Concentric Circles of Community

July 7th, 2008

I’ve come to think of Mozilla, or “the Mozilla community” as a set of concentric circles of communities. Actually, I’m thinking of Mozilla as concentric spheres of community, but I’m going to stick to circles for this post.

For me the ability to be more precise about “community” is important in thinking about what Mozilla is, what more we might do, what the Mozilla Foundation might do, what the essence of Mozilla is that we want to be very careful about changing, and which areas we should try to go wild in and try lots and lots of new things.

I’m going to borrow a set of terms from the Wikipedia discussion of “community.” There’s some risk in this because these terms may have academic background and meanings associated with them. But I need some set of terms and this seems a better start than just making them up.

Specifically, I’m thinking of 4 concentric groups: a Community of Practice, a Community of Action, a Community of Interest and our User Community.

I’m very interested in whether people living and working Mozilla feel these distinctions describe the different communities in which you participate and with which you interact. Let me know!



According to Wikipedia, the word “community” is “derived from the Latin communitas (meaning the same), which is in turn derived from communis, which means “common, public, shared by all or many.”

Community of Practice

At the heart of the Mozilla world is a set of people who share many things. We share code. We share goals. We share a set of values (the Mozilla Manifesto). We share specific means of collaboration (from Bugzilla to IRC to wikis), information repositories (source, documentation, website), a decision-making structure (module ownership), and a clear set of basic rights (the Mozilla Public License). We share activities — distributed creation and adoption of specific products that promote choice, innovation, transparency and participation in Internet life.

That’s a fair amount to share. So on my own I’d add some adjectives and describe this as a dense or cohesive community. But rather than make up adjectives I’m going to borrow the term “Community of Practice.” Wikipedia describes this as “social learning that occurs and shared sociocultural practices that emerge and evolve when people who have common goals interact as they strive towards those goals.”  I like this definition because it is not focused on a particular group or activity. We have many different types of activities that are part of this Community of Practice.

Community of Action

The next concentric circle is a set of people who take action to move the Mozilla mission forward but do so in more open-ended ways. For this set I’m adopting the term Community of Action. The people in this group may share our values, our goals, our decision-making processes for example, but develop their own ways of collaborating and their own sets of activities.

Wikipedia describes these as “structurally more open” and possessing both “some of the characteristics of communities, such as the development of a common language and mutual learning in the course of action . . .  [and] characteristics typical of more associative social relationships, such as the “voluntary” nature of association and the importance of “common goals” in directing collective activity.”

I see the boundary between this and our Communities of Practice as fluid. Sometimes these activities become so important and scale to such a size that they become more formalized. In this case some of the spontaneity may be exchanged for additional resources, scale and better integration into the core.  The long term history of localization is an example. In the early 2000’s localization of Mozilla products was extremely distributed, with many different groups working on their own. Today internationalization and localization are a fundamental aspect of the core of what we do; deep into our Community of Practice.

Community of Interest

Beyond this there’s a set of people who aren’t actively involved in creating Mozilla artifacts but are very supportive of our product or our mission. This group my not share our means of collaboration, our decision-making structure or our basic statement of rights. But they share in goals (sometimes general goals; sometimes  specific goals), in the use of the code, and they may share the activities of finding and helping others use our code.

Loosely borrowing from Wikipedia again, I’d call this the Mozilla’s Community of Interest: “A Community of interest is a community of people who share a common interest or passion. These people exchange ideas and thoughts about the given passion, but may know (or care) little about each other outside of this area.”

User Community

An ever larger circle is the set of people who use our products. Some of these people are also in earlier concentric circles. But a number are not. They use Firefox because it’s a great product that meets their needs. Maybe do not know that Firefox is created as a public benefit asset; many know little to nothing about the way Mozilla operates or the goals that motivate the Communities of Practice, Action and Interest. I’m calling this our User Community. This is not a Wikipedia term; I’ve added it because it’s important to us. This group of people gives our efforts weight and effect, helping us move the Internet towards greater openness.

All of Mozilla exists within broader contexts, such as the open source world or the Internet space, etc. That’s a lot to say there. But for now I’d like to get some shared terms for the Mozilla communities. This will help us figure out what parts of the Mozilla community we’re talking about or trying to address in different circumstances.

I’m very interested in whether these circles and the labels is useful in thinking about the Mozilla community. Any form of feedback welcome — here, email, talkback, twitter, you name it.

13 comments for “Concentric Circles of Community”

  1. 1

    Frank Hecker said on July 7th, 2008 at 4:58 pm:

    I think these are useful distinctions in terms of making more explicit where different groups and activities might fall in relation to what we think of “core” Mozilla, and why. I think one interesting follow-on discussion has to do with the nature of interactions between these concentric communities, and how they might be improved. For example, if one is working in the Mozilla “community of action”, how easy is it to work with the Mozilla “community of practice”, without actually being part of that community? When and where it’s difficult, how could it be made easier?

    Speaking generally, communities of practice can be very effective because they have all this shared context. However they can also seem somewhat opaque and impenetrable to people who don’t have all that shared context. I think Mozilla is less opaque than most because of the relative transparency of the project and the relatively low barriers to actually learning about and joining it. However that still requires an investment of people’s time, and depending on the nature of the interaction people may or may not be able to justify making that investment. So they look for shortcuts, and such shortcuts may or may not exist in all cases.

  2. 2

    Gerv said on July 8th, 2008 at 1:58 am:

    I think this is (another) useful view on the question.

    It strikes me that the Mozilla mission benefits from having a large Community of Interest – people who are supportive of our mission. The Community of Interest is formed from people who were in the User Community, but then became aware enough about the project to a) see that we have a mission, b) learn what it is, and c) decide that it’s a good idea. Exactly how we benefit from this will differ from person to person. It may be that ordinary users are more eager to recommend Firefox to their friends. It may be that a politician considers us when involved in patent policy. It may be that a web designer remembers us when his boss asks him to construct an IE-only site “because it’s quicker”.

    So it may be worth considering how we move ordinary people from being in the User Community to the Community of Interest – i.e. to take them through steps a) to c) above. I guess this is a question of appropriate publicity and clear articulation. Our main means of communication with the world is Firefox – our software on their machine. How can we leverage that to pull people from the User Community into the Community of Interest?


  3. 3

    David Boswell said on July 8th, 2008 at 1:23 pm:

    I think it is useful to recognize that there’s not one Mozilla community but rather many overlapping ones and that these different communities are all legitimately part of what we mean by the word Mozilla.

    For instance, when we were reorganizing the Projects page on, I struggled with trying to categorize the applications such as Songbird, Open Komodo and Miro. They were not part of what has been traditionally known as Mozilla, but they are still clearly part of the community (each of these apps are blogged about on Planet Mozilla, developers and users of these applications also share some of the same code, goals and values…).

    With the recognition that there are multiple communities though, there’s no need to draw a line between one community and another and say that this one can be considered Mozilla and this other needs to be considered something else. They may be different parts of a larger community, or different types of communities, but they are still part of a larger unit (whatever you call a group of communities — a gaggle maybe?).

    As we’re looking to expand the Foundation’s activities and are looking to expand the community itself, having this more flexible and inclusive view of what Mozilla is seems like a good thing.

  4. 4

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  5. 5

    Mark Surman said on July 9th, 2008 at 4:26 pm:

    Mitchell: I like the idea of spheres. It adds space for more dimensions. Even at the core of the sphere there are different geographies, projects, skills. Interesting. However, I am not sure ‘community of practice’ is the right term for what sits at the centre of the sphere. It feels a bit too open ended, and not enough about producing concrete artifacts. I’m going to think on this and post once I am fully back online (next couple of days).

    Gerv: The ‘user community’ -> ‘community of interest’ path you’ve drawn in your comment is a good one. Adding this level of granularity makes for something much more doable than my consumer -> contributor path, at least to start. Mozilla could do a fun video campaign about why the open, participatory web matters. Or something around the Manifesto. Or an alliance of people and projects promoting the open web. Who knows? In any case, I agree with you that at least some of the Foundation’s resources and effort would be well used in helping people along this path.

  6. 6

    Pingback from Mitchell’s Blog » Blog Archive » A Second View of the Open Internet

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  7. 7

    Pingback from Mozilla Brochure 1.0 « davidwboswell

    […] Foundation’s future, there have been some efforts made to be more precise about what the community is now. It make sense that we need to have a clear understanding of where we are today before we can […]

  8. 8

    Stephanie said on July 11th, 2008 at 1:20 pm:

    I’ve recently been looking at this from a completely different angle – what barriers are there that keep those communities from freely and effectively collaborating to make things better. Anyway… here’s the first three that I can see…

    Barrier of Knowledge
    (to adapt a quote from Douglas Adams)
    “Mozilla is a big project… . Really big. So vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big you won’t believe it. So I won’t bother wasting your time trying to convince you how vastly hugely fantastically mind-bogglingly hugely enormous it is.”
    As soon as you scratch the surface, you realize there’s a lot going on…and that it’s not “just” a browser that’s being developed, or “just” a mail client. This is really overwhelming, and I think it’s a culture shock to new contributors. There’s enough going on that it’s easy to lose awareness of the big picture… and easy to never even see the big picture to begin with. Finding out who to talk to, how to do stuff, etc is a huge barrier to becoming more than a spectator in this community.

    Barrier of Attitudes
    “I don’t have time.” “RESOLVED WONTFIX” “RESOLVED INVALID”
    I don’t think anyone would deliberately push a newcomer aside, but sometimes (and I’ve been guilty of it too), the culture of geeks (or hackers, or gurus, or whatever term you want to use that day) is abrasive. When someone comes to a geek and says “It doesn’t work.” without explaining what doesn’t work… there’s implied hostility. Things start off on a bad foot right away. I’m not sure that this can be helped any more than we’re already doing, but it’s certainly one thing that can chase someone away from a community.

    Barrier of Ability
    “I’m a doctor Jim, not a …”
    This is the one we can’t help quite so much. A person’s own skills and abilities are going to define what roles they can take in a community. That said, we can make sure that we point those people who want to help towards somewhere they’ll be useful.

  9. 9

    Trackback from commonspace

    More on Mozilla: communities, circles and maps…

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  10. 10

    Pingback from Mitchell’s Blog » Blog Archive » Concentric Spheres of Community

    […] a post last week I talked about concentric circles of community, noting that I actually think of Mozilla as […]

  11. 11

    Chris Messina said on July 15th, 2008 at 10:31 pm:

    Curious. I mocked up a similar concept in December 2004:

  12. 12

    Trackback from commonspace

    A few concrete things Mozilla Foundation might do…

    Looking back over dozens of online and over-beer conversations, it’s clear the Mozilla Foundation can play an important role in the world. This role is not to oversee or second guess the people producing Firefox, Thunderbird, SeaMonkey, XUL and other …

  13. 13

    angel dawson said on July 26th, 2008 at 10:27 pm:

    I want to collect more information about concentric circles of community. Could you please help me out?
    Wide Circles

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