Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Nozilla Campaign and Its Ironic Effects

Mozilla didn’t completely dodge its political problem with the resignation of its CEO. In the aftermath, a coalition of dodgy-looking anti-gay groups have managed a fairly spectacular boycott of Firefox, Mozilla’s best known product. It may be splashy, but it is an amusingly inept boycott. First, it is a boycott of a charitable organization which makes its products freely available to the world as a matter of course, so Mozilla will not see any loss of market presence or revenue — the boycotters never paid anything in the first place. Second, most major browsers derive in various ways from work done at Mozilla, so if people are using Chrome, Internet Explorer, or Safari, among others, they are still living in Mozilla’s world. Third, there is little reason to believe the anti-gay activists who say they are deleting Firefox from their computers. It seems more likely that they never heard of Firefox before and have no Firefox to delete. This scenario seems all the more likely when you look at the petition pages. The petition authors felt the need to explain in detail what Firefox is and the process for uninstalling it. The instructions seem to be written for a person who has never installed or uninstalled an application before and might not quite understand what an application is. Fourth, the petition has no leverage. At set forth, it is a permanent boycott, meaning the signers will never use Firefox ever no matter what Mozilla does in the future, so the boycott isn’t meant to exert any influence over Mozilla’s future actions.

All that is bad enough, but the whole sequence plays into the stereotype of the culture-war social conservatives as religious extremists who never create anything and only want to destroy things. They never created an application or even asked someone to install a piece of software — at least that is what the stereotype would have you believe — but they don’t mind telling you to delete things. Pity the activist who follows the boycott instructions to uninstall Firefox — then after dutifully deleting the browser, finds that there is no way to return to the Internet for further instructions. At that point, they will realize that they’ve been had, but then what can they do?

The commentators who view the Mozilla episode as a management case study say the lesson is that you can’t undo a bad hire by firing the person — and that is certainly true enough. This episode could lead to real change, then, if other boards of directors look at the sequence of events and conclude that anti-gay activists or political extremists in general can never be considered for any executive position, lest it lead to a boycott when they are passed over or are fired or quit. If that is the way this episode is understood, then it could result in freezing out the very political extremists who the Nozilla campaign is supposed to protect.

An essential part of understanding the Nozilla campaign is that there isn’t any way observers can measure it directly. No central database records the deletion of an application, so we will never learn if the number of Mozilla installations that were actually deleted was just 30, or a few thousand. In any case, the number is too small to show up in the global browser usage statistics that browser makers compete for. The Nozilla campaign gets most of its might from the fact that its effects can’t be measured. You are supposed to imagine that the number of uninstalls is tens of thousands, something similar to the number of signators recorded on the petitions. In reality, the actual number would have to be much smaller, just based on browser share statistics. The actual number of uninstalls could be tiny if you compare the difficulty of signing a petition to that of uninstalling an application. But no one knows, and that allows Nozilla to be taken seriously.

In my view, the Nozilla campaign is the most important part of this whole story, but I worry a little about the state of Mozilla after this glimpse at its inner workings. No one there seems to have any inkling that they did something wrong in appointing a CEO who did not share the organization’s priorities and who, in barely a week, proved himself utterly inept in speaking on behalf of the organization he was supposed to be leading. To be blunt, Mozilla selected a figure-head for an organization that needs a real leader. Perhaps they do realize this and just don’t want to say publicly anything more than the bare minimum necessary at this point. Or perhaps they really don’t have any appreciation for the struggles and challenges of the past year and the year ahead. Only Mozilla’s future success or failure will really answer that question.