2020 was always going to be a different year for MozFest.

By Sarah Allen | July 2, 2020 | Mozilla Festival

The uncertainty the world is feeling right now is shaping the festival to be even more “out of the normal” than anticipated. The big question is: how can the challenges we face today help us plan for a new era of Mozilla festival?

Last year we made the decision to move the date of MozFest out of our yearly cycle from London, and change the next festival to March 2021. We were moving the festival to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, for the next three years, and planned to use this extra time to reimagine, strengthen and evolve the structure of the event. Just as we announced our new home, and new dates, we started to realise there were bigger issues and greater challenges ahead.

Our allies across the festival network were also making their own unforeseen announcements. We watched across the event ecosystem as close friends and allied events canceled, postponed or re-structured their events due to Covid-19.

I spoke to many event hosts in April and May, and we all asked the same questions of each other:

How long will this last? How do we support our communities in these challenging times? What platforms offer strong security, encryption, and bandwidth to meet the growing needs of the community?

Here was a group of people who practically lived online and in conference call platforms, and yet we were still trying to figure this new normal out.

And then there are even bigger questions weighing heavy on all our minds:

  • How can we use this time to be good online citizens while supporting our community?
  • How can we plan festivals and events for our allies, friends, and partners to thrive and stay safe?

So what can we do?

For the MozFest team, we started to organise ourselves to use this time to support the community, learn from our allies, and seek to build for a new normal. MozFest is built on the foundation of federated design, open principles, and movement organising, so we are leaning on these foundations to help us plan for the future.

The team hosted our own movement building from home workshops, a series of community calls to help support the continuity of their activism, community, and work during the COVID-19 global health crisis.

We are also attending as many virtual events as possible, learning from these new structures and new modes of interaction. We are reviewing platforms, and playing around with new technologies. From Mozilla hubs, to Animal Crossing, the team is testing them all. Some of us acclimatised slower than others...and when I say some, I mean myself. New phrases such as “Zoom fatigue” and “have you seen my avatar?” are now a part of regular dialogue.

Sitting in the unknown is required

As the MozFest team is navigating these new murky waters, more unknowns have come to the fore:

  • How can we encourage participants' focus in the virtual session and the collaboration opportunity rather than the struggles of using the platform?
  • How can we organise across time zones, when there is a new consideration of child care and home schooling?
  • How can we support our global friends who we know struggle with bandwidth on the platforms we use?
  • How do we ensure we don't just stand up against racism but are anti-racist as an event and a community?

Plus, we have the external pressures of this global pandemic and economic downturns threatening job security around the world, feelings of anguish and lack of trust in our governments, and combating global racial injustice at the fore of our communities.

These global issues are on the rise, yet they are tracked so differently from country to country, and even from neighbour to neighbour which makes the unknown reality hard to face down. It’s in this moment of the unknown, with the many questions and the bewilderment in the air, that we recognise it’s important to sit in this uncomfortable position. And I also recognise we are extremely fortunate and privileged as an event in this current climate to have organisational support and funds to be able to sit in the unknown.

So how do we use this privilege to support the broader community, and the internet health movement, raise up and provide more robust support and space for people of colour while bringing new drive, and creativity to our planning for 2021. Our community is global, multicultural, multi-lingual and cross-disciplinary- so how can we celebrate this more, and give all races, languages and all corners of the movement time and space to not just use but co-own the platform of the festival?

We as a team are a small group who designs and builds MozFest each year, so we turned to our wranglers, volunteers and partners to ask for their help in answering the bigger questions, and figuring out our future.

Looking at our work with a new perspective

Right now we are mapping for a few alternative scenarios for the festival. With the help of stakeholders, including our new partners in the city of Amsterdam and our wrangler alum, we are reviewing what these different scenarios will look like, and how much of our event will be virtual. Safety is paramount for us so this will inform the balance of online and off-line. Our wrangler alum are enthusiastic to explore new virtual formats, and there is great excitement about how the new city might transform the festival.

One scenario that excites me is a hybrid event: part virtual, part in-person festival.

We will be testing our virtual event format over the next couple of months, working with some close allies to help understand the needs, shape the agenda and measure the success of this new festival format. As yes, it is a new format as the parameters have changed around our online interactions in the last few months, the work we think we know has to be viewed from a new perspective. It is critical that we balance the needs of the festival with the needs of those in the internet health movement, so let's not guess but ask what they need. Right now, in this new era.

Photo by Connor Ballard-Pateman of  beautiful hand-drawn session notes from a Grant for the Web Session where participants called for Human Centered Internet Photo by Connor Ballard-Pateman of beautiful hand-drawn session notes from a Grant for the Web Session where participants called for Human Centered Internet.

With our wrangler alumni, we have been asking:

  • What are the values and exchanges that make MozFest that place our community return to year after year?
  • What are the special moments, designs and actions that ensure this group invests so much of their focus and energy in the design of the event?
  • Can we recreate the "hallway conversations" and "opportunities to meet cross disciplines otherwise outside of our reach" in this new digital space?
  • Removing the structure of physical buildings, how would we format the event?
  • How do we create something that is intimate for learning,, but allows space to expand for a bigger number of participants?
  • How do we continue hosting the festival as a platform of participation if the virtual audience is 500 or 1000?
  • What event structures can we build that supports accessibility, global diversity, and balances the needs in people's personal lives with the requirements of the work?

Again I have more questions than answers, but I have a few knowns to share:

We are still planning to host some form of physical event in Amsterdam in March 2021. We committed to our partners in Amsterdam, and are eager to design an event in that city. We are examining different scenarios, and we will take the advice of the local government for travel, and health and safety.

We will host a series of virtual events in 2020 as we explore what changes we need to make to our facilitation to create a new type of event hosted online that aligns with festival goals of fun, cross discipline participatory sessions, and workshops.

We will open our Call for Proposals in October, and will offer a limited number of travel stipends for those who can and are willing to travel. Again safety for our travelers, facilitators, and our event hosts will be paramount.

We will look to you to help shape this event. Look out for a Mozilla Festival survey coming soon where we will ask for your help to re-imagine MozFest and to understand your needs for virtual events, formats and platforms. We will host open calls to discuss modes of participation and share new ideas and seek input as the event landscape changes. Stay tuned to our newsletter or slack channel for ways to share your ideas and participate in the survey, or you can always email us at festival@mozilla.org.

This is a time of change and opportunity for MozFest and the events landscape. This is the opportunity and the call to action to give more of our platform to people of colour and their experiences, find nodes of practices to allow parents to feel supported to participate, support and invest in platforms that allow for our community with lower bandwidth to participate successfully, and check and strengthen our role in an anti-racist society.

This is where we sit as a festival right now: optimistic for the future of our event and in support of our allies as they create in the unknown, and committed to lifting up our community.

Special thank you to those event and programme organisers I spoke to who helped inform my thinking and this blog post. Including but not only, Irini from Future Everything, Sandi from IFF, Brenda from AMC, Gunner from Aspiration, Caroline Sinders, Nikki and Sarah from RightsCon, Pepe Borras, Cornelius from Wikimedia Summit and Sander from The WAAG.

I would love to learn how you are reimaging your event structure and equally as happy to share what we are discussing so please reach out to festival@mozilla.org and we can organise a chat.

Photos taken by our talented MozFest photographers as credited, and can be found on our MozFest Flickr page

MozFest is part art, tech and society convening, part maker festival, and the premiere gathering for activists in diverse global movements fighting for a more humane digital world. To learn more, visit www.mozillafestival.org.

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