Chris Messina (BarCamp godfather, Mr. Tara Hunt and open web evangelist) has posted a lengthy, provocative and thoughtful video rant on the state of Mozilla, makers of the Firefox browser. In it he argues that Mozilla needs to stop thinking of itself as a browser company and become “a platform for innovation, creativity and the advancement of civilization and societies“. (WOW!)

Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corp would collapse without the Mozilla community. That community is united by shared beliefs and sense of mission. It was catalyzed by a common purpose to take on a juggernaut in the form of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It’s goal was to offer an alternative. With that purpose and goal now largely accomplished and IE7 a much improved competitor, it begs the question: What next?

Messina’s critique needs to be understood as being broadly about the kind of web we want and it’s place in society, just like the net neutrality debate. Chris’ recent launch-point is his concern that the next generation web dev platforms (Microsoft Silverlight, Adobe Apollo) are curtailing “view source”. Chris and others credit web standards and view source as the primary propagating forces behind the rapid innovation on the web today. Messina is looking to Mozilla to lead the development of open alternatives in line with its mission to ensure choice on the web.

Analysis after the jump…

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It’s About Belief and Values

Messina’s video post provides fascinating insight into the Mozilla world to an outsider like me. These are the conversations at the core of the tech community about the future of the web and its connection to society at large. Messina wears his heart on his sleeve, and his passion and commitment comes through:

I still believe, greatly, in Mozilla. But as someone who believes greatly in Mozilla, I expect a lot. I expect a ton!…I spent 8 months volunteering for Mozilla because I believe in it. I wanted this technology to get out there…Because I want the future of the web to stay open. To stay equal opportunity. To promote choice, to promote diversity, real diversity across all beliefs, peoples and walks of life…The web connects us now. It is fundamental. It is what society is being built on…

He describes a vision for the way forward that is nothing short of a rallying cry:

…[Mozilla should] start saying “we are entrenched in saving the future of the Open Web and we need help”….It is about serving people that need this technology. People that need open source. People that can live from open source, finding sustainable business models from open source. Getting people together locally, literally locally, in towns, cities, city centres and saying Firefox represents an idea, it represents a way forward, it represents something that we have to get behind. Because it’s just that good. And I guess from Mozilla I want to see leadership taking us to the point where it is that good, where it’s a world class solution to the future of the web…

Community Stewardship and a Market for Social Capital

Chris represents an important critical voice, raises some interesting points and offers an alternative vision that may inspire the Mozilla community and should provoke debate. His thoughts in a way echo and validate David Eaves who argued that Mozilla is not a software company. Eaves has argued that Mozilla needs to understand that its core competency is community management. (I prefer “stewardship” to “management”, but whatever.)

Mozilla’s community-driven production system is powered by shared values, belief and sense of mission as well as other, less altruistic motivations like reputation, glory, individual career aspirations and the strategic motives of participating companies like Flock, Joost and IBM. As Mozilla has grown in importance and become a successful revenue generator in its own right, those community values and individual motives are at risk of drifting apart or coming into open conflict.

Messina is partly correct, that post-Firefox 2 and IE7, the Mozilla community’s core values are about the need and social importance of the Open Web. But Mozilla is also an economic entity concerned with increasing its financial resources and ensuring its continued survival. That economic entity is a screen onto which is projected the open-source dreams of many about new forms of social and economic organization. Mozilla is not just about providing a viable browser alternative to IE. It represents something that is deeply cultural and is now imbued with layers of meaning underneath the surface of the Firefox brand.

Community goodwill and support is the social capital that has funded Mozilla to this point. Just as investors on public capital markets can dump a stock, open source “investors” can dump a project. Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corp are much more susceptible to external accountability than most non-profits or foundations, which are accountable only to their boards and members which are usually tightly bound to the organization’s management. As a result, the market of community opinion is a major lever of accountability on staff and management of a non-profit open-source software enterprise like Mozilla.

Test Case for Social Capital Dynamics

I will be watching this case closely in order to better understand the social capital market dynamics of open source communities. I’m looking forward to seeing responses from Mitchell Baker, Mike Beltzner and Mike Shaver and the wider Mozilla/Firefox and open-source communities. How will Mozilla management react to this challenge? What will be the reaction among the community?