Software as means of changing the world

This is a thought piece as part of the Mozilla Learning strategy project. In particular it’s a contribution to the Advocacy Working Group who are looking at how we design a programme to have impact at a significant global scale as one part of an organisational mission to create Universal Web Literacy.

To be clear, this is an input into the strategy project, not an output. This may or may not be something Mozilla Learning chooses for it’s strategy, but I put my name down to write this piece as it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

I agreed to write ‘a paragraph or two’. It turns out I have more thoughts on this.

So I’ll start with the summary:

Point 1. We could choose to build software as a deliberate means of creating change
Mozilla is known for changing the world by building software. We have precedent for taking this approach and exceptionally talented engineers around the world want to play a part in this story (both as staff and volunteers). Building new software products is hard, but if successful can scale to have a disproportionate impact in relation to investment.

Point 2. We can create change via software without writing any code
Through partnership with existing consumer software products, we could deliver web literacy content/training/engagement independently of any software we build. This approach can also have a disproportionate impact to investment return. Can we be there to greet the next billion as they come online and create their first accounts / profiles / digital identities? What would that look like? Is that something we want to work on?

Both approaches are valid options for a strategy, but require very different execution. They are not mutually exclusive.

Longer Brain Dump

This rest of this isn’t entirely coherent, but I can’t spend longer on it right now…

Software as a means of changing the world

What is the role of software in an Advocacy strategy?

I’m going to argue that choosing software as a method for creating deliberate change in the world is potentially the most cost effective route to large scale impact.

Assumption: Software already changes the world

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and want to start by directing you to a short post I wrote three years ago – Interwoven with bits – it distills a topic I could write about for days on end. We shape software, and software shapes us.

The software that changes the world takes many forms. A list of examples could technically include all software that continues to be used by any human being (directly and indirectly). But I’ll call out a few categories:

  1. Software as a direct and targeted solution to a specific problem
  2. Software as a delivery mechanism for ‘traditional’ advocacy and communications
    • Like this game from WWF whose pirate distribution through file-sharing networks actually generated much greater reach in target markets than a paid communications channel could have hoped for – while paid downloads in other markets generated funds
  3. Software designed as a ‘neutral’ utility but which has unplanned side-effects (good and bad)
    • This is pretty much all commercial software. Those that reach the biggest percentage of the global population likely have the most impact on the world. These are the systems we are addicted to, which change our behaviour through the creation of new habits and interactions with technology, society, and even with ourselves.
  4. Software as an ethical, political, or other deliberate consumer choice
    • Like choosing a freely editable wiki to power a website
    • Or choosing Linux over Windows
    • Or using software to hide your identity online
  5. Building software as an act of advocacy
    • By building it’s products in the way that it did, Mozilla changed the world directly and indirectly as an advocate for the open web. While the success of Firefox as a consumer product gave Mozilla a louder voice in many important forums, even the ‘smaller’ stories like the organising principles of community participation had an impact by changing public understanding of how an organisation could be run in a networked world.

Mass adoption

In general, when I’m thinking about how software changes the world, I’m thinking about how the mass adoption of a piece of software creates a shift in behavioural norms. The more successful and/or popular a piece of software is, the more likely it is to have more impact on the world.

For people who want to fix the world with software, it’s easy to look at ‘Silicon Valley’ success stories and get excited about building the next big thing. But in a sensible planning process these inspiring stories need the context of survivor bias.

Most software will go to market and die. The same is true of most inventions and artistic creations. The majority who try to build something and ‘fail’ are known as the “optimistic martyrs“. Most software dies in the market because the formula for winning is elusive, and even a well defined target market is actually a collection of complex busy human beings.

People who build software with purely good intentions about making the world a better place face an even bigger challenge – they don’t have the forcing function of the market to keep them focused. That’s not to say it can’t be done (see Firefox), but as someone who uses numbers to influence decision making, numbers with currency symbols next to them always get a more direct response.

Is software too big of a bet?

As an advocacy strategy, choosing software as a means of changing the world would be a gamble. Even with the best people working on it.

But software is interesting because of its relatively low cost of development and distribution. These costs don’t need to scale with success – they become negligible if a product reaches a mass consumer market. I.e. the cost to impact an extra person beyond a critical mass approaches zero.

Therefore, the potential ROI on software is enormous (thanks Internet!). But potential is a word that optimistically wraps up unknown odds.

There’s a good reason that successful start-ups that scale are called ‘unicorns’.

A Mozilla bias

At this point I want to reflect on a Mozilla bias.

I was drawn into the org through experiencing this bias at my first Mozfest – hacking on software in my free time as a way to try and change the world.

Many people work at Mozilla because they believe building great software makes the world a better place; myself included. This is Mozilla’s heritage and origin story. But it might not always be the best or only solution to a given problem.

Changing the world through software, without building software

This next piece is not to exclude the option of building software. But I’d like to approach this section as though Mozilla didn’t have its history of building products and as though it was a new org setting out to advocate for Universal Web Literacy using software as a means of creating change.

If you pick a particular goal, like helping the next billion new users of the internet who come online in a mobile-first capacity to understand the full scope of the web, what is the most effective route to success?

We’ve already been exploring how to build learning opportunities into Firefox, but what about partnering with the organisations who own many other front doors to ‘the web’. For example, if you create a Twitter/WhatsApp/Telegram/Other account in Bangladesh, can we work with owners of those products to offer a locally relevant and meaningful crash course to the web – covering everything from privacy to economic opportunity? Something that delivers on our mission, but also adds real value to the end-user and the product owner. How much effort would be required to make that happen? How many people could we reach?

Though I noted the example of the WWF Rhino Raid game in the list above, many well intentioned orgs have tried to create software like apps and games as a way to change the world without understanding the real nuances of product (games are possibly the hardest to get right). As an example of using the partnership approach, WWF have also run campaigns in existing successful consumer products via partnerships, like these in game experiences.

When I talked about this concept briefly on our last working group call, Laura flagged up that Tumblr directs users who explore their theme editor to online training courses run by General Assembly. This is the kind of partnership that adds value in both directions. Tumblr want users to build higher quality sites, and General Assembly want to educate people who have an active interest in learning about these topics.

Investment to Impact Ratio

After thinking through the points above, I’d advocate for ‘advocating’ with software; some of which we build, some of which we don’t.

The potential investment to impact ratio for a software product that scales is immense. But it requires a long-term product strategy.

I’d argue that good products typically last longer than good campaigns, and my view is that the most meaningful change comes from what we help people do repeatedly.

Software also offers a degree of measurability and accountability hard to match in any other line of work. If I were an impact investor, that’s where I’d put my money, for that reason. Though I definitely have a bias here.

This isn’t to say what software we should build.

Image source.

One thought on “Software as means of changing the world”

  1. Excellent piece Adam.

    To best influence the software built by others, we need to understand how it can and should be built for people. Theories are simpler than practice. Both of the approaches you describe above require us to hone our skills in connecting research and relationships to product design and development. Software built by us can be a means toward multiple outcomes.

Comments are closed.