By the people, for the people

June 4th, 2009

A lot of people are drawn to this phrase. It comes up regularly when we discuss trying to capture Mozilla in a few words. I’ve always wondered if it feels too American, if it is as appealing world-wide. If you’ve got thoughts I’d love to hear them. And if you’re a native speaker of a language other than English it would be helpful to know that as part of your comment.

24 comments for “By the people, for the people”

  1. 1

    Sylvain D said on June 4th, 2009 at 2:12 pm:

    In France, the definition of democraty is the same:
    Le gouvernement du peuple par le peuple pour le peuple
    Governing the people by the people for the people

    I think I first heard that by my history teacher. (In french of course)

  2. 2

    Pascal said on June 4th, 2009 at 2:59 pm:

    This is an Abraham Lincoln quote but he was rephrasing what Pericles/Plato/ said to define democracy in ancient Athens 2500 years ago. I believe most western countries have that quote or a similar one in their laws and consitutution since even today our conception of democracy is from ancient Greece, it is indeed the case for the French constitution.

  3. 3

    Melchert F said on June 4th, 2009 at 3:05 pm:

    Unlike in France and the US the term ‘the people’, ‘het volk’ in Dutch, does not have the same historical background. However, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, as our state is called in our passport, is nowadays a full fletched democracy; the national, regional and local governments are elected by the citizens, like in Great Brittain.
    The European Union (EU), for which parliamentary elections were held in Great Brittain and the Netherlands today, is a complex institution where the people and the EU parliament are only weakly linked. These elections are not very popular, in the Netherlands, at least. Only a small percentage of the Dutch were expected to cast their vote for the European Parliament.

  4. 4

    Ronald van Kuijk said on June 4th, 2009 at 3:42 pm:

    Melchert is right. Being Dutch to, I can even add that ‘het volk’, the people, has a somewhat denigrating tendency (especially in the light of the ‘success’ of the right wing PVV winning in the elections for the european parliament)

    This denigrating can be found also if you take ‘the people’ and translate it to French. You get ‘le peuple’ then and the Dutch have a word ‘gepeupel’ which is best translated as ‘mob’ ( the lower classes of a community, according to merriam-webster.)

    ‘By everyone, for everyone’ would be better, although the first ‘everyone’ is probably eutopic

  5. 5

    yaPlanetReader said on June 4th, 2009 at 4:58 pm:

    I’m from the UK and I can see it’s a good and pithy statement but it grates with me. I only come across the phrase through US media or in reference to America. Mentally, I pair it with with “We, the people…”, both of which I take to mean implicitly “(American) people”. If it isn’t as well known “abroad” I’d have less problem with it as that sense of exclusivity proper to its original context wouldn’t be there.

    Not the best examples, but it’s a bit like hearing:
    “I did not go surfing with that browser, MS IE.”
    “There can be no whitewash on the WorldWideWeb.”

    or perhaps to non-UK ears:
    “The Internet’s not for turning” (Thatcher)
    “We shall fight them on the browsers…” (Churchill)

    I just realised why I picked quotes from national leaders there. To an American “by the people, for the people” might evoke a common cause and fundamental freedoms, to anyone else it could simply sound like something important a US President once said.

    Please excuse my wilder generalisations 🙂

  6. 6

    Guillermo Movia said on June 4th, 2009 at 5:22 pm:

    I translate this phrase and put it on my blog. It’s not a phrase of the United States for me, doesn’t have that meaning. In spanish we don’t have the problem like dutch with «volk/pueblo», I use «Gente». But we don’t repeat the word people: «Por y para la gente»

  7. 7

    Giuliano said on June 4th, 2009 at 9:44 pm:

    In Italy this motto is widely used. In fact, if you look around the web you’ll find A LOT of Italian websites, blogs and other services affirming that they are done “dalla gente, per la gente” (meaning of course “by the people, for the people”).
    The surprising thing is that, if you do a deeper investigation, you’ll find out that this motto is mostly used (in percentage) by the Italian sites related to free and open source software. So even if in our culture “by the people, from the people” doesn’t have a historical/political meaning, I can says that undoubtedly it reflects your thought perfectly Mitchell.

    Mozilla: dalla gente, per la gente! 🙂

  8. 8

    Adrian Kalla said on June 5th, 2009 at 12:39 am:

    I’m not sure if other Eastern-European (I was born in Poland) have the same feeling like I have when I hear that phrase, but: it sounds a bit… “socialist”, but in a *positive* sense (but older generations, who lived in communist countries, may think differently…). Why? Because the communists were always saying that ‘the people are working for the people’.
    In fact, I always thought that in the Mozilla case that phrase really was an allusion to “socialism”, lets just think about the many other allusions like the red star and other posters used at the beginning of the Mozilla Project. I didn’t know anything about the American context of that phrase…

  9. 9

    Tristan said on June 5th, 2009 at 1:14 am:

    I love it and I use it! See

    “TechRadar: Why do you think Firefox is flourishing and what are you doing to keep up the rate of growth against the likes of Internet Explorer 8?

    “Tristan Nitot: I would say it’s the internet by the people for the people. It’s really a browser made by the users for the user. We’re here to serve the users and that’s our top priority. We don’t have a hidden agenda, we’re not here to maximize profits, we’re here to serve users. I think people, whether they know what open source is or not, feel through the product that it is made for them. “

  10. 10

    voracity said on June 5th, 2009 at 4:47 am:

    Interesting. I feel the same as yaPlanetReader. As an Australian, the phrase comes across as very American. Perhaps it’s only non-American English speaking countries that would have an issue with it?

  11. 11

    Melchert F said on June 5th, 2009 at 6:01 am:

    An addendum to my previous comment.
    The numbers on the EU parliament elections in the Netherlands.
    36% did show up to cast a vote for a number of seats available for Dutch representatives in the EU parliament, leading to this political spectrum:
    christian democrats – 5, social democrats – 4, new liberals – 4, liberal democrats – 3, liberals – 3; a few of the remaining seats go to the green party and the socialists.

  12. 12

    Havvy said on June 5th, 2009 at 7:26 am:

    (I am of the USA)

    Most US political phrases annoy me. This one does not. Mozilla is, from my observations, the largest most flourishing democracy not based on explicit or implicit force. Seeing that the aim is not to make money, nor to impose policy, but instead to make a product that is extremely cheap to distribute (in comparison to non-digital products). Because barriers to entry and exit are small, if Mozilla sways from the path, people will leave, and taking the lessons learned from Mozilla, create a competing organization.

  13. 13

    Alan said on June 5th, 2009 at 9:33 am:

    I’m British. (Which normally would sound like a very self-righteous way to start a comment!)

    I’m glad yaPlanetReader said it above, because whilst this phrase really doesn’t appeal to me I can’t quite explain why it doesn’t. My best explanation is that it sounds very American – and Mozilla is a global (or World) community, rather than an American one.

    Guillermo Movia said he would translate it to Spanish as «Por y para la gente» – to me “By and for the people” does not evoke the same feeling as above. I think this is partially as it sounds slightly less dictatorial – in the sense that doing something ‘for the people’ appears more as the minority speaking for the majority, whereas uniting the two in the phrase as Guillermo suggested doesn’t bring this to mind for me (despite ostensibly saying the same thing).

  14. 14

    Gerv said on June 5th, 2009 at 9:47 am:

    (From the other post.) I’m British, traditionally a fairly US-friendly place, and I know more than most Brits about US culture, and I still had to look up the “by the people, for the people” reference. I knew it was a famous speech, but not which one. It has a good ring to it, though. (Which is probably why people quote it.) Given that other countries seem to support it, I’d say we could use it.

    BTW, I liked:
    “We shall fight them on the browsers…” (Churchill)

  15. 15

    Sylvain D said on June 5th, 2009 at 12:03 pm:

    Maybe it appeals only to people living in democracies.

    And as said Adrian Kalla the word “people” is quite socialism related. (I France its communist related.)

    I’m not sure it’s the best quote if it remind dark hours to people in east-European countries.

  16. 16

    Ehsan Akhgari said on June 5th, 2009 at 12:47 pm:

    I’m a native Persian speaker. In Persian, this can’t be translated as cleanly as the original English phrase is, and the translation ends up a little bit thick. But I don’t think it would come off as too American. In fact, I wouldn’t know about the origin of this phrase if it weren’t for this very post! 🙂

  17. 17

    Scott Beveridge said on June 5th, 2009 at 7:08 pm:

    The last time I checked, no one in my neighborhood in the United States was drawn to this phrase.
    Its meaning, though, was self explanatory.

  18. 18

    Jesper Kristensen said on June 6th, 2009 at 5:33 am:

    I like the sentence and how it describes Mozilla. When I hear the term, I associate it with democracy and the ancient Greece. (I am a native Danish speaker)

  19. 19

    Lennie said on June 6th, 2009 at 6:44 am:

    indirectly Tristan already mentioned it, why not go with: a browser made by the users for the user[s].

    I doesn’t use the word people and possible if you know the original quote, you’ll recognize it. If you didn’t that’s not a big problem.

  20. 20

    Sylvain D said on June 6th, 2009 at 8:06 am:

    I just checked my comment and it sounds strange.

    by democracies I meant democracies based withouts Kings or Queens (I don’t even know how it’s called in my native language). My mistake.

  21. 21

    George Fiotakis said on June 7th, 2009 at 3:20 pm:

    I’m Greek and in my language that phrase is used widely almost by all political parties, though communists/socialists use it more often. Now, by default we don’t trust our political parties that much, while the communist party represents something less than 9% of the population, so i think it wont be a big hit :).
    Personally I really love it but If I had to localize the phrase, I’d prefer something like “By free people, for free people”

  22. 22

    Jeff Walden said on June 8th, 2009 at 12:55 am:

    It’s worth noting that while the primary association of the phrase may be with Lincoln now, it wasn’t his invention, and the phrase’s originator may not have been American. (Indeed, from the links below it seems there’s a somewhat common misconception that Wycliffe of Bible publishing fame first wrote it.) That said, nobody seems to have a good original citation, at least not going by these two assays upon the etymology, so it may be impossible to say:

    Personally, I’d be rather more interested in hearing from commenters about the phrase’s connotations in China given what I’ve been told about their political ethos, particularly as it relates to authority (especially that of government).

  23. 23

    iang said on June 8th, 2009 at 6:36 am:

    To me the phrase sounds American and political, and USA politics are not popular around the world (c.f., Bush / Obama). That will heal in time, and you might want to catch that wave now.

    I think a major downside is that, in common with all political talk, it is deceptive or used in a political context of deception. It’s based essentially on a fantasy, that “we the people” can have a voice, and we work for our benefit.

    The detailed mismatch to Mozilla would be that it isn’t that. Mozilla is “by the developer, for the people.” This is no bad thing, indeed it is a great thing because it is an alternate model to others like “by M$ for the people.” But it has to be said, the developers aren’t the people, there is a bit of a challenge in communication between the two sometimes. When there is no good feedback from the real world, people become very sure of themselves, and bad solutions persist.

    Having said that, the vision may be something good because it stresses that the shortcomings are accepted as shortcomings, we aspire to meet that which is unmeetable. “For the people” would certainly would help my work, I’ve frequently found myself pointing out that the end-user of Mozilla’s products is generally the only one who is not present at the discussion.

  24. 24

    Sylvain D said on June 8th, 2009 at 1:29 pm:

    I’m not Mozilla Spokesperson (I wish :p) but the main goal is for the people by the people even if now it’s still “by developers, for the people” but they try (and it’s quite effective from my point of view) to lower the requirements. (via Jetpack for extensions and personnas for styles).
    And “basic” users already work on firefox by finding bugs, translating the interface,…

    Of course a non-develloper can’t work on gecko (the rendering engine) because it’s complex.

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