Rafi Santo, Ph.D., is a learning scientist focused on the intersection of digital culture, education, and institutional change. Centering his work within research-practice partnerships, he has studied, collaborated with, and facilitated a range of organizational networks related to digital learning, computing, and technology in education. Within informal education, he has focused on design of innovation networks as co-founder of Hive Research Lab, a partnership with the Hive NYC Learning Network. In K12 schooling, he’s partnered with the CSforAll National Consortium to support and study school districts as they develop computing education initiatives. His work has been supported by the Spencer Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, and the Susan Crown Exchange.
Can you start by giving me an overview of your work?
Sure. By training, I’m a learning scientist, which means I think about the theory, measurement and design of learning across the many settings where it happens. I work on a range of applied research projects rooted in long term partnerships with educational organizations and institutions, from community-based organizations and school districts to foundations and network builders like CSforAll and Mozilla. With my long term collaborator Dr. Dixie Ching, and our academic advisers (now former, since we’ve both graduated) Dr. Kylie Peppler and Dr. Chris Hoadley, I’ve co-lead the Hive Research Lab (HRL), an applied research project that aimed to serve and support the great group of organizations that make up the Hive NYC Learning Network.
A lot of my work focuses on questions of how and where digital culture plays into education. That ranges from how and where kids are learning with digital media, how they engage in interest-driven learning pathways around areas like design, computer science, digitally-enabled social activism, community-engaged media arts, all those different youth pathways related to digital media are part of the work we do to focus on understanding young people in a digital world. A big question for me is how we can make sure minoritized youth not only have skills to thrive, but the social capital needed to participate and have a seat at the table.
Part of that means asking questions about how structures and institutions need to change, which ties into the second big area of my work that focuses on how educational organizations react and adjust to the shifts that come with digital culture and a networked world. Some of this is looking at changes to the ‘content’ of their work, like focusing on new learning goals and pedagogies that are needed or possible in a world of new media. But a lot of is also about how the processes through which organizations change are themselves being affected by digital culture. We’re now in a ‘networked culture’, and it’s important to understand how organizations are embedded in and co-create innovation-focused networks, how their processes of collaborative innovation are changing and sometimes becoming more intentional, things like that.
In the context of my work with Hive, a lot of this has focused on where cultural values in the digital world, and particularly open source, play into the ways that education organizations engage and collaborate around these problems.
One of the findings that came as a surprise as we got deeper into our research with the Hive network was that, it’s not just that organizations are using digital media to teach our young people, but that the very ways they innovate now are tied to digital culture and, in the case of Mozilla, open source culture. Looking at practices of rapid prototyping and iteration, looking at practices of open documentation and enabling contribution from a wide variety of actors, looking at practices of openly licensing the work that you do and making it remixable, those are all now ways that many organizations are working.
For me, a lot of the work in thinking about institutional networks is finding productive ways to find linkages between meso-level organizational dynamics — the ways organizations shift and change through being in collectives — to micro level outcomes of individual youth lives that comes through the interactions they have with educators and broader program ecologies. How do you weave all these together in a way that is productive for young people, but also potentially transformative for cities and sectors? How do you coordinate institutional networks to create pathways of opportunity for non-dominant youth?
We’ve been trying to tackle some small part of this question in a two-year project called CS-Paths, funded by the Spencer Foundation, that collaborates with the Hive network in New York to identify and create what we’re calling ‘brokering practices’.
In our youth pathways work a critical practice we are uncovering is the act of being a learning broker. Most organizations tend not to think about the moment after their program ends as a critical pathway moment, but our research has led us to really focus on those moments. We’ve found that youth might experience a summer program, spring break program or a one-day hack jam, and it might just be really seen as a one-off experience. Their whole ability to engage in an interest around computing and digital making will drop off after the program ends if some intentional bridging or brokering doesn’t happen. From the youth’s perspective their social support disappears.
The entire CS Pathways project is focused on this practice of brokering. How do you actively identify a good opportunity for young people related to their digital media making and computing interest? How do you make sure there’s enough trust so that a youth being recommended a future opportunity is likely to take it up? How do you make sure that educators know about high quality next steps beyond their organization’s offerings, or even within in?
As an example of one problem we’ve focused on in the project is how educators can ‘vet’ potential internship sites where they place youth. It’s to easy for those interested in computing to get an internship and suddenly have a bad experience and decide it’s not for them because the place they were placed just wasn’t right. The problem of how to select and prep a site is something that one of the design partners we’re working with, and we recently presented some results about this question of how to know if an internship site is ‘safe enough’ for youth coming from non-dominant backgrounds.
The project is structured so that we’re collaborating with different Hive organizations as design partners, and each of them are tackling different facets of this problem. Like I mentioned above, one of them, called Scope of Work, is focused on not having bad internship placements and instead ensuring that they’re actually productive for young people from non-dominant communities. Another partner organization. MOUSE, has a monthly maker night. They know that the maker night is sort of this one-off thing for most youth, but are looking for how they can use it as an on-ramp to their deeper programs or as a way that leads to more opportunities in the ecosystem. Another partner, Beam Center, thought with us about how, in the context of really short programs they do in schools, they can help you understand what kind of opportunities their teaching artists could connect them to.
Rather than redesigning the whole ecosystem at the network level, the project asks how can an organization change the routines they already have to create better connective tissue across contexts. Whether it’s around internship placement or site visits or these more one-off events — let’s strengthen them in terms of pathway priorities in computing and digital making. That’s one big project that we’re currently working on.
We’ve also worked with leadership of Hive networks to think about community-level outcomes and measurement. How do we identify and conceptualize what counts as a healthy Hive network? How would we know if one network is healthier than another? And the approach we took with that project is similarly rooted in a lot of participatory design approaches that we use as applied researchers — the research team isn’t going off into a room and coming out with an answer. We worked in partnership with network members and steward to discover and refine the answer to ‘what is a healthy Hive’ together. This is meant to be something that the stewards of the network can use to make decisions around network infrastructure and to inform priorities around what programs and opportunities they put in front of network members.
As an example, I remember meeting a long time Hive member for breakfast and asking them, “Hey, are you applying to the new RFP?” They were like, “What new RFP?”. In instance like that is an indicator to me that something might be able to be improved around a key characteristic of network health — clarity for members around what opportunities the network is providing. This is part of a larger indicator around clarity that also includes things like clarity around what the network is about, clarity about who’s in the network and clarity on where expertise lies in the network.
So when I hear that a network member, who’s been with the network for a long time, doesn’t know about an upcoming opportunity, it’s an indicator that can be used by the network stewards to start asking questions about who’s on the current contact lists and are they on the right lists? This might seem like small administrative stuff, but to me these are the things that add up to ‘network health’.
Then the question becomes how do we gather those indicators in scalable, practical and consistent ways. If I’m a network steward and I’m having all those sorts of meetings with members all the time anyway, what can I take away quantitatively from those meetings that will let me know, “Oh, we’re doing really well in terms of trust as one of the core indicators.” You can come to a meetup that happened two days after the presidential election and witness the amount of tears in the room of 50 people and read that as an indicator of a lot of trust in the network.
Thinking about the work you’ve been doing for all these years, could you hone in on a particular time where you really felt a sense of success and tell me about it?
Definitely. I think the biggest moment of success in our work with the Hive community was actually unplanned. In the summer of 2015 in our research on youth pathways we surfaced this challenge of youth experiencing ‘post program slump’, the drop-off in social support for their interest-driven learning with technology. We’d always envisioned that we’d be bringing people together to talk about co-designing solutions around building pathways, so we held this one-day charette with network members (the approach is documented here). As part of the process of thinking about this at the problem stage, we presented this research on the post program slump, and we asked, “What would a successful pathway experience look like?”
Someone wrote that it would look like youth are always being presented with their next opportunity when they need it, and there’s an adult who’s able to broker a learning opportunity. It’s something that we had come across in the literature before, this idea of ‘brokering’, but identifying that potential practice as something that can solve this problem of post-program slump, that was really big for us. It helped move the conversation about pathways forward because it helped us see pathways as an outcome, and brokering as a practice that supported that outcome. So following the charette we wanted to keep on developing these ideas with members. We did a participatory knowledge building process in the Hive network for about six to eight months where we started to develop ideas together, synthesized stuff from our basic research, hear what people were doing in their own organizations related to brokering learning experiences, figured out a way to make sense of it. For those interested in participatory knowledge building as a method more generally, we wrote up a case study about it here.
So in that process, we had discussions with members around questions like, “Who does the brokering, and what kinds of things are brokered?” and “What are the big factors that relate to it?” Other questions emerged from the answers to those first questions, like, “How much does a young person trust an educator? How much does an educator know about a young person? How much does an educator know about what kind of opportunities are out there? How much does a young person actively signal what their interests are, or ask for help?”
We developed these ideas together with the network, and developed a process of building knowledge collectively, honing in on the possibility space together and doing that in a very public way where a lot of people could participate in it across our network. We ended up out of this process evolving what we call a community white paper. We have community white papers on this issue of pathways and brokering (the handout version of the paper is here), and we have a community white paper on working in the open. There was something in particular about this white paper where we saw large amounts of engagement with it.
Every time we would come to network meetings and talk about it, there was energy. We’ve had organizations within the Hive asking us to come and present to their internal leadership about it. These were pretty clear indicators for us that this is something to focus on, because it was clearly important to network members. That actually led to us developing a more robust project around this issue that I mentioned earlier, the CS-Paths initiative, that allowed us to deepen our work with network members, develop new brokering practices that the whole network could use, and deeper the theoretical base around how to support youth pathways.
Another moment of success that felt similar was with the CSed Visions Project, which was about coming together as a community to discuss, and, ideally, broaden, the reasons that were being offered for universal computer science education in New York City. This was right around the time that Mayor de Blasio announced the CS4All initiative in the city, which aims to bring CSed to all public school students, and we were hearing a lot about jobs and the need to solve a shortage of engineering talent, and we knew that these weren’t necessarily the only values and visions that lots of the Hive members that engage youth with CS are driven by. So with my collaborators Sara Vogel (a former Hive member from Global Kids) and Dixie Ching, we created a forum where we hoped a broader conversation around the purposes of CS4All could take place. And immediately we got feedback that let us know that this was a need in the community. We had first planned to just run one workshop, and we did not have any funding for it. We were like “This is something that’s coming up from the community, and it seems like it’s a really clear opportunity space for Hive organizations to have their voices heard and their perspectives amplified, and we’re just going to play a role as an intermediary to bring a bunch of people together.” But the minute we did that, it blew up.
We were approached by the Department of Education in New York City to collaborate with them to run additional events to bring the voices of Hive members into their planning process. We were approached by CSNYC, the foundation that runs the public-private partnership for the CS for All initiative in New York (full disclosure: since then I’ve become a research fellow at CSforAll, which is run by CSNYC). We were approached by a lot of different actors who were really clear that this was necessary work. Eventually, the framework (paper here) that was developed around understand a more diverse set of purposes for universal CS education was adopted and became an integral part of how CSforAll helps districts root local CSed initiatives in their own community values, as opposed to those coming down from some outsider actors. To me, that feels like a big win.
Success in our work has always come from getting feedback from the communities we serve. In both of the examples I shared, we were able to know, “OK, we need to continue to create the spaces around this that will allow these kinds of conversations to happen, and to further shed light, and understand these issues.” We’ve had that happen in a lot of different ways in our partnership-based work.
You identified this gap — the slump — after youth left the program. Was that something that practitioners were able to articulate to you, or was it just after being in those communities for a long time, and watching, and putting all the pieces together, that you were able to see the gap?
We’ve always understood the identification of that gap was very much linked to our positionality as researchers who are able to follow youth for a very long time, beyond their experience in one of the Hive organizations. Before I went to grad school, I was in one of the Hive member organizations, Global Kids, and I would run these programs. I know from my perspective that when I was running programs, my prime concern was creating a high-quality learning environment and experience for young people. We were experimenting with of lot of new forms of pedagogy, new tools and technologies as well as with ways to reach certain goals around teaching new literacies that people would never have thought about teaching before. I can say personally, and maybe this was my own blinders, I rarely made the connection to that question of, “What happens to every single kid in my program after they don’t see me anymore?” There were definitely certain kids that I’ve had ongoing relationships with. But I never saw that as a learning design challenge.
How would you design your program differently? I think for a lot of people, myself included, the notion of youth pathways has always been a very powerful metaphor.
Which is like the Holy Grail…
That was a big shift. We’ve gotten a lot of pushback from organizations that have a social justice and activism orientation. One of which I come from. And we’ve had our own hesitancy around some of the neoliberal linguistic connotations to brokering. But the problem was connecting, bridging. We went through a lot of reflections about language because we wanted the language to index our values. But we also wanted the language to be specific enough to be a lever for change, and things like ‘connecting’ were just too vague to be actionable.
We found that even though brokering has some linguistic baggage, it is a very practical thing that has resonance with the community that we’re working with.
I love the way you put that. Now, can you tell me about a time where you had a really difficult challenge? How did you approach that?
Some of the biggest challenges that I bump up against are around providing knowledge and feedback in a way that is useful, timely, and actionable but also respects the agency of the partners that we have.
I can give you an example. Dixie (Editor note: Read Dixie’s story here.) my research partner, and I along with the leadership in Hive New York have been working for the past eight months to come up with these sets of indicators around what makes a healthy network.
We’re going to be beginning to crosswalk those with the other leaders of Hive networks in other cities this week. One of the big challenges we had was, how do we approach this in such a way where we’re not saying, “Hey, this is a fait accompli.”? We’ve been working on this for six months, or eight months, and tough if you don’t like it. But how do we not do the opposite? Which is, “What do you guys think are good ideas around what network health should be?”
Because we want to know their perspectives on that, but we want that to be integrated into a process that acknowledges that there is a whole bunch of people that have been working for a very long time and have come up with the answers to that question, questions that felt conscientious, thoughtful, and tractable.
It’s a classic working open problem which is, “How do you appropriately structure and frame agencies of new people that might be joining a larger project?” I think this is a problem that Mozilla contends with in many ways, I think it’s something that open source, in general, contends with.
It’s something that if you do work in a way where you are serious that one of the key outcomes of work is promoting the agency of everybody involved, then you need to contend with this challenge. To me, it’s not easy.
Yeah — and, again, the way you’ve articulated this would resonate with people who work in international development. In particular, people who work with civil society or in community development would really recognize this.
There are academics in my field who write about this problem extensively. They talk about what does it mean to foster agency when you design work in a way that makes sense. This is really hard when you do applied research work with distributed networks, and I think it’s just as true for network stewards themselves. They’re in the same role. They’re in a role where their job is to create a big context where the agency of the organizations in these networks is elevated and where collective problem solving can occur.
How do you structure that in a way that feels equitable and fair, that feels like it is building capacity but in a way that also feels like you’re actually getting problems solved? A lot of what funders in this space will say is, “I don’t want to hear more talk,” It’s very weird to me, the way that people frame these meetings where people are trying to collectively figure out what to do together as if talking is this horrible thing and we just need to start doing stuff. I’ve seen what happens when people just start doing stuff, all in different directions.
I would say a related problem that I’ve been thinking about a lot is that I operate in a space where there are, very often, many collective conversations going on simultaneously and many collective action projects that are collectively going on simultaneously. This I would think is much like many of the network members and leaders.
From a research side, as somebody studying network participation in and the structuring of networks in collective action, I’m starting to look at it from the user-experience side of a lot of these organizational leaders and ask myself, “How do they make decisions about what’s worth going to?” So many random conversations that bring together these six set of actors in this room full of stakeholders?
If you’re an organizational leader participating in these macro-level structures, whether it’s field building initiatives, or collective action initiatives, or innovation infrastructures, you will struggle with these issues. How do people make decisions around what initiatives and collectives to participate in?
I don’t want to get into the classic way of framing it as “silo conversations” because I don’t think it’s that simple. I see it as, there’s lines of collective activities that are occurring in cities, and fields, and nationally. How do those lines of activity intersect, and get organized, and find synergies with one another? Also, where do they have disjunctures? This is a healthy intersection, networks intersecting with networks. At this point, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on how Hive in New York has a collective, operates and it engages within itself.
When I start to broaden out to things like the CS for All initiative or start to expand out to how the Hives interact with other Hives in other cities, or things like the broader maker education movement — it’s those networks of networks questions that start to be really relevant and start to intersect with the way that city, state, national policies get structured. It starts to intersect with the ways that field-level actors start to talk to one another in productive ways. In the CS-Paths project, we’ve tried to use a cross-organizational working group to chip away a little at some of these problems. One of the key things I’m trying to do is have three key actors come and use that space as a way to understand each other.
Christian Rodriguez is the new community manager for Hive NYC, Maor Baror, who’s the (now former) community manager for CSNYC, which is the foundation that I mentioned that helps to develop the computer science education community here in New York. Cornell Tech is another intermediary actor in relation to digital media education and K12 computer science. We’re trying to have this working group operate as a space where some critical conversations amongst semi-connected actors can gain more depth. It wasn’t part of the intention when we decided, “Hey, we want to have an open working group.”
We just decided that like, yeah, we’ve got the design partners, but we also want to make sure people from the Hive community that are interested but not ready to commit as design partners can have a way to engage. Now we’re saying like, “Oh, actually, this could be a strategic cross-network building space.” I don’t know if that makes sense or if that’s in terms of new challenges that I’m thinking about. In some ways, it’s a challenge in my work in terms of deciding where I’m going to spend the time. It’s a little bit more of like I think it’s a field level of challenge to understand that, to have the strategies around it.
I’m going to switch now to a very Mozilla-centric question. What, for you — and I really want to emphasize the “for you” part here — is the open internet?
I’m very committed to the idea that platforms should be transparent, and it should be viable for users of a platform on the internet to have agency over its design, to have the ability to understand what went into that design, how decisions are made about changes to that design, and what the interests are of those who designed it.
I wrote a lot in my early graduate career about what I called hacker literacies. For me, that was about taking the kind of critical reading of texts that the critical media literacy movement focuses on, like asking in media what interests does the person making it have? How does it index certain kinds of cultural values that might be problems? How do beer companies use female objectification to sell alcohol? Taking that perspective of critical reading that folks in critical media literacy have for decades, and combining it with some of the newer ways of thinking about literacy that were emerging in the post-2000 world of, “Oh, the internet is here,” and a lot of scholars talking about new media literacies, and digital literacies, and what it means to make, and create, and design. What I saw was a gap in those two conversations being connected, and that you had a whole notion of participating and creating on the Web, and then you had this older notion of critically reading broadcast media.
There wasn’t anybody who was advocating a way of critically reading platforms and technologies and critically rewriting them according to your values. What’s wonderful is that come 2016, that’s the taken for granted. It’s taken for granted that platforms have values, that we need to understand what the maker’s interests are. I forget what year danah boyd “This is the year of privacy. Everyone’s going to be talking about it,” It was like 2010 or ’11 and we haven’t stopped once that started.
We may take it for granted now that we think about privacy, but ask somebody in 2006 or 2007 whether they thought about their privacy online. Only the geeks really. What I see the open internet as being about is actually maintaining an infrastructure that almost has a pedagogical value system embedded in its very design. That this notion of platform hackability that folks at Mozilla and others talk about, to me, I think about through the lens of learning.
What did MySpace teach young people when it made it possible to edit the HTML on that page? It wasn’t just teaching them HTML. It was teaching them that the Web is hackable and that you can change elements of it. What does Facebook absolutely not teach you? Anything about its algorithm, anything about how its design decisions happen. Anything about the ways that it might be changed. I agree with plenty of folks, including the folks at Mozilla, that we’ve gone in a radically closed direction when it comes to the internet.
That has implications for security. It has implications for privacy. It has implications for creativity and innovation. It has implications for learning with technology. What do young people come to understand as ways of engaging with technology, and what do they not come to understand by virtue of that design and the assumptions in it? It becomes more important when there are high stakes decisions that are tied to algorithms.
There’s a book that has encapsulated the need for this recently “Weapons of Math Destruction,” by Cathy O’Neil. How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. What she talks about has been so resonant for me, and it hearkens back to the work I did on hacker literacies. It all feeds directly to the work I’m doing now on this project around the purposes of computer science education. She talks about how we have algorithms now that are widespread, secret, and high stakes. That they are in wide use across many systems, that we don’t know how they’re designed. They’re black boxes. We don’t know what’s going in, and people’s lives are being affected by them.
We can’t entirely understand why what’s coming out is coming out, and there’s potentially detrimental results. We have it in education in the form of value-added models of teacher efficacy. We have it in hiring practices with the screening exams that are basically filtering you out if you have any mental health issues, which is totally illegal and discriminatory. We have it in so many places of our world, and there’s a way that closed systems in general exacerbate this.
The open internet is just an extension of the values I have around democracy. Democracy is the ultimate innovation infrastructure that’s about promoting agency, in its most idealized form. I felt like the open internet is about, “How do we have our technology reflect or our value system around democratic ideals?” I would say the internet we currently have, similar to the democracy that we currently have, is increasingly one that is controlled, and where agency is stifled, and where surveillance is the norm, and where people are turned into products.
As we think about this though we shouldn’t overstate the role of technology — we shouldn’t take a technological deterministic approach. We need to shift to say, we live in a world mediated by socio-technical systems. We want to think of the ways that our structures and tools, be they our institutions, or our technologies, or our communities, our laws, how do those mediate in ways that are productive towards the goals of having a healthy and democratic society where people live with dignity.
That’s what gets me up in the morning and keeps me up at night.
Have you ever been able to experience these open aspects of the internet, but have now been shut down? Did you engage with that at that period of time?
I can never say that I was a fully a hacker kid, but I liked to tinker. A lot of my high school years and even pre-high school were spent engaging with tech. There was so much there that was so…there was a lot of subversive culture, counter culture that existed. I used a lot of the early publishing tools to engage in voice. I taught myself HTML and made my own website with the little construction worker guy on it.
I was a big Mac user, but it was a time when you could get computers that were made by other companies that ran Mac OS. You could get Peterson Motorola and the company called PowerPC. They were really shady. They would crash all the time and had all these bugs. Me and my friends would tinker, and hack. We’d debug. We go into the operating system and go into the command lines. We weren’t experts at all, but it set the stage for my early relationship with the internet and for my own way of engaging with technology that is very much about some core understanding of how computers work, that goes far beyond.
My friend Cassidy, studies what you call digital adaptability, which is really not about fluency with any particular technology, but more about an ability to effectively take up new technologies and learn them with ease. I think a lot of the ways that things were structured back then in both computing and the internet gave me opportunities to develop a disposition, and maybe my own sense of practice at a formative period. I do wonder about young people today and how they think about these technologies and how possible it is to rewrite and remix them. Do they feel values embedded in them?
You’ve talked a bit about how you got involved with Mozilla. How did you get first involved with them? How would you characterize what that’s felt like or been like for you?
It depends on how far back do you want me to go. Chris Lawrence was a member of the network, before it was called Hive, at the New York Hall of Science. I was a member at an organization called Global Kids. That’s where I developed my relationship.
As I went into grad school and started to do this work around Hacker Literacies — around the same time, he became the director of Hive New York. We kept in good touch with each other. I came to MozFest when it was pre-MozFest, it was called Drumbeat, in 2010 in Barcelona. A lot of the early work on Hackasaurus (later X-Ray goggles) happened there — which was developed from an open perspective. I was engaging with a lot of the folks there, partly because a lot of my interest in Hacker Literacies aligned really well with the folks at Mozilla.
They were working on Hackasaurus, and how they thought about what that tool was to be about. They gave a little bit of a literacy framework to that. I continued to be connected and interested. I also previously worked with many members of the network while I was at Global Kids. I got really interested, in general, in how these networks operated. As a former member, I was like, “Well, I know I came in from a certain trajectory and perspective that was very linked to a broader field.”
These much bigger institutions like the New York Public Library or MoMA. They didn’t come from these spaces. I was just really curious, how do they experience what it’s like? That started a lot of the research on how these networks operate and how ideas circulate through them, how ideas are appropriated, and remixed, and come into new forms, how innovation happens.
My experience with Mozilla, it’s always shifting — it’s been different at varying points. It was really, really exciting for me to go to MozFest and see Drumbeat. It was a moment where my work felt relevant. I struggled in my graduate program to convince people that the ideas I was working with on Hacker Literacies were important in any way. Immediately, Chris was validating to me and he said, “This is really important, and we need to bring you into this process.” Our early interactions with Matt Thompson were after MozFest. He was like, “Well, how can we figure out a way based on where you’re at so you can contribute?” I didn’t realize this at the time but they were working open.
It was my first year at grad school and I already had an existing professional identity. Mozilla was a community that cared about the ideas that I cared about. It was a place where I learned a lot about different ways of working that were new to me. In retrospective, I can see that, but I don’t think I knew it at the time. It turned up when Hive Research Lab started, the origin of it was in the spring of 2012. I was just at the beginning of my grad school career. I was emailing with Chris and being like, “Hey, I have all these questions about like how organizations in Hive experience to network.” He immediately was like, “This is great. I’d totally go for it.” The way that he was open to that and that the networks stewards, at the time, were interested, I started to do some field work. Pretty much immediately Chris and some of the funders, they came to me and they were like, “Hey, this is really great and we see this work being important for the network, but we actually don’t know how, and we want you to talk to the members.”
That set the tone for the whole way that we would go about thinking about this. All of the ideas that we’ve talked about over the course of the interview around the positionality of the research and doing it in this more progressive way. Dixie and I were invited because we were both former network members. For Chris, I think, it was about valuing the community and people that knew the community, and they were part of the community as being how the community advanced itself. That continued throughout. The way we ended up deciding to design Hive Research Lab as an entity, it was very much taking a cue from the way that we were invited in to be research partners.
I think that we probably held a lot of the commitment around having a more open and integrated research approach. I remember a moment where we were sitting with Chris and Leah Gilliam, I think maybe when we were still writing the proposal for the initial project, and we were like, “We don’t want to check in once a year with the report. We kind of want to do it, I don’t know, Mozilla-style.” They were like, “Yeah, exactly, Mozilla-style.” We didn’t know what it meant at the time really. But we did take that spark and say well all right, what does it mean to actually do that.
I’ve used a lot of different kinds of languages to talk about our methodology and the way we do our work, but the language of working open is also quite relevant. If you look on the Hive Research Lab’s website, openness is one of our core values, “Conduct research in the open such that the nature of our activities are made transparent, accessible and responsive to network members and stakeholders.” I haven’t updated the core values in a number of years. Commitment, openness, utility, collaboration, accessibility and very much…
I say on that page that we are inspired by the “open ethos” of the Hive NYC network, and the Mozilla community more broadly, which advocates transparency, collaboration and working in the open. That was a part of our story, the influence from Mozilla about how they went about things even as we were still figuring it out what that means in terms of a research project.
How about a time that Mozilla didn’t meet your expectations?
One particular challenge with some work with Mozilla is where I’m often able to see problems that aren’t as obvious to people within Mozilla. Also in terms of Hive, I think there is a very, pretty clear reality to me at this point of age that the Hive network stewards almost always need to be spending a huge amount of time internally with Mozilla in a way that cuts against the amount of time they want to spend doing the work of running a Hive network.
It’s almost like there is a strong tax in terms of alignment, and integration of the work of Hive networks on the people that are directly responsible for them in ways that results in Hives being under-resourced vis-a-vis their mission. If a couple of Hives have one person working on them and then a couple of Hives have between two and three people working on them, it’s never actually that much. It always feels, and every Hive leader and staff has confirmed, that there is a lot of time that goes into effectively being part of Mozilla.
Coming from a particular position of not fully actually knowing the big picture on Mozilla, and I’m somebody who’s fairly close, but I also feel like it’s like touching an elephant — “Oh, I talked to this person and it seems like this is the elephant at Mozilla. I talked to this person and it seems like this is the elephant at Mozilla.”
You’re the third person to bring up that metaphor.
Amazing. That’s awesome. The fact that I even can is also an indicator in the other direction, which is to say that, from a working open perspective the idea that an organization like Mozilla would be knowable is important.
It might be that it’s pivoting every three years which also is the sense that I have. They are always figuring out what they are doing but struggling to do what they say. This is, I think, a challenge for many organizations as they grow and especially younger organizations, that’s expected. I barely know what I’m doing, so it’s fine
The real and perceived instability means we act based on what we hear at the intersection of Mozilla Hive leaders and staff, Hive members, young people — we’re making decisions based on our own set of expertise and our own commitments. We’re able to be separate and keep the idea of Hive alive. If an external body wasn’t there understanding and functionally advocating that this model is valuable, then Mozilla just might have killed. I’ve heard before that Hives will be called something else. Of course, that makes me sad, if that’s a reality. It’s also not my choice or decision.
There is much less of a sense. Out of all the projects that we have going, there is much more of a sense that, “Well, it’s possible that we do work for a year on this and it goes nowhere,” because there is some larger shift that we don’t exactly know the dynamics of. I would say, to be very fair, it’s only very clear that that possibility is there because we work so closely. I would say similarly if we were working with the DOE, the New York City’s DOE on some of the stuff related to CS AdVision, it’s totally possible that we have the same exact feeling there.
I know that we’re dealing with similar issues with one of our other design partners. questions of organizational stability and whether the work that we do with them will actually live on after this year or is just a one shot deal and maybe we get out of it some interesting designs and research as opposed to organizational change, which is, of course, an important outcome for us. I want to be fair and say that this isn’t just a Mozilla-specific thing. Lots of organizations are always in a state of figuring out what they’re doing. I don’t want be too hard on Mozilla about it. It’s always felt like there is some reality there to be contended with.
I think organizational stability and relationship through these networks being sustained both in terms of their identity, as well as their function, and that the two are intertwined, has always been an open question for me and something to navigate into.
We’re collecting the stories from across the network — how might these stories be useful to you, if at all?
It’s super relevant within the context of a network health work for me, to understand what success and challenge stories are, of especially Hive members. That is undeniably something that shouldn’t form all of the work that we’re doing there, from the perspective of both the methodology that you’re using, not that necessarily we would use that or end up engaging in interviews.
The kind of things that might be elicited that seem like they could be helping a Hive steward to make decisions, or to better understand what’s going on in their network. I absolutely think that this kind of stuff is absolutely critical.