the last 25 years. When she was diagnosed in the early 1990s, she was given eight years to live, but a liver transplant purged the sickness from her body ten years ago. After a few months of unexplained fatigue this summer, we learned that the disease had returned, a relatively rare occurrence in post-transplant patients. I sat and wept on a bench in Central Square when I learned it had taken up residency in her body again, sure and strange as a warm ocean current, ready to wreak havoc.

She’s lived through cancer, a stroke, epilepsy, diabetes, osteoporosis, shattered bones, dental issues, jaundice, a liver that functions at five percent of normal capacity, and a million other ailments I’ve left out because I simply can’t remember anymore. Modern medicine makes human lives seem less fragile, salvageable but broken like the wreckage from a storm. Her body bears scars like Frankenstein’s monster, incisions that run from her ribcage to hipbones, swollen joints and random bruises, brittle hair and teeth.

My mother’s disease, called Primary Biliary Cirrhosis, is not contagious or causal, and it is not strictly genetic, though I have a slightly higher chance of manifesting an autoimmune disorder at some point in my life. 75 percent of people living with autoimmune disease are women, and though the disease category is one of the leading causes of death and disability among women under 65, research into their genesis as a whole remains largely inconclusive. Although autoimmune diseases are fairly common, and are a diverse category of disease that affects every major organ group, Primary Biliary Cirrhosis is officially registered as a “rare disease.” While research into its management has been promising, I doubt there will be a real cure within my lifetime.

The pained, slightly confused expressions of sympathy that cross peoples’ faces when I tell them about my mother are predictable to me now, and I keep a catalog of promised kindnesses in my head I can call when I need them. In the case of chronic illness, the most well-intentioned acts of compassion can become a burden: trying to schedule when dinner can brought to your home, shoving another quiche into the freezer, an “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” talk. a hug as you inevitably break down when you run into an acquaintance on the street. Then, of course, there are those who don’t know what to say: the friends who disappear, the family members who never come.

I’ve learned that during a long-term illness, most people fall away, slowly becoming unglued from the spine and dropping like pages from an old paperback or moldering like a waterlogged novel. I recognize that most friends have limited experiences with long-term degenerative illness, though I have become acutely aware that each person carries a significant number of individual, hidden traumas. Even the blessed suffer, and mental pain is unquantifiable because it is as systemic and ubiquitous as a chronic illness. Pain is as inevitable and often random as death or natural disaster. It is a primary life experience that binds us to others.

Ten years ago, my mother’s physical pain was assuaged when she received a new liver from a woman I call Linda, though I don’t know her real name. Linda died in a car crash on a Saturday evening outside of New Haven, Connecticut in September of 2005, and by 9AM the next morning, her liver was pumping my mother’s bile. That Sunday, my father bought three copies of the New York Times so we wouldn’t have to share as we sipped black coffee and waited for the nurse to call our names. Transplantation saved her life, but the disease left marks on her body and mind, leaving her scarred, knocked down, and largely adrift. Wandering the landscape of a life shattered by disease, we can only look in the empty windows of what could have been.

In my college entrance essay I compared my mother’s transplant to my own prom: a momentous life event that felt strange, inevitable, and weirdly glamorous. I used the essay to describe how my mother’s fragility underscored my own need to live vibrantly. I wrote,

Had my mother not been ill for most of my life, I would be a different person. Much of my desire to embrace life and connect with people in my own, small way comes from my sense of mortality. This sense of life’s transience propelled me to grow up quickly… Our serendipitous adventures have proven that our relationship is blessed. …However, the greatest impression that she has made on me is that every minute of the day I know there is someone in the world who loves me more than anything. My mother always says that I am “the best thing that ever happened to her.” Her unwavering affection has shaped me as a confident and capable woman who shares her love of life.

This essay remains one of my favorite personal pieces, and I’ve come back to it often in the last few months. Each appointment and emergency room visit brings me back to a childhood spent in hospitals, the long waits when I first understood life and health are tempestuous and unguaranteed. Tim Lawrence wrote in his recent essay “Everything Doesn’t Happen for a Reason,” “Being diagnosed with a debilitating illness cannot be fixed… [It] can only be carried.” Accepting that some things don’t happen for a reason can free our minds to grieve. Carrying the weight of trauma rather than taking responsibility for events beyond our control helps us better understand our pain and the pain of the people we love.

I’ve been thinking lately of a healer I know who told me that if she could be reincarnated as a plant, she would be a wild raspberry. After cataclysmic weather events, the wild raspberry is the first edible plant to return to the area, so that in times of crisis, it provides valuable sustenance. I try to find a wild raspberry in some hidden spot during the darkest times, whether it’s a few uninterrupted hours chatting in a hospital room or a trip home to drive my mother around town and have dinner with my parents. I savor the metaphorical sweetness of the tiny red berries because I know they cannot last forever, but that they allow my mother to live now, for us to live, together.


Productivity rules

Last month I blogged for Safari about successfully changing fields, being fearless, and improving yourself through reading and learning. My blog post received a wonderful response, and I am proud to share that this month I begin my official new position as Safari’s Product Engagement Manager. I am staying with my team and am super excited to make our product more useful to both our new and existing customers. I’ll be blogging intermittently about what I’m doing, learning, and making with Safari.

While I believe what I wrote in that post, I’ve felt a bit hypocritical because it’s come to my attention throughout this long, dark winter that

I waste a lot of time.

So much time! From time spent writing emotive letters that I never send to time reading the Wikitravel details of places I want to visit. I sleep late on weekends, occasionally drink too many glasses of wine on weeknights, often eat way more than an allotted portion while distractedly checking my phone during dinner, and spend hours looking at pairs of black pants on the Internet that I will never buy. (I love black pants, particularly loose, comfortable ones. Let this link be a hint to anyone who ever wants to buy me a present.) I believe strongly that there is a healthy balance between time-wasting and productivity, and I am afraid that this winter I crossed my own line and need to work on getting myself back to my center.

I’ve always been an over-achieving time waster; I’m the kind of person who knows all the details of Madonna’s Wikipedia page and still somehow finds the time to do all the things. I manage to consistently find the time for birthday parties, lazy afternoons, potlucks, puppet shows, and performing while always submitting applications, papers, and my taxes on time. I have always volunteered with my community, whether gardening or teaching or manning a booth, and I try to be there both in time and spirit for my friends. I am a master of very little and a generalist who can do a lot of things adequately, including playing music, speaking German and Spanish, and holding intelligent conversation on about a million topics. My lack of focus is what drew me to the interdisciplinarity of American Studies and later Library Science, but

because I am okay at a lot of things, I have often felt like I am not good at anything.

My lack of mastery augments an incredible social knowledge that makes me great at cocktail parties, but not so great at specialized skills, particularly those that I have tried and failed to learn repeatedly like drawing or programming computers.

Lounging around and wasting time makes me stressed, and yet I find myself in Wikipedia holes, on Buzzfeed lists, mindlessly thumbing through Instagram, and Googling ex-boyfriends more than I would like to admit. I have an addictive information-seeking brain, and the Internet has been both an asset and a curse for me as I find myself up late, watching the bar below my apartment close, absorbing both everything and nothing at once. (Pro-tip for other addictive minds: Never begin a television program with a seemingly unlimited number of episodes at 9PM on a week night. You will regret it.)

The Internet has made it easier to live vicariously through others, which is another double-edged sword that often makes life feel more complicated than it actually is. All my friends, professional contacts, and the celebrities who interest me seem to be living fulfilled lives, so I submit to the worst kind of voyeurism, one that’s tinged with envy and the feeling that this life could be mine if I were only more “_______.” This kind of time wasting makes me want to delete all my Internet history, take a shower, and maybe smash my phone against a wall. Even admitting that I do it in a public manner makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, but I think it’s important to recognize this is a human byproduct of the Internet age.

I’m not taking the capitalist tack that says all time has to be productive, self-improvement time, and one only has to read a Romantic novel to realize that people actually probably were not more productive in “olden days.” (I wonder how much time a Jane Austen heroine spent staring at the wall?) Instead of judging or feeling shame, (both feelings that society unfortunately encourages,) I want to practice weening myself off behaviors that don’t make me feel like my best self and hope that others feel inspired to make similar changes for their health and the health of their communities.

In order to kick off this process, I did what I do best, and what I do to make most of my decisions: I made a chart.

I titled the page:

“Be more productive. Overcome winter blues. Get moving.”

The chart’s four cardinal directions pointed to:

  • Have to do
  • Want to do
  • Do less of
  • Do more of

I brainstormed for about 25 minutes and then wrote a list of the immediate tasks I needed to do within the next week in order to make these “productivity hacks” reality (excuse the jargon.)

I wasn’t sure what was going to come out of the exercise, but when I looked at the page, I was surprised to see that most of my “negative” behaviors revolved around a few, distinct categories. In making the chart, I saw that “worrying about the opinion of others” came up 4 times, “relying too much on technology” came up 5 times, and “drinking less frequently” came up 2 times. (My 26 year old hangovers are much worse than my 21 year old hangovers!)

In contrast, doing creative work like playing music, dancing, and writing came up 7 times and giving back to my community came up 4 times on my “positive” behavior list. Being kinder to my environment, both in terms of resources and social awareness also came up frequently.

I am going to use the weeks leading up to my 27th birthday to take some steps towards doing my best work and realizing my unique talents through this exercise and others encouraged by productivity experts. I am also going to use this month to research improving productivity and share out my findings on this blog.

It’s time to focus on my creative and nurturing self and feel more alive in my body this spring. Winter has been hard on all of us Bostonians, but in adapting my behaviors to fit my goals, I am taking the first steps toward a daily practice to be my best self.




Reading Highlights 2014

I did this last year too, but here are some of the best books that I read this year. I tend to read a bit haphazardly and mostly fiction, but here’s the list of books that surprised or excited me most in 2014. I can honestly say that this year I only read a few duds and that most of my reading life was very rich!

Fiction: I read a lot of Angela Carter this year, including Burning Your Boats (her collection of short stories,) Wise Children, which is so wildly inventive, and Nights at the Circus, which many consider to be her best. She remains my favorite author and I am glad she has such a large catalog. Each book is like a really delicious fruit.

Perhaps the most surprising book I read this year was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I picked it up in a used bookstore in London and found it thrilling. I would love to read more monastery murder mysteries.

In the British romances category, standouts include The Enchanted April, Persuasion, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Far From the Madding Crowd.
British romances are my comfort food, and I always turn to them when I don’t know what to read next. I find most through browsing Project Gutenberg and seeing what I haven’t read yet. I love Project Gutenberg and think that the work they’re doing is incredibly important.

I devoured Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories collection from the NYRB back in January and was very sad when she passed.

In German, I read only one book, which was Schachnovelle by Steftan Zweig. I read it because of the Grand Budapest Hotel connection and it was as good as promised.

I finished off my year with Snow by Orhan Pamuk, which I highly recommend! It is particularly prescient now and asks important questions about Western hegemony, art, and religion.

Memoir: I had somehow missed Heartburn by Nora Ephron and have recommended it to everyone, though it’s halfway between memoir and fiction. It is so smart, so funny, and so bitchy, like the best romcom.

Because a bunch of people have asked me: I had very mixed feelings about Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham. The stories in the collection weren’t novel or exciting; the narratives had appeared in her work repeatedly and seemed like a rehashing of the most boring parts of Girls or Tiny Furniture. By the time she got to the section about her food diary, I honestly wondered if anyone had even thought to edit this work. In all, I found it smug and poorly written.

My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story by Luisa Weiss was a lovely book about remembrance, identity, and food.

Non-fiction: My team read Cultivating Communities of Practice by Etienne Wegner, and it made a massive impression on me and my work. It is a very brilliant book!

I am cheating a bit here because I just finished it this week, but Don’t Make me Think by Steve Krug was also fantastic and asked all the important questions about usability, testing, and the Web.

Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux made some interesting claims and I am not quite sure what to make of it still, but definitely gave me food for thought.

If you don’t yet use it, Safari Books Online is the best tool for discovering literature in your field, both in terms of platform and content.

Historical fiction: I didn’t read so much in this category this year, but what I did was amazing. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson was so well-researched and engrossing. I am officially a Larson convert!  The Orientalist by Tom Reiss was incredibly exciting as well.

Honorable Mentions: In the field of community management, Jono Bacon’s The Art of Community is a classic. I liked it very much, but found its emphasis on “meritocracy” deeply problematic.

I picked up Good Poems, an anthology by Garrison Keillor at a library sale last month and it is a delight! I leave it on my kitchen table to read while hanging around.

Nicholson Baker is such a good writer, so The Way the World Works was enjoyable, though not my favorite of his.

Feel free to share your favorites as well! Here’s to a 2015 full of even more books!



Bulbes: a soup zine. Call for Submissions!

Please forward widely!

It’s that time of year, when hat hair is a reality and wet boots have to be left at the door. Frozen fingers and toes are warmed with lots of tea and hot cocoa, and you have heard so many Christmas songs that music is temporarily ruined.

I came to the conclusion a few years ago that soup is magic (influenced heavily by a friend, a soup evangelist) and decided to start a zine about soup, called


It is currently filled mostly with recipes, but also some poems (written by myself and others) and essays and reflections and jokes about soup. Some of you have already submitted to the zine, which is why all this may sound familiar.

Unfortunately, I hit a wall at some point and never finished it, but this year is the year! I finally have both the funds and feelings to finish this project and I encourage all of you to send me

* Recipes (hot and cold soups are welcome)
* Artwork about soup (particularly cover artwork!)
* Soup poems
* Soup essays
* Soup songs
* Soup jokes
* Anything else that may be worth including in a zine about soup

Submissions can be original or found, new or old.

Submission deadline is January 20 (after all the craziness of this time of year and early enough so that I can finish it and send it out before the end of winter!) If you need more time, please tell me and I will plan accordingly.
If you want to snail mail me your submission, get in touch for my address.

Otherwise email is fine!

Happy holidaze to all of you.



PS I got a big kick in the tuchus to actually finish this when I met Rachel Fershleiser, who kindly mailed me a copy of her much more punnily named “Stock Tips” last week.  It was pretty surreal to meet someone else who made a zine about soup!

check it out!


Leaving Mozilla as staff

December 31 will be my last day as paid staff on the Community Building Team at Mozilla.

One year ago, I settled into a non-stop flight from Raleigh, NC to San Francisco and immediately fell asleep. I was exhausted; it was the end of my semester and I had spent the week finishing a difficult databases final, which I emailed to my professor as soon as I reached the hotel, marking the completion of my coursework in Library Science and the beginning of my commitment to Mozilla.

The next week was one of the best of my life. While working, hacking, and having fun, I started on the journey that has carried me through the past exhilarating months. I met more friendly faces than I could count and felt myself becoming part of the Mozilla community, which has embraced me. I’ve been proud to call myself a Mozillian this year, and I will continue to work for the free and open Web, though currently in a different capacity as a Rep and contributor.

I’ve met many people through my work and have been universally impressed with your intelligence, drive, and talent. To David, Pierros, William, and particularly Larissa, Christie, Michelle, and Emma, you have been my champions and mentors. Getting to know you all has been a blessing.

I’m not sure what’s next, but I am happy to start on the next step of my career as a Mozillian, a community mentor, and an open Web advocate. Thank you again for this magical time, and I hope to see you all again soon. Let me know if you find yourself in Boston! I will be happy to hear from you and pleased to show you around my hometown.

If you want to reach out, find me on IRC: jennierose. All the best wishes for a happy, restful, and healthy holiday season.


Townhall, not Shopping Mall! Community, making, and the future of the Internet

I presented a version of this talk at the 2014 Futurebook Conference in London, England. They also kindly featured me in the program. Thank you to The Bookseller for a wonderful conference filled with innovation and intelligent people!

A few days ago, I was in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, often considered the most beautiful library in the world. My enthusiastic guide told the following story:

After the Reformation (when all the books in Oxford were burned), Sir Thomas Bodley decided to create a place where people could go and access all the world’s information at their fingertips, for free.

“What does that sound like?” she asked. “…the Internet?”

While this is a lovely conceit, the part of the story that resonated with me for this talk is the other big change that Bodley made, which was to work with publishers, who were largely a monopoly at that point, to fill his library for free by turning the library into a copyright library. While this seemed antithetical to the ways that publishers worked, in giving a copy of their very expensive books away, they left an indelible and permanent mark on the face of human knowledge. It was not only preservation, but self-preservation.

Bodley was what people nowadays would probably call “an innovator” and maybe even in the parlance of my field, a “community manager.”

By thinking outside of the scheme of how publishing works, he joined together with a group of skeptics and created one of the greatest knowledge repositories in the world, one that still exists 700 years later. This speaks to a few issues:

Sharing economies, community, and publishing should and do go hand in hand and have since the birth of libraries. By stepping outside of traditional models, you are creating a world filled with limitless knowledge and crafting it in new and unexpected ways.

The bound manuscript is one of the most enduring technologies. This story remains relevant because books are still books and people are still reading them.

As the same time, things are definitely changing. For the most part, books and manuscripts were pretty much identifiable as books and manuscripts for the past 1000 years.

But what if I were to give Google Maps to a 16th Century Map Maker? Or what if I were to show Joseph Pulitzer Medium? Or what if I were to hand Gutenberg a Kindle? Or Project Gutenberg for that matter? What if I were to explain to Thomas Bodley how I shared the new Lena Dunham book with a friend by sending her the file instead of actually handing her the physical book? What if I were to try to explain Lena Dunham?

These innovations have all taken place within the last twenty years, and I would argue that we haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of the innovations that are to come.

We need to accept that the future of the printed word may vary from words on paper to an ereader or computer in 500 years, but I want to emphasize that in the 500 years to come, it will more likely vary from the ereader to a giant question mark.

International literacy rates have risen rapidly over the past 100 years and companies are scrambling to be the first to reach what they call “developing markets” in terms of connectivity. In the vein of Mark Surman’s talk at the Mozilla Festival this year, I will instead call these economies post-colonial economies.

Because we (as people of the book) are fundamentally idealists who believe that the printed word can change lives, we need to be engaged with rethinking the printed word in a way that recognizes power structures and does not settle for the limited choices that the corporate Internet provides (think Facebook vs WhatsApp). This is not as a panacea to fix the world’s ills.

In the Atlantic last year, Phil Nichols wrote an excellent piece that paralleled Web literacy and early 20th century literacy movements. The dualities between “connected” and “non-connected,” he writes, impose the same kinds of binaries and blind cure-all for social ills that the “literacy” movement imposed in the early 20th century. In equating “connectedness” with opportunity, we are “hiding an ideology that is rooted in social control.”

Surman, who is director of the Mozilla Foundation, claims that the Web, which had so much potential to become a free and open virtual meeting place for communities, has started to resemble a shopping mall. While I can go there and meet with my friends, it’s still controlled by cameras that are watching my every move and its sole motive is to get me to buy things.

85 percent of North America is connected to the Internet and 40 percent of the world is connected. Connectivity increased at a rate of 676% in the past 13 years. Studies show that literacy and connectivity go hand in hand.

How do you envision a fully connected world? How do you envision a fully literate world? How can we empower a new generation of connected communities to become learners rather than consumers?

I’m not one of these technology nuts who’s going to argue that books are going to somehow leave their containers and become networked floating apparatuses, and I’m not going to argue that the ereader is a significantly different vessel than the physical book.

I’m also not going to argue that we’re going to have a world of people who are only Web literate and not reading books in twenty years. To make any kind of future prediction would be a false prophesy, elitist, and perhaps dangerous.

Although I don’t know what the printed word will look like in the next 500 years,

I want to take a moment to think outside the book,

to think outside traditional publishing models, and to embrace the instantaneousness, randomness, and spontaneity of the Internet as it could be, not as it is now.

One way I want you to embrace the wonderful wide Web is to try to at least partially decouple your social media followers from your community.

Twitter and other forms of social media are certainly a delightful and fun way for communities to communicate and get involved, but your viral campaign, if you have it, is not your community.

True communities of practice are groups of people who come together to think beyond traditional models and innovate within a domain. For a touchstone, a community of practice is something like the Penguin Labs internal innovation center that Tom Weldon spoke about this morning and not like Penguin’s 600,000 followers on Twitter. How can we bring people together to allow for innovation, communication, and creation?

The Internet provides new and unlimited opportunities for community and innovation, but we have to start managing communities and embracing the people we touch as makers rather than simply followers or consumers.

The maker economy is here— participatory content creation has become the norm rather than the exception. You have the potential to reach and mobilize 2.1 billion people and let them tell you what they want, but you have to identify leaders and early adopters and you have to empower them.

How do you recognize the people who create content for you? I don’t mean authors, but instead the ambassadors who want to get involved and stay involved with your brand.

I want to ask you, in the spirit of innovation from the edges

What is your next platform for radical participation? How are you enabling your community to bring you to the next level? How can you differentiate your brand and make every single person you touch psyched to read your content, together? How can you create a community of practice?

Community is conversation. Your users are not your community.

Ask yourself the question Rachel Fershleiser asked when building a community on Tumblr: Are you reaching out to the people who want to hear from you and encouraging them or are you just letting your community be unplanned and organic?

There reaches a point where we reach the limit of unplanned organic growth. Know when you reach this limit.

Target, plan, be upbeat, and encourage people to talk to one another without your help and stretch the creativity of your work to the upper limit.

Does this model look different from when you started working in publishing? Good.

As the story of the Bodelian Library illustrated, sometimes a totally crazy idea can be the beginning of an enduring institution.

To repeat, the book is one of the most durable technologies and publishing is one of the most durable industries in history. Its durability has been put to the test more than once, and it will surely be put to the test again. Think of your current concerns as a minor stumbling block in a history filled with success, a history that has documented and shaped the world.

Don’t be afraid of the person who calls you up and says, “I have this crazy idea that may just change the way you work…” While the industry may shift, the printed word will always prevail.

Publishing has been around in some shape or form for 1000 years. Here’s hoping that it’s around for another 1000 more.


New /contribute page

In an uncharacteristically short post, I want to let folks know that we just launched our new /contribute page.

I am so proud of our team! Thank you to Jess, Ben, Larissa, Jen, Rebecca, Mike, Pascal, Flod, Holly, Sean, David, Maryellen, Craig, PMac, Matej, and everyone else who had a hand. You all are the absolute most wonderful people to work with and I look forward to seeing what comes next!

I’ll be posting intermittently about new features and challenges on the site, but I first want to give a big virtual hug to all of you who made it happen and all of you who contribute to Mozilla in the future.


A new look for our Community Newsletter

This post was featured on the Mozilla Community Blog


If you’ve been wondering why you haven’t received the best in Mozilla’s community news in some weeks, it’s because we’ve been busy redesigning our newsletter in order to bring you even more great content.

Non-profit marketing is no easy feat. Even with our team of experts here at Mozilla, we don’t always hit the bar when it comes to open rates, click through rates, and other metrics that measure marketing success. For our community newsletter, I watched our metrics steadily decrease over the six month period since we re-launched the newsletter and started publishing on a regular basis.

It was definitely time for a makeover.

Our community newsletter is a study in pathways and retention: How do we help people who have already expressed interest in contributing get involved and stay involved? What are some easy ways for people to join our community? How can communities come together to write inspiring content for the Web?

At Mozilla, we put out three main newsletters: Firefox and You (currently on a brief hiatus), the Firefox Student Ambassadors newsletter, and our Mozilla Communities Newsletter (formerly called about:Mozilla)

It was important to me to have the newsletter feel authentically like the voice of the community, to help people find their Mozillian way, and to point people in the direction of others who share their interests, opening up participation to a wider audience.

A peer assist with Andrea Wood and Kelli Klein at the Mozilla Foundation helped me articulate what we needed and stay on-target with the newsletter’s goal to “provide the best in contribution opportunities at Mozilla.” Andrea demonstrated to me how the current newsletter was structured for consumption, not action, and directed me toward new features that would engage people with the newsletter’s content and eventually help them join us.

I also took a class with Aspiration Tech on how to write emails that captivate as well as read a lot about non-profit email marketing. While some of it seemed obvious, my research also gave me an overview of the field, which allowed me to redesign the newsletter according to best practices.

Here’s what I learned:

1. According to M & R, who publishes the best (and most hilarious) study of non-profit email campaigns, our metrics were right on track with industry averages. Non-profit marketing emails have a mean open rate of 13% with a 2.5% deviance in either direction. This means that at between 25% and 15% open rate we were actually doing better than other non-profit emails. What worried me was that our open rate rapidly and steadily decreased, signalling a disengagement with the content.

I came up with similar findings for our click through rates– on par with the industry, but steadily decreasing. (From almost 5% on our first newsletter to less than 1.5% on our last, eek!)

2. While I thought that our 70,000 subscribers put us safely in the “large email list” category, I learned that we are actually a small/medium newsletter according to industry averages! In terms of how we gain subscribers, I’m hoping that an increased social media presence as well as experiments with viral marketing (IE “forward this to a friend!”) will bring in new voices and new people to engage with our community.

3. “The Five Second Rule” is perhaps the best rule I learned about email marketing. Have you captured the reader in three seconds? Can you open an email and know what it’s trying to ask you in five seconds? If not, you should redesign.

4. Stories that asked people to take action were always the most clicked on stories in our last iteration. This is unsurprising, but “learn more” and “read more” don’t seem to move our readers. “Sign this petition” and “Sign up” were always well-received.

5. There is no statistically “best time” to send an email newsletter. The best time to send an email newsletter is “when it’s ready.” While every two weeks is a good goal for the newsletter, sending it slightly less frequently will not take away from its impact.

6. As M & R writes, “For everything, (churn churn churn) there is a season (churn, churn, churn)…” our churn rate on the newsletter was pretty high (we lost and gained subscribers at a high rate.) I’m hoping that our new regular features about teaching and learning as well as privacy will highlight what’s great about our community and how to take action.

And now to the redesign!

The first thing you’ll notice is that our newsletter is now called “Mozilla Communities.” We voted on the new name a few weeks ago after the Grow Mozilla call. Thanks to everyone who gave feedback.

Newsletter overview

An overview of the newsletter’s new look.

Mozilla Communities

While the overall feel remains the same and is in line with other Mozilla-branded newsletters, the new look incorporates a few “evergreen” opportunities and actions you can take before the fold as well as features a contributor in their own words. (For the draft of the new design, that contributor is me!) The easy actions on the left hand side will rotate out as needed and increase in commitment level as you read down the page. Also, take a look at the awesome logo from Christie Koehler!


Section 2 of newsletter

The next section presents rotating features on our privacy and educational initiatives. Privacy and education span a variety of functional areas, so this section could be populated by a variety of community endeavors. At the bottom of these sections, there’s a Facebook post and Tweet that you can post to easily take action, promote our communities, and get social to protect the Internet.


Gear store story

The next section features a story that engages the reader to take action! (In this case it invites readers into our awesome new gear store…) This story about Mozilla communities will rotate out according to the content that you submit. It will also be action-oriented, easy, and fun.

Last story and Mozillian Moments

This last story is optional and will be rotated in and out according to testing during the first few issues. (Early feedback feared that there were too many stories.) In the draft design, we’re announcing a new contribution area. This will be a place for new community contribution areas, pathways, and opportunities to connect. The new photo section, “Mozillian Moments,” replaces our “Photo of the Week” section from the last iteration.


newsletter footer

Finally, the footer reminds the reader that this newsletter is community-created and community-supported. It also invites readers to join us on social media. In the upcoming issues, the newsletter will also link to the new “Guides” forum that will help contributors find mentorship opportunities and connect with their fellow Mozillians.


What we need from you:

1. We need writers, coders, social media gurus, copy editors, and designers who are interested in consistently testing and improving the newsletter. The opportunity newsletter is a new contribution area on the October 15th relaunch of the Get Involved page (under the “Writing –> Journalism” drop down choice) and I’m hoping that will engage new contributors as well.

2. A newsletter can’t run without content, and we experimented with lots of ways to collect that content in the last few months. Do you have content for the newsletter? Do you want to be a featured contributor? Reach out to mozilla-communities at mozilla dot com.

3. Feedback requested! I put together an Etherpad that asks specific questions about improving the design. Please put your feedback here or leave it in the comments.

The newsletter is a place for us to showcase our work and connect with each other. We can only continue improving, incorporating best practices, and connecting more deeply and authentically through our platforms. Thank you to everyone who helped in the Mozilla Communities redesign and to all of you who support Mozilla communities every day.


Why I feel like an Open Source Failure

I presented a version of this talk at the Supporting Cultural Heritage Open Source Software (SCHOSS) Symposium in Atlanta, GA in September 2014. This talk was generously sponsored by LYRASIS and the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

I often feel like an Open Source failure.

I haven’t submitted 500 patches in my free time, I don’t spend my after-work hours rating html5 apps, and I was certainly not a 14 year old Linux user. Unlike the incredible group of teenaged boys with whom I write my Mozilla Communities newsletter and hang out with on IRC, I spent most of my time online at that age chatting with friends on AOL Instant Messenger and doing my homework.

I am a very poor programmer. My Wikipedia contributions are pretty sad. I sometimes use Powerpoint. I never donated my time to Open Source in the traditional sense until I started at Mozilla as a GNOME OPW intern and while the idea of data gets me excited, the thought of spending hours cleaning it is another story.

I was feeling this way the other day and chatting with a friend about how reading celebrity news often feels like a better choice after work than trying to find a new open source project to contribute to or making edits to Wikipedia. A few minutes later, a message popped up in my inbox from an old friend asking me to help him with his application to library school.

I dug up my statement of purpose and I was extremely heartened to read my words from three years ago:

I am particularly interested in the interaction between libraries and open source technology… I am interested in innovative use of physical and virtual space and democratic archival curation, providing free access to primary sources.

It felt good to know that I have always been interested in these topics but I didn’t know what that would look like until I discovered my place in the open source community. I feel like for many of us in the cultural heritage sector the lack of clarity about where we fit in is a major blocker, and I do think it can be associated with contribution to open source more generally. Douglas Atkin, Community Manager at Airbnb, claims that the two main questions people have when joining a community are “Are they like me? And will they like me?”. Of course, joining a community is a lot more complicated than that, but the lack of visibility of open source projects in the cultural heritage sector can make even locating a project a whole lot more complicated.

As we’ve discussed in this working group, the ethics of cultural heritage and Open Source overlap considerably and

the open source community considers those in the cultural heritage sector to be natural allies.

In his article, “Who are you empowering?” Hugh Rundle writes: (I quote this article all the time because I believe it’s one of the best articles written about library tech recently…)

A simple measure that improves privacy and security and saves money is to use open source software instead of proprietary software on public PCs.

Community-driven, non-profit, and not good at making money are just some of the attributes that most cultural heritage organizations and open source project have in common, and yet, when choosing software for their patrons, most libraries and cultural heritage organizations choose proprietary systems and cultural heritage professionals are not the strongest open source contributors or advocates.

The main reasons for this are, in my opinion:

1. Many people in cultural heritage don’t know what Open Source is.

In a recent survey I ran of the Code4Lib and UNC SILS listservs, nearly every person surveyed could accurately respond to the prompt “Define Open Source in one sentence” though the responses varied from community-based answers to answers solely about the source code.

My sample was biased toward programmers and young people (and perhaps people who knew how to use Google because many of the answers were directly lifted from the first line of the Wikipedia article about Open Source, which is definitely survey bias,) but I think that it is indicative of one of the larger questions of open source.

Is open source about the community, or is it about the source code?

There have been numerous articles and books written on this subject, many of which I can refer you to (and I am sure that you can refer me to as well!) but this question is fundamental to our work.

Many people, librarians and otherwise, will ask: (I would argue most, but I am operating on anecdotal evidence)

Why should we care about whether or not the code is open if we can’t edit it anyway? We just send our problems to the IT department and they fix it.

Many people in cultural heritage don’t have many feelings about open source because they simply don’t know what it is and cannot articulate the value of one over the other. Proprietary systems don’t advertise as proprietary, but open source constantly advertises as open source, and as I’ll get to later, proprietary systems have cornered the market.

This movement from darkness to clarity brings most to mind a story that Kathy Lussier told about the Evergreen project, where librarians who didn’t consider themselves “techy” jumped into IRC to tentatively ask a technical question and due to the friendliness of the Evergreen community, soon they were writing the documentation for the software themselves and were a vital part of their community, participating in conferences and growing their skills as contributors.

In this story, the Open Source community engaged the user and taught her the valuable skill of technical documentation. She also took control of the software she uses daily and was able to maintain and suggest features that she wanted to see. This situation was really a win-win all around.

What institution doesn’t want to see their staff so well trained on a system that they can write the documentation for it?

2. The majority of the market share in cultural heritage is closed-source, closed-access software and they are way better at advertising than Open Source companies.

Last year, my very wonderful boss in the cataloging and metadata department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came back from ALA Midwinter with goodies for me: pens and keychains and postits and tote bags and those cute little staplers. “I only took things from vendors we use,” she told me.

Linux and Firefox OS hold 21% of the world’s operating system marketshare. (Interestingly, this is more globally than IOS, but still half that of Windows. On mobile, IOS and Android are approximately equal.)

Similarly, free, open source systems for cultural heritage are unfortunately not a high percentage of the American market. Wikipedia has a great list of proprietary and open source ILSs and OPACs, the languages they’re written in, and their cost. Marshall Breeding writes that FOSS software is picking up some market share, but it is still “the alternative” for most cultural heritage organizations.

There are so many reasons for this small market share, but I would argue (as my previous anecdote did for me,) that a lot of it has to do with the fact that these proprietary vendors have much more money and are therefore a lot better at marketing to people in cultural heritage who are very focused on their work. We just want to be able to install the thing and then have it do the thing well enough. (An article in Library Journal in 2011 describes open source software as: “A lot of work, but a lot of control.”)

As Jack Reed from Stanford and others have pointed out, most of the cost of FOSS in cultural heritage is developer time, and many cultural heritage institutions believe that they don’t have those resources. (John Brice’s example at the Meadville Public Library proves that communities can come together with limited developers and resources in order to maintain vital and robust open source infrastructures as well as significantly cut costs.)

I learned at this year’s Wikiconference USA that academic publishers had the highest profit margin of any company in the country last year, ahead of Google and Apple.

The academic publishing model is, for more reasons than one, completely antithetical to the ethics of cultural heritage work, and yet they maintain a large portion of the cultural heritage market share in terms of both knowledge acquisition and software. Megan Forbes reminds us that the platform Collection Space was founded as the alternative to the market dominance of “several large, commercial vendors” and that cost put them “out of reach for most small and mid-sized institutions.”

Open source has the chance to reverse this vicious cycle, but institutions have to put their resources in people in order to grow.

While certain companies like OCLC are working toward a more equitable future, with caveats of course, I would argue that the majority of proprietary cultural heritage systems are providing inferior product to a resource poor community.

 3. People are tired and overworked, particularly in libraries, and to compound that, they don’t think they have the skills to contribute.

These are two separate issues, but they’re not entirely disparate so I am going to tackle them together.

There’s this conception outside of the library world that librarians are secret coders just waiting to emerge from their shells and start categorizing datatypes instead of MARC records (this is perhaps a misconception due to a lot of things, including the sheer diversity of types of jobs that people in cultural heritage fill, but hear me out.)

When surveyed, the skill that entering information science students most want to learn is “programming.” However, the majority of MLIS programs are still teaching Microsoft Word and beginning html as technology skills.

Learning to program computers takes time and instruction and while programs like Women who Code and Girl Develop It can begin educating librarians, we’re still faced with a workforce that’s over 80% female-identified that learned only proprietary systems in their work and a small number of technology skills in their MLIS degrees.

Library jobs, and further, cultural heritage jobs are dwindling. Many trained librarians, art historians, and archivists are working from grant to grant on low salaries with little security and massive amounts of student loans from both undergraduate and graduate school educations. If they’re lucky to get a job, watching television or doing the loads of professional development work they’re expected to do in their free time seems a much better choice after work than continuing to stare at a computer screen for a work-related task or learn something completely new. For reference: an entry-level computer programmer can expect to make over $70,000 per year on average. An entry-level librarian? Under $40,000. I know plenty of people in cultural heritage who have taken two jobs or jobs they hate just to make ends meet, and I am sure you do too.

One can easily say, “Contributing to open source teaches new skills!” but if you don’t know how to make non-code contributions or the project is not set up to accept those kinds of contributions, you don’t see an immediate pay-off in being involved with this project, and you are probably not willing to stay up all night learning to code when you have to be at work the next day or raise a family. Programs like Software Carpentry have proven that librarians, teachers, scientists, and other non-computer scientists are willing to put in that time and grow their skills, so to make any kind of claim without research would be a reach and possibly erroneous, but I would argue that most cultural heritage organizations are not set up in a way to nurture their employees for this kind of professional development. (Not because they don’t want to, necessarily, but because they feel they can’t or they don’t see the immediate value in it.)

I could go on and on about how a lot of these problems are indicative of cultural heritage work being an historically classed and feminized professional grouping, but I will spare you right now, although you’re not safe if you go to the bar with me later.

In addition, many open source projects operate with a “patches welcome!” or “go ahead, jump in!” or “We don’t need a code of conduct because we’re all nice guys here!” mindset, which is not helpful to beginning coders, women, or really, anyone outside of a few open source fanatics.

I’ve identified a lot of problems, but the title of this talk is “Creating the Conditions for Open Source Community” and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about what works.

Diversification, both in terms of types of tasks and types of people and skillsets as well as a clear invitation to get involved are two absolute conditions for a healthy open source community.

Ask yourself the questions: Are you a tight knit group with a lot of IRC in-jokes that new people may not understand? Are you all white men? Are you welcoming? Paraphrasing my colleague Sean Bolton, the steps to an inviting community is to build understanding, build connections, build clarity, build trust, build pilots, which creates a build win-win.

As communities grow, it’s important to be able to recognize and support contributors in ways that feel meaningful. That could be a trip to a conference they want to attend, a Linkedin recommendation, a professional badge, or a reference, or best yet: you could ask them what they want. Our network for contributors and staff is adding a “preferred recognition” system. Don’t know what I want? Check out my social profile. (The answer is usually chocolate, but I’m easy.)

Finding diverse contribution opportunities has been difficult for open source since, well, the beginning of open source. Even for us at Mozilla, with our highly diverse international community and hundreds of ways to get involved, we often struggle to bring a diversity of voices into the conversation, and to find meaningful pathways and recognition systems for our 10,000 contributors.

In my mind, education is perhaps the most important part of bringing in first-time contributors. Organizations like Open Hatch and Software Carpentry provide low-cost, high-value workshops for new contributors to locate and become a part of Open Source in a meaningful and sustained manner. Our Webmaker program introduces technical skills in a dynamic and exciting way for every age.

Mentorship is the last very important aspect of creating the conditions for participation. Having a friend or a buddy or a champion from the beginning is perhaps the greatest motivator according to research from a variety of different papers. Personal connection runs deep, and is a major indicator for community health. I’d like to bring mentorship into our conversation today and I hope that we can explore that in greater depth in the next few hours.

With mentorship and 1:1 connection, you may not see an immediate uptick in your project’s contributions, but a friend tells a friend tells a friend and then eventually you have a small army of motivated cultural heritage workers looking to take back their knowledge.

You too can achieve on-the-ground action. You are the change you wish to see.

Are you working in a cultural heritage institution and are about to switch systems? Help your institution switch to the open source solution and point out the benefits of their community. Learning to program? Check out the Open Hatch list of easy bugs to fix! Are you doing patron education? Teach them Libre Office and the values around it. Are you looking for programming for your library? Hold a Wikipedia edit-a-thon. Working in a library? Try working open for a week and see what happens. Already part of an open source community? Mentor a new contributor or open up your functional area for contribution.

It’s more than just “if you build it, they will come.”

If you make open source your mission, people will want to step up to the plate.

To close, I’m going to tell a story that I can’t take credit for, but I will tell it anyway.

We have a lot of ways to contribute at Mozilla. From code to running events to learning and teaching the Web, it can be occasionally overwhelming to find your fit.

A few months ago, my colleague decided to create a module and project around updating the Mozilla Wiki, a long-ignored, frequently used, and under-resourced part of our organization. As an information scientist and former archivist, I was psyched. The space that I called Mozilla’s collective memory was being revived!

We started meeting in April and it became clear that there were other wiki-fanatics in the organization who had been waiting for this opportunity to come up. People throughout the organization were psyched to be a part of it. In August, we held a fantastically successful workweek in London, reskinned the wiki, created a regular release cycle, wrote a manual and a best practice guide, and are still going strong with half contributors and half paid-staff as a regular working group within the organization. Our work has been generally lauded throughout the project, and we’re working hard to make our wiki the resource it can be for contributors and staff.

To me, that was the magic of open source. I met some of my best friends, and at the end of the week, we were a cohesive unit moving forward to share knowledge through our organization and beyond. And isn’t that a basic value of cultural heritage work?

I am still an open source failure. I am not a code fanatic, and I like the ease-of-use of my used IPhone. I don’t listen to techno and write Javscript all night, and I would generally rather read a book than go to a hackathon.

And despite all this, I still feel like I’ve found my community.

I am involved with open source because I am ethically committed to it, because I want to educate my community of practice and my local community about what working open can bring to them.

When people ask me how I got involved with open source, my answer is: I had a great mentor, an incredible community and contributor base, and there are many ways to get involved in open source.

While this may feel like a new frontier for cultural heritage, I know we can do more and do better.

Open up your work as much as you can. Draw on the many, many intelligent people doing work in the field. Educate yourself and others about the value that open source can bring to your institution. Mentor someone new, even if you’re shy. Connect with the community and treat your fellow contributors with respect.Who knows?

You may get an open source failure like me to contribute to your project.