How to foster productive online conversations: Mozilla Conductors

February 1st, 2012 in mozilla, open source, PlanetGNOME

When I first started using email, I had a part time job in the computer science department at Rice University. A new grad student joined the department and a few days after he started, I noticed it was his birthday. Knowing he was unlikely to know many people in town, I sent him an email that said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” all spelled out in big letters made out of asterisks. He wrote me back “Thanks a lot”. Now in my world, “Thanks a lot” was always said “Thanks a *lot*” with a slightly sarcastic twist to it. I emailed him right back to ask him if he really liked it or if he was being sarcastic. He said no, of course, he really liked it.

So if one happy birthday email can be that confusing, imagine what can go wrong with a complicated email about project directions and motivations … Especially when it’s going out to a mailing list that has hundreds of people on it. That’s what most of us in the open source space deal with every day. Some of us do it better than others. Some days we do it better than others. But we all work at it every day. It’s the way we communicate with our friends, peers and co-workers.

Please meet the Mozilla Conductors

A few months ago, several of us at Mozilla had a conversation about how we could best help people learn how to communicate well online. We have new people joining the project all the time and they have to learn how to communicate on mailing lists, IRC and bugzilla. Those of us helping them realize daily what a challenge it can be. As much as we don’t think about it, cc’ing the right people, quoting previous mail messages and keeping the conversation from getting argumentative are not easy things.

We were looking for a way to help everyone communicate better, exploring all sorts of crazy options like classes and consultants, and realized we had the best resources right inside our project. We have people that are really good at fostering online conversations. They’ve been doing it for years; quietly (and not so quietly) leading and directing the conversations and projects they are part of.

So we sent out a bunch of emails, came to a consensus and created the Mozilla Conductors!

Mozilla Conductors help Mozillians with difficult online conversations. We offer advice, suggestions, a listening ear, moral support and, in the case where the discussion is public, occasionally direct intervention. But the goal is to help everyone communicate effectively, not to be enforcers.  If you end up in a difficult online situation, you can reach out to Conductors via the mailing list or to any individual in the group to ask for help. Maybe you just need a sounding board or  help figuring out how to phrase a particular idea or how to make someone particularly difficult go away. The Conductors will help brainstorm, ask questions,  provide ideas and help. And where we are on mailing lists, we commit to helping  keep the conversations constructive.

We are not an officially appointed group. We are a peer nominated group. We are a group of people from across the Mozilla project. We are a Mozilla Module.

Please help us make online conversations productive and Mozilla a success!

One Response to “How to foster productive online conversations: Mozilla Conductors”

  1. Thanks for doing that, it’s important to have this group.

    And this is not just for newcomers – sometimes the more emotional of us, even if we’ve been in the project for years and might even get into some management positions, get caught on the wrong foot and start flaming. We’re trying hard not to, but as good as it is to be passionate about Mozilla and your work, emotions are sometimes hard to control and we write stuff without thinking about it enough (actually, we often think “but it’s right” and believe that this means that we’re thinking logically about it when actually it’s all emotion driving the comment).
    And we might even write something we think of as helpful and it can be understood the wrong way, maybe because we’re not writing in our native language or other cultural differences.
    It’s always good to have people around who can calm down the seas when it’s getting too rough.

    Once again, “thanks a lot”, er, I mean, a very warm and sincere “thank you” for that.