4th July 2006

Blog :: Humility needed

I can't resist commenting on the latest Dave Winer story (see halfway down this Wired article for a brief summary). At the recent gnomedex conference Blake Ross was supposed to lead a discussion about grassroots software marketing.

Winer apparently jumped on him about Firefox not being "user centered" and for focusing on a competitor (Microsoft)  instead of the end users. When Blake joked that many people don't understand the goals of the Firefox project and put up a slide that said something like "Dominate Microsoft", Dave took him seriously (I should note that I think I've seen that joke before at a Firefox conference: it must be one of their standards). Eventually, according to Blake, Dave ended up questioning the transparency of the development process of Firefox. Apparently the session was mostly wasted dealing with his questions (See Blake's take and Winer's  description for more details).

I cracked up when I read Ross's initial description of the session; as a long time Scripting News reader and amused Dave Winer observer the account didn't suprise me at all. Dave can be disruptive and frequently is! When I read Dave's account, however, I was irked by the ignorance displayed. Finally, his conclusion, despite (sort of) acknowledging that he was wrong seems to be drawing precisely the wrong lessons from the whole encounter.

First, it seems clear to me that Dave doesn't have any familiarity with the Firefox project at all. I myself read various mozilla related blogs and have been a mozilla user for about as long as it's been around. Oh yeah, I have a (very worn) Mozilla 1.0 T-Shirt I got at a Mozilla conference hosted by Google. I've spoken with people like Mitchell Baker and Brendan Eich, but don't actually know anyone associated with the project.

Even at that level of casual fanboydom, however, I know that:

  1. the Firefox project is extremely transparent about it's goals, roadmaps, processes, etc
  2. the Firefox project was specifically created to make a browser focused on "users" and continues to focus primarily upon what the average user wants (as opposed to the original Mozilla browser which was a technology testbed and more geek oriented).
  3. people associated with the Firefox project tend to be very mature in their public statements about their competitors (IE, Safari, Opera, etc)

A few recent references: Blake Ross's blog entry on June 6 said the following:

Interviewers are asking my opinion of Internet Explorer 7. This, of course, is a softball. They tee it up anticipating a homerun account of how Firefox trounces IE.

But I’ve been answering truthfully: IE7 is a solid product. It vastly improves upon IE6 with useful features like anti-phishing that Firefox 2 will replicate.

I have nothing to gain from gratuitously denigrating IE. Firefox is and always has been about serving users, not crushing competition. It is scary to think what life would be like if I woke up each day thirsting for the fall of another company. If Microsoft hadn’t abandoned IE, there would have been no gap to fill—no user frustrations to tackle—and we probably would not have started Firefox.

Or a recent Mitchell Baker post has a list of the results of the Firefox project as seen by the Mozilla Foundation, their legacy so far as they themselves see it. The points were  distilled from recent conversations they've been having. Two of the bullet points are as follows

As I said, anybody with a passing aquaintance with the Firefox project can immediately see that my points 2 and 3 are generally correct. I won't even argue for point one except to note that five minutes with google will get you the blogs of most of the developers, the wiki containing goals for Firefox 2, all the project meeting notes from the last however many years, the roadmaps for individual components (like Brendan's Javascript 2 roadmap), and reams of public discussion about what features Firefox 2 should have. If the Firefox project is insufficiently transparent to the end user NO PROJECT IN THE WORLD IS!

Ahem. My overall point should be clear. Dave Winer doesn't know anything about the Firefox project (I'll not consider the malicious case that he knows, but trolls). Now that in itself is no sin. Even causing a disruption in the Gnomedex session is no sin: I strongly suspect that anyone expecting Dave to be cautious and reserved in how he expresses himself is in for a severe disappointment. His subsequent blog posting, however, was inexcusable when 5 minutes with Google would have revealed that his objections were based on misunderstandings due to insufficient knowledge.

What really set me off, however, was his follow up post with conclusions drawn from the whole event. What would have been appropriate was a mea culpa. (Free sample: "I didn't understand the joke and I don't really know anything about the Firefox project. I should have investigated before I publically scolded and perhaps limited my scolding to an observation about in-jokes at a public conference." Or something like that.) Instead Dave observed that

For my part, I am just learning now that people take me seriously. I'm not kidding about that. It's one thing to know that you have some power, and another to see how much.

Aaargh. Dave is a prominent software developer, blogging guru and seems to be extremely adept at generating publicity. Of course he has power! And with power ought to come responsibility (as every moviegoer now knows.) Just reading that quote makes me want to reconsider the "trolling" explanation. A little further down he explains

Reading some of Blake's earlier posts, it's now very clear to me that he's working for the users, and is openly critical when software developers blow the users off, so we're on the same side on this. His slides at Gnomedex were apparently mocking people who see Firefox as part of a jihad to punish Microsoft, but the subtlety was missed by many in the audience, who were stirred up by it, and my comments, which many agreed with a few hours later, were seen in a different light by them at the time. It didn't feel very good to be standing up against a mob, but that seems to be a place I end up, unfortunately, all too often.

I think the lesson is to not depend on readers and audiences to pick up on subtlety.

Note how Dave heroically (and self sacrificially) stood up against a mob of raging geeks. Gently and humanely, despite his harrowing experience, he chides Blake, noting some helpful lessons that will help keep Blake (or other future conference presenters) from putting Dave in such an awkward position in the future! There is a happy ending, however, as he finishes by promising:

We're going to work on this stuff, to help make Firefox stronger, and in the process make the users stronger, to set an example for how software can be responsive to the needs of the users.

Now arguably Dave has already helped Firefox by creating technologies like RSS that Firefox makes use of (parenthetically, I wish he had helped them more and talked them out of using RDF for data storage. On this technology issue  (basically the RSS 1.0 issue) Winer has always been exactly correct.) It is the height of arrogance, however, to claim that "we" are going to make Firefox an example of how software can be responsive to the needs of the users when it already is.

I would suggest that further arrogance is precisely the wrong lesson to draw from this encounter What is needed is humility. Obviously software developers should have humility when opining about topics on which they have limited amounts of information. More generally, however, bloggers need to be humble when an attack turns out to be unjustified. Paradoxically, trying to protect your "brand" by defending the validity of your original attack is much less useful than simply admitting the mistake in the first place. To my mind, Dave just introduced himself to a lot of people in a way that guarantees they aren't particularly interested in his opinions (and Scoble didn't help himself either: see the comments on Blake's initial blog entry).

The old media saying was "There isn't any such thing as bad publicity." In the new media where people have choices and trust matters, I'm not sure that's particularly true.

Update: For anyone with no exposure to Dave being ... Dave, this link has my my favorite video of him in action (Dave is the presenter going ballistic on the man in the audience who laughed).

Posted on July 4th 2006, 02:33 PM