Mozilla Festival 2021: Reflections on my first MozFest
Attending the Mozilla Festival (MozFest) was such a blast! In this post I’ll share some reflections on conversations that I got to participate in and on the stellar festival itself.
MozFest is a unique hybrid: part art, tech and society convening, part maker festival, and the premiere gathering for activists in diverse global movements fighting for a more humane digital world (mozillafestival.org).
MozFest has popped up on my radar several times over recent years as an interesting place to possibly attend. But what finally spurred me to go and sign up was when I back in December 2020 came across this blog post called Help Build the Local Web.
We deserve much better. We deserve a high-trust, non-corporate, algorithm-free, person-centric local web where the context in which we are communicating is known (Joe Leblanc).
The thoughts and ambitions of this post really resonated with me so I contacted the author Joe LeBlanc who then invited me to the Slack workspace where he and other members were preparing for the MozFest 2021 workshop on the Local Web.
After mulling it over some more I finally bought a MozFest ticket! And with the ticket in hand I got to participate in a truly bustling digital festival space. Indeed, I would argue that MozFest really managed to create a lively, accessible, safe festival atmosphere even though it was only happening on the web.
Here’s a Youtube link to the opening circle which gives a hint to the enormity of the effort that the planners have put in preparing for this first digital MozFest.
With over 400 available sessions distributed over 12 days I had no chance to attend them all. Nevertheless, I got to participate in several very inspiring sessions from which I’ll share some reflections.
Hang on to your hat, this
might be is a long post!
Feminist futures #
The internet can be a shitty space: unwanted dick pics, digital colonialism or data binaries cause new structures of social inequalities. How can we dismantle these structures and fight for social change? How can we re-imagine them through intersectional feminist practice? (Workshop: Feminist futures.)
This looked quite interesting when I read it. So, I signed up and it became my first MozFest session I participated in. I was a little bit apprehensive right before I clicked the Zoom link but that feeling was quickly blown away by the welcome atmosphere and participatory nature of the workshop format. (Which I later learned is a very common trait to MozFest sessions).
We were divided into smaller groups where we shared our experiences with the web, and gathered thoughts in a shared Miro board. After describing how we experience the web now, we were encouraged to imagine how the web could be. This session wasn’t recorded to make it easier for participants to open up, so you’ll just have to take my word when I say that there were some good discussions. I even wrote a poem (!) which I’ve included towards the end of this post.
To learn more of Feminist futures see:
From Nostalgia to Neostalgia #
Many people are fondly nostalgic about the technologies of their pasts, but what happens when we shift from nostalgia (longing for the past) to neostalgia (longing for what could have been)?
This session was led by Jackie Liu who describes herself as a creative technologist who mixes art and technology. In this session Liu introduced us to some of her inspirations such as creative technologists Zach Blas and Rachel Simone Weil. In the past Liu had always separated her interests for art and tech, but eventually she came to see this as an unecessary dichotomy and that there’s much to be gained from exploring the intersection of these fields through methods such as speculative design.
After the introduction Liu led a guided meditation where we were invited to relax and reflect on an early positive experience with technology. For me, this mediation led me to remember a fond memory of me playing Zelda: Link’s awakening on the old Gameboy sitting outside my parents' house in summer lounging under a parasol surrounded by nature.
With the mediation behind us Liu then invited us to reflect on the technology we remembered and try to find any embedded social values housed within it. Everyone then went on to create post-its in Miro, and some values that surfaced were:
- Care and maintenance (like caring for a Tamagotchi).
- Freedom and exploration (remembering ad-free, non-commercial web sites).
- Calmness (remembering being on a Gameboy with no internet connection and therefore no social-media disturbance).
- Value of culture through scarcity (handpicking discs to bring with the portable CD player).
- Ease of sharing (tech was usually not tethered to any logged-in users).
After the post-it exercise Liu invited us to engage in neostalgia by brainstorming a speculative technology artifact. I think we brainstormed a lot of good artifacts and more importantly cultivated an inspiring conversation about how we can re-imagine technology.
The speculative technology artifact that I brainstormed in the above screenshot was a digital helper of sorts, kind of like a portable meta-program that you can plug into any operating system and it would offer extra scripting functionality I could cultivate and share with others.
Looking back at this I guess I was inspired by the concept of dotfiles, to have a portable bag of scripts and OS adjustments that tailor any computer to the way that I like to work. Beyond that I think I envisioned something of a mix between scripts, extensible editor-diary and the infamous clippy digital office assistant of heirloom-level quality.
Haha, did I mention this was speculative design? It was an inspiring exercise to be sure.
To learn more see:
- Jackie’s OS: Liu’s thesis work where she used speculative design to explore the notion of neostalgia by re-imagining an operating system designed for (and with) her childhood self.
Stories from Africa, by Africans for Africans #
The session would begin with a presentation of the work of an online story telling platform called Talents of Nairobi (@TalentsofNairobi on all Social Media Platforms). The work of Talents of Nairobi is shining a spotlight on authentic African stories with the hope of reclaiming the power of African stories. (Session: Stories from Africa)
As a Norwegian and a European I don’t regularly get a lot of news from Africa. If there is news then it’s often about some crisis occurring. However, when I got to study and work in South Africa in 2009 I realized that Africa the continent is much more diverse and culturally rich than some people outside of Africa would think.
During this session and inherent conversations I made a concious effort to take a step back and give as much time to African voices. I shared some thoughts when I felt that it could contribute to the conversation but mostly I listended intently while participants shared their lived experiences.
Here’s some links I gathered from that session:
- instagram.com/nowhitesaviors, a critique on how people outside of Africa see and talk about Africa.
- Youtube: Adelle Onyango, a poet, youtuber and entrepreneur who works to tell a different story of Africa.
- Youtube: Super Sema an African Animated Kids Superhero Series
- https://www.afrobility.com/, a podcast with stories and analyses of African companies.
- http://talentsofnairobi.org/, a storytelling platform featuring authentic African stories told by Africans themselves on their own terms.
Silencing the silenced #
This session was about creating a conversation on content moderation within social networks. What is or is not okay to say in such contexts, and who should be the judges of what to delete or not?
I can say that we did not solve hate speech in this session, but we definitely had some good conversations about this topic. Interestingly, we seemed quite in agreement for the need for hate speech to be moderated properly and responsibly.
Also, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the United Nations is actively working to lessen hate speech, which is impressive work considering how context-sensitive this issue can be.
- https://futurefreespeech.com/ , the session organizers are working on this project.
- Here’s a recording of our session. It’s only worth watching the beginning and the end because in the middle we were divided into break-out rooms which were not recording.
- Timestamp link to our summaries of the group discussions.
Feminist AI: A Regional Snapshot #
This session featured an inspiring gathering of individuals hailing from Asia, South America, Saudi Arabia and Europe. Many of these participants are part of the <A+> Alliance for inclusive algorithms and together they shared their perspectives on issues related to artifical intelligence.
From the conversations we got to cover a lot of issues related to AI such as algorithms featuring gender bias, discrimation and re-enforcing oppressive power structures. There’s growing amount of research that shows that AI are very succeptible to bias when trained on historic data.
This is where the concept of feminist AI seems to be very valuable. I would argue that connecting AI with the concept of feminism and especially the academic work on feminist theory can yield much needed perspective on how to build inclusive AI.
Here’s a link to the roundtable discussion. It was very inspiring to hear from these people working building better and more ethical AI. I believe that the topic of ethical AI will only become more important in the coming years as we are already seeing that the EU is working on new legislation to regulate AI usage and prevent its worst effects.
Building tools for social revolts #
In the past years we’ve witnessed revolutions across the world. From Ecuador to Chile, through Colombia and Perú, people have taken to streets and mobilized against structural violence, inequality, corruption, and failed governments. In this workshop, Latin American information security activists share lessons learned in the streets and on devices for supporting social justice movements, and activists from other latitudes help build collective knowledge (Source: Session description).
This session was part-English and part-Spanish which worked very well. We got to hear from activists from various South American countries. And when I got to learn about all of their brave activism and protesting I was silently shocked by how little I knew about these issues and these people’s struggles.
The session was not recorded to protect the identities of the participants, but I can share a bit of what they do in their work.
When millions of people take to the streets to protest in their countries these activists saw the need to educate people in how to protest safely and use social media wisely.
Social media is a powerful tool but it is definitely problematic when well-intentioned protesters post images to raise support for their cause but end up revealing the identies of fellow protesters. Another issue is that government officials have been known to infiltrate Facebook groups or similar online communities in order to get to activists.
To promote better and wiser usage of digital tools many activist groups create post-cards with information that dispell wrongful myths and instead give advice on how to leverage digital tools safely when protesting.
To summarize, it is not easy to protest against the ruling government when it is putting all its weight against your movement.
To learn more see:
Building Sustainable Open Source Projects #
Maintaining open source software is hard! Sustain is a community which holds conversations around meaningful open source resilience, equity, growth and scale, from the perspective of both FOSS projects and the individuals who participate and contribute (source: Session description).
Going into this session I was a bit apprehensive about introducing myself as a member of the ethical source movement because some (F)OSS-advocates are very much opposed to the concept of ethical source. Thankfully, the session organizers were nothing but very welcoming to all the participants which hailed from all sorts of places.
This session delivered a broad overview of various challenges, projects and resources related to the world of Open Source Software from the perspective of the sustainoss.org members. Here are some links which I gathered from the conversations on building sustainable OSS projects:
- OSS to sustain stable climate.
- OSS map making tool.
The Local Web #
The current World Wide Web is a collection of corporate-centric platforms where people are incentivized to generate and post attention-seeking content. Trust is low, misinformation is prevalent, and the volume is overwhelming. What if we built a high-trust, low-noise, person-centric, Local Web? Let’s take a look at how we could build a Local Web of high-trust digital “third places” to serve friends, family, neighbors, and local organizations (source: session description).
Finally I got to participate in the session that originally drew me to attend MozFest in the first place.
So, what is this notion of third place? According to Wikipedia, within the field of community building it is common to conceptualize home as a first place, then the workplace as the second place. Examples of third places include parks, libraries, churches, cafes, clubs and other public spaces where you may relax and encounter other people. Third places are important for cultivating civic engagement and estabilishing a sense of place.
To start things off everyone were asked to share an example of a third place in our neighbourhoods that we go to relax. We then split into groups to discuss a proposed set of values for the Local Web. In other words, we got to explore what digital third places can and should be for people.
Throughout this session I had a couple of small insights.
Humans love to make groups: We can’t fault people for creating a Facebook group or a sub-reddit for their favorite interest, neighbourhood or similar community. In order to free people from corporate social media silos we need to make it easier to setup independent digital spaces.
A digital third place can explore serenity: Many web sites are quite “noisy” in how they group everyone into various feeds and really try to boost discoverability of other people’s content to comment on. If a physical third place can be a park to relax in, then how might we re-recreate a park experience in a digital form? Something to ponder.
Here’s some useful links to explore.
- Timestamp link to the results of our discussions.
Concluding thoughts (and a poem) #
Looking back I’m very happy that I finally made up my mind to go and attend MozFest. In their call-for-proposals MozFest emphasize that most sessions should aim to be interactive, and I really felt that they delivered on that.
One funny thing to mention is that over the two weeks I got to participate in various MozFest sessions my girlfriend noticed how often I would describe the session as an inspiring conversation.
To me, there is just something quite inspiring about meeting activists, researchers, practitioners and anyone who care about improving life on the web and using the web to improving our lives in general. So one could say these sessions offered both food for thought and some soulfood.
Make no mistake there’s a ton of bad stuff happening in the world and this festival doesn’t magically fix that. Nevertheless, it does feel like a step in the right direction to have people meet each other, to learn, share, inspire and make allies.
Arrive with an idea, leave with a community (MozFest slogun).
To close off this blog post I’ll share a poem I wrote in a MozFest session.
A sea of sites
small web sites, small communities
slow tech, low-tech
a sea of sites on unexplored oceans
we are gardeners of
our unique corners of the web
making it weird and wonderful
owning our own data, owning our futures
befriending nomadic passerby’s
sharing links to distant sites
word travels slow, there are few comments
quantity is low, quality is high.
The world finally turned a corner.
Big-corporate was broken up, and the stocks that soared so high, flew too close to the sun.
The internet fell out of fashion as a target for venture capital, and the big data silos collapsed unto themselves.
And from the rubble wild flowers sprouted.