Disrespect intended: Mozilla thinks it knows better

To make Firefox more relevant, Mozilla Context Graph elbows out authors and decides what readers are interested in

Disrespect intended: Mozilla thinks it knows better

A man is seen next to a Firefox logo at a Mozilla stand during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, February 28, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Albert Gea

Mozilla surely means well, but with its new Context Graph it may not end up doing well.

In an attempt to make web browsers "immediately useful instead of demanding input when you launched them," as Mozilla vice president of product Nick Nguyen styles it, Mozilla hopes to enrich every web page with Mozilla-imposed links to content that can be "useful and magical"; that is, content the author of the web page didn't choose but that Mozilla thinks you'll like anyway.

It's a noble attempt to break the web free of Google and Facebook control. What's not so noble, however, is the attempt to supplant author control with so-called user control, as web visionary Yehuda Katz points out in a series of tweets.

We want the web to bloom freely

It's not hard to see why Mozilla would be interested in "freeing" the web. After all, its future depends on rising relevance as a browser. Although Firefox used to account for nearly a quarter of all desktop browser usage, today it has slipped to a mere 8 percent in desktop browser market share statistics, compared to Google Chrome's 49 percent and Microsoft Internet Explorer's 32 percent. In mobile, it doesn't even register -- so anything that would make Mozilla "great again" is worth trying.

A less cynical reading, however, acknowledges Nguyen's concern that "incumbents now have the power to spend their competition out of existence." Using forest biodiversity as a metaphor, Nguyen worries about the effect "tall trees" like Facebook and Google have on the rest of the forest:

Tall trees are great  --  for tall trees. What concerns us is the long term impact of a world where a small number of companies dominate the web for discovery and services, and the leverage that creates. In this world of tall trees, the only path for new ideas requires either payment or acquisition, either of which tend to cost a lot of money.

This isn't fearmongering alone. Today, Facebook and Google collectively drive 75 percent of all referrals to news websites. In so doing, these two web giants effectively control what we see and, by extension, heavily influence how we think.

The problem, however, is that Mozilla's Context Graph isn't necessarily an improvement on this problem.

Deconstruct the author

In this article, I've included links that give greater context on this topic, and I chose those links intentionally to deepen the context this article provides. I've selected -- curated -- them based on the position I'm trying to relate and the analysis I bring to bear. You don't have to click on them, but they could enrich your understanding of this issue.

In Mozilla's Context Graph, however, the author doesn't matter much. Instead, Mozilla's vision involves tracking user journeys and recommending links based on what others have apparently found successful: "There is an opportunity to disrupt how discovery is done on the web by setting up a parallel graph to the traditional map of the web that isn't based on direct linking and page-content analysis, but instead on how users in the past have interacted with the web and where they found success."

The masses may be asses, to use Alexander Hamilton's phrase, but they'll help you find a brave new web that you didn't know you wanted.

Beyond user privacy, which Nguyen insists will be totally fine because, well, trust Mozilla! ("There is no necessary trade-off to be made between user control and personalization, and we will prove that these products are achievable without violating user trust or privacy," he says).

But even if you believe that, there's still the issue of author intent. As Katz complains, "How is [Context Graph] anything other than Firefox thinking it knows better than authors what outbound links to highlight?"

This becomes even more important as we consider "entire ecosystems (like YouTubers) built on reciprocal links and raising each other up," Katz notes. Such ecosystems would be put in jeopardy by "Mozilla knows best" recommendation engines. Katz insists, "Firefox should not compete with authors' outbound links by giving users 'more important' outbound links."

Frankly, it probably has better things to do than try to compete with Google on semantic understanding of the web, an area where Google excels and Mozilla has limited expertise.

It's not enough, as Nguyen hopes ("Firefox, because of who we are and what we stand for, is uniquely suited to build this understanding"), to hope that large but diminishing numbers of Firefox users will somehow magically translate into deep understanding of user behavior.

But more to the point, if Mozilla cares so much about users, shouldn't it also care about the authors who serve them? Google and Facebook may offer limited choices on how users find authors' content, but Mozilla seemingly hopes to completely discombobulate the connection between authors and readers, making it all but impossible to coherently market to them.

This doesn't seem like progress.

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