What’s the lesson?

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I’m not supposed to be in front of a computer right now. I’m supposed to be attending the Vancouver premiere of Tiffany Shlain’s Connected, in a fundraiser to benefit A Human Right.  This looked like a fun event, for a good cause.  So I bought two tickets, one for myself and one for my 14 year old son, who seemed really interested in the trailer, and who I was pretty sure would both enjoy and get a lot from the movie & discussion.  I was happy for Mozilla to sponsor the event, promoting it.

But, this is Vancouver, British Columbia, in North America, a continent where lawyers and fear have way too much sway on policy and clearly no firm grasp of reality.  In this particular case, the problem is that the venue — the swank Vancouver International Film Festival’s VanCity Theater has the audacity to serve wine and the like to its patrons.  As a wine and movie enthusiast, that seems like a delightful plan.  But apparently, this very civilized offering is seen by regulators as implying that the location is evidently such a den of iniquity that my kid would obviously be irretrievably harmed by the sight of some adults having a glass of wine. Of all the things that I worry about as a parent, this doesn’t make the top 1000.

This was mildly embarrassing for all concerned, and led to my son and I going home early and having a conversation about the puritanical roots of the Canadian legal system rather than the much more interesting discussion that I expect would have ensued after the movie.

Such a waste.

Somebody let me know how the show went?

You knew the old Mozilla, meet the new Mozilla

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One of the notable things about working at Mozilla over the last few years right now is that our aims have gotten much more ambitious, but perception moves slower than reality, even among people who spend every working hour working on the project. I’ve been privileged enough to have a lot of conversations with a lot of people, and to see an evolution in the thinking that motivates our priorities. I’ve also been unfortunate enough to see and participate in high-emotion conflicts, which emerge from the disconnect between various individuals’ perceived priorities. I’m hoping that this post can explain the high level reasons for our current initiatives & why they matter, and maybe help get people past short-term conflicts.

History

For many years, the area that Mozilla needed to focus on was clear: to save the promise of the web, we needed to make a fast and useful browser that didn’t get in the users’ way, and get lots and lots of people to adopt it. This was (and is) a product play, which implies is that success would be determined by what real people would choose to use based on the real choices in front of them. And the people demanded high quality code, zarro boogs, security, etc., but they mostly demanded compelling experiences that solved their problems. In the case of the browser wars, the outcome has been pretty good for society, if slower than we’d have liked: standards have evolved, browsers got better and faster, and websites got more interesting (I’ll note in passing that cross-browser dev work is still way too painful).

Rethink

While that fight is far from over, we’re now at a distinct point in the evolution of the web, and Mozilla has appropriately looked around, and broadened its reach. In particular, the browser isn’t the only strategic front in the struggle to promote and maintain people’s sovereignty over their online lives. There are now at least three other fronts where Mozilla is making significant investments of time, energy, passion, sweat & tears. They’re still in their infancy, but they’re important to understand if you want to understand Mozilla:

The first such effort is, in some ways, “lower in the stack” than the browser. We started an ambitious exploration called Boot to Gecko (B2G), which I don’t yet understand well enough in detail, but which is clearly trying to ensure that there are realistic options for mobile devices which bake in the right values as low as possible in the stack. As I discussed in my last post, the verticalization of the internet means that we’re heading towards a world where who you get your phone from will determine way too much about how you can experience the internet. B2G is a bold exploration tackling the operating system layer of that world.

The two other such efforts are higher-level in the stack, specifically in areas which I’ve been following closely: user identity, and apps. Both of these are spaces where the shape of the real world ergonomics & economics of the internet have managed to completely sneak around the “traditional” world view of browsers & websites.

User-centric Identity on the web

For identity in particular, it’s now possible to create highly engaging experiences thanks to personalization, but that personalization is by far easiest to achieve by adopting technologies like Facebook Connect, which, while appropriate in some contexts, is inappropriate in many, and highlights how much “we in the internet” have failed to address the very real needs of website developers and their users. It’s taken Mozilla a fair bit of time & experimentation to get to something that feels truly great, but I’m very bullish on our first big push in this space, which we’re calling BrowserID for now. The goals of BrowserID are simple:

  • users and websites want to make sign in easy
  • users should be able to choose who their identity provider is
  • websites don’t want to be beholden to a single identity provider
  • sign in should work everywhere

With BrowserID Mozilla took a bold step, which is still poorly understood even within Mozilla:

  • we built a system that works in all modern browsers
  • we’re standing up a service to bootstrap the system until identity providers opt in, with the strictest transparency and privacy guarantees we can come up with
  • identity providers can federate it when they want
  • we build on identity concepts which users and developers understand and trust today.
  • we’re hoping that all browsers provide enhanced user experiences on top of the protocol, but we don’t need and won’t wait for their cooperation. This fight will be won by offering something compelling to website developers (and their users!) first.

For Mozilla devs, this is a bit shocking, as we’re not starting by putting a feature in Firefox first (although we sure hope that Firefox will implement BrowserID before the others!). While I love Firefox, this makes me happy, because in my mind, Mozilla is about making the internet work better for everyone, not just Firefox users, and in this case being browser-neutral is the right strategic play.

Note that Mozilla has always been about making the internet better for everyone, and that’s what’s driving e.g. our policy work. Pragmatically, Mozilla is now big enough that I believe we’ll be more effective if we fight on several fronts at once — coordination costs are very real, and progress on BrowserID in no way diminishes Firefox’s value proposition, although they can (and will!) be better together.

Apps that are of the web

The other critical challenge to the web is the rise of Apps, as a mechanism that developers are turning to because it’s easier to get your apps found & bought, and that users love because it’s an easier way to experience functionality on mobile devices in particular. And here too, Mozilla has a strong play, which is just starting, but which I believe has legs. We launched a developer preview of our Apps initiative, which has the following bold (but doable!) aims:

  • make web technologies the best way to create apps that users can find and install on all devices
  • propose a standard for app purchase and installation that allows many appstores to compete for developers and users, so that developers don’t have to go through an arbitrary process to reach their audience, and users can choose where they want to get their apps.

There are many more things to say about our Apps effort, but I like to summarize it as teaching the web about the good bits of apps, and teaching apps about the good bits of the web. Right now we’re watching the sausage being made (something you don’t see in the Apple and Google kitchens), and it’s a bit chaotic.  But over time, and by the time it gets into consumer hands, it’s going to be splendid.

Here too, the goal is complementary to the success of the Firefox browser. And here too, we need so much help, from app developers to help us prioritize features, from web runtime developers to negotiate and implement the APIs that app developers need, and from early adopters to help us iron out the experience (and be forgiving especially in these early days).

“Finally!”

I’ve been speaking to app & website developers about BrowserID and Apps for a few weeks, and the feedback has been great — webdevs & entrepreneurs are very aware of the dangers of relying on Facebook, Google, or Apple as the bridges to distribution or users. They desperately want an upgrade to the internet that solves these issues in an infrastructural way, and they are quite aware that Mozilla has a unique position beyond being the makers of Firefox.  Webdevs understand the public benefit charter of Mozilla, and many are keen for us to take on more responsibilities there, and happy to help.

Culture shock

I expect it’s not obvious from a distance, but this kind of strategic broadening is hard on a culture. It means that we don’t have a single way of going after things. It means that others in the project seem to work in directions which don’t appear to line up with your own. It means that now engineers don’t just argue with product folks (a tradition in every software organization), but with other engineers with different priorities. It means that it’s impossible (and frustrating!) to keep track of what everyone is doing. All that is painful, especially as the odds are long in each of these battles, so it’s natural to want everyone else to drop what they’re doing and come help you out.

The best advice I have if you find yourself in this kind of culture shock is to first recognize it for what it is: you’re looking up from something you’ve been heads-down in, and your world (and your Mozilla!) looks like it’s changed in surprising ways — that’s scary, for limbic-brain kinds of reasons. We all tend to feel this way when we learn about new developments around us that we weren’t deeply involved with, from SOPA to “what the kids are up to these days”. We have to moderate that gut reaction with a bit of brainpower, and realize that just because it makes us uncomfortable, it’s not necessarily bad. That’s when the work begins: finding out who is working on whatever it is that’s making you uncomfortable, and reaching out to them to get looped in. In particular, doing so tends to work better face-to-face, or at least one-on-one. Finding the right people to talk to will take effort and time. It’s on you to do that work, though, and get informed.  Take the time to understand the history of the change before expressing your unhappiness — the people involved are likely just as smart as you, and if they’re Mozillians, they’re motivated by the same mission.

Looking forward

So while there’s tension aplenty, when I think about this new Mozilla, which not only is committed to producing the best possible browser on desktops and phones, but is willing to invest in shaping what mobile devices should and could be like in 5 years, and reaching out of its comfort zone by standing up to internet bullies in critical areas like identity and apps, I’m pretty proud to be involved.  I’m confident that 2012 is going to see the emergence of new facets of Mozilla, just as the net needs its particular blend of values, ambition, and pragmatism more than ever.

Am I reading these trends right?

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Let’s see… in the last few weeks, we have seen:

Facebook shifting the definition of the Open Graph and moving the locus of control about sharing from an actual user-initiated action (“share!”) to the terms of service that users agree to at “app installation time”. This will likely lead users to overshare, and many more websites to require facebook accounts.

Amazon building a new way of using the web which many fear will be a data mining engine that “acts on your behalf” as you do anything on the web, not just with Amazon sites. Until now, only regulated ISPs or government agencies had that level of access to our online activities.

Microsoft preparing a version of Windows which will demote third-party browsers and bake in support for a single-vendor appstore.

Google aggressively promoting their mostly closed social network on all of its properties.

(All of whom are basically following Apple’s lead on how to verticalize the world).

The threat models are fascinating too. According to the blogosphere, Facebook is feeling threatened by users shifting to mobile (read: iPhone); Google’s threatened by Facebook; Apple needs to figure out social; Everyone’s going to get bit by patents, but they all have huge cash reserves to apply to that problem.

This industry is heading in a direction that is sure to be full of fireworks, but I’m having a hard time seeing how normal people end up winning at the end.

If these trends continue, in a few years at most we’ll basically choose one of 3 or 4 vertical stacks to work in. Rich people will be able to afford to play in all of them (an iOS macphone, an android tablet, a kindle Plasma, a facebook TV, etc.).

Consumption will go up, free access will be contingent on actual consumption. Kindle people will have a heck of a time communicating with Apple people. Facebookers will make fun of Googlers. App developers will slowly realize that they’re the outsourced R&D department for the big 5, and success will be defined as being acquired for a few bucks rather than creating jobs or making the world a better place.

Consumers are part of the problem too, of course — we like simple, shiny, integrated solutions. We want freedom from choice more than we actually value choice.

The next generation will likely think of our notions of privacy, autonomy, and various freedoms as quaint or foolish, much like we look on our parents’ notions of decorum and modesty. Either that, or they’ll unplug and start to riot, because of the co-occuring global economic climate which, to put it bluntly, will suck for people who don’t have stock in said 5 companies.

So, that’s a pretty bleak assessment, and it tends to depress me. What’s the silver lining? I don’t have a very rosy picture yet, although I’m trying! I have a few proto-thoughts:

First, those five companies, while very impressive and influential, represent a tiny fraction of the creative, intellectual and even financial resources of the world. Furthermore, those companies are all US-based, which simply isn’t a stable configuration. So while those companies are defining extremely aggressive winner-take-all strategies, and executing for the most part exceedingly well, we should realize that there are way more of “us” than “them”.

Second, these companies all have competitors, and I expect always will. Even if there were no other market forces at play, these five will keep beating each other up forever. Mergers of giants might even be a good thing, given that those tend to destroy focus and operational excellence.

Third, I think that there is a growing shared understanding of what’s wrong with these trends from a public policy point of view. The internet, the web, were not intended to facilitate these empires, and I expect that over time, as John Gilmore said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” So somehow, we’ll figure out a way to take the bits of net life that truly matter, and extract those from the silos being built.

There are many projects in this general vein already under way, some with significant involvement from Mozilla. For example, we’re pushing hard on federating identity on the web, and teaching the web about apps and vice versa. I’m hopeful that we’ll also find ways to recognize friends and partners along the way. I’ve got a list in my head, but it’s probably worth building it out. If you have pointers to projects that touch on these issues, let me know in comments.

Welcoming a new Thunderbird Leader

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Last week, we released the latest version of Thunderbird! This release marks the first of our releases from within our new combined team which I mentioned in the past. Get it & enjoy it — I’ll draw your eye in particular to the new integrated add-on manager and my personal can’t-live-without add-on, the Conversations add-on which has matured a lot since I last mentioned it.

This month also marks the introduction of a critical new addition to the Thunderbird team: I introduced JB Piacentino to the Mozilla weekly call and Thunderbird teams a couple of weeks ago, but this seems like a fine time to introduce him to the broader community. JB is now the new Managing Director for Thunderbird. I’m confident that he’s going to provide what Thunderbird has been needing for a while now — someone who can have a broad enough perspective on Thunderbird to understand its breadth and full potential impact, but with a focused enough mandate that Thunderbird will get the attention it deserves.

JB has an ideal background to complement the rest of the Thunderbird team’s skills — in particular, he has a combination of entrepreneurial expertise and a passion for product marketing which will serve Thunderbird well. And while he’s new to the Mozilla community, he’s been an avid follower and supporter of Mozilla for a long time.

I’m also excited about the fact that JB is based in Paris, France. Thunderbird has a significant concentration of users in Europe, and moving the center of gravity of the project closer to our users will likely have a broad set of benefits.

I’m visiting JB and the Mozilla Paris office this week in fact, and we’d like to welcome anyone who happens to be in the area to come to a Q&A we’ll be having at the Mozilla office tomorrow evening:

28 Boulevard Poissonnière
75009 Paris
at 7pm (19:00)

I encourage people to get in touch with JB, and share your thoughts about Thunderbird.

Blog moved

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after much procrastinating, I finally moved my blog.  Old URLs should still work, no feature changes are intended.  Please let me know if you notice anything askew!

Ooops

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apparently comments are broken on this blog. I’ll see if I can fix that tomorrow.

The Future of Messaging

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The web has incredible potential to improve our lives even more than it already has.  I believe that nowhere else is this more true than in the space of personal communications.

Mitchell Baker, Chair of the Mozilla Foundation, today announced that Mozilla will be increasing our focus on messaging and communications on the web.  As part of this, here are some of the steps that we are taking.

We’re going to be consolidating the teams working on messaging on the Web and related topics like identity and contacts, by integrating the Mozilla Messaging team with Mozilla Labs.

People who have followed Mozilla Messaging are already aware of our first investments in this arena, such as the popular F1 add-on for Firefox, and the experimental Raindrop project.  The expanded Mozilla Labs team has more plans for both research and product initiatives in the field of online communications and social interactions on the Web, which we look forward to sharing.

Thunderbird users will likely be curious to know what this change means for them.  The short answer is almost nothing will change.  We’ll move pages around websites, but that will be the extent of the impact on Thunderbird users.  In particular, the Thunderbird team will remain a tight-knit self-contained product team with full responsibility for the stewardship, development and support of Thunderbird.  I’m continually proud of the Thunderbird team, as they continue to produce high quality releases on the platform that Firefox is continually improving, while supporting exciting developments like Blake Winton’s GetAnAccount, Jonathan Protzenko’s radical Conversations view add-on or Mike Conley’s Unity integration work to name a few.

I’ll still be managing the Thunderbird team, as well as lead our innovation efforts at the intersection of the Web and messaging.

When I told the team about this change, there was universal nodding — this is an obvious move for Mozilla.  I’ve had the chance to work with many people in all parts of Mozilla over the last few years, and I’ve never met a more competent or kinder group of passionate professionals, and I’ve never been more excited and optimistic about the chances of having impact, both personally and as a part of the fascinating group that is Mozilla.

Jonas Sicking, a superlative Mozilla developer, recently tweeted:

one of the most awesome things about the web is how it enables new ways of communication. What can we do to improve that even more?

That is a nice summary of our focus in the next phase.

Sometimes an add-on is transformative…

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In my years of using Thunderbird, there have been a few notable transition points in my personal experience with it. One that I remember well is when we optimized deletion to be asynchronous, which completely got rid of the delay in deleting messages. Another that I’m happy to be able to share now is Jonathan Protzenko’s Conversations add-on, now available through this Labs blog post. It’s remarkable how well Jonathan was able to take an early mockup from a couple of years ago and carry it through to a very, very useful and pleasant and quite full-featured conversation view. Try it out, if you’re like me you won’t want to go back.

On a technical note, it’s nice to see how the various bits of the refactorings and new technology pieces we’ve been building into Thunderbird can be used to build compelling new UIs.

Congrats Jonathan!

Social perspectives: Valuable and Important

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I like this TechCrunch post by Naval Ravikant and Adam Rifkin, because it makes it clear that there is not one “social graph” that any one player can “capture”. Instead, there are many perspectives on social ties, and each application (facebook, twitter, email, linkedin, flickr, etc.) reflects different perspectives on those graphs. I suspect the successful social apps are those who have defined perspectives that map well to implicit human relationship types, and then figured out monetization models that don’t get too much in the way. The evidence suggests that the social perspectives offered by Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin to name a few all provide a good combination of user and investor value.

As Ravikant and Rifkin argue, some perspectives have a lot of commercial value, and others much less, either because they’re not interesting to people (most brand-based social networks I hope will fall in this category), or because they represent relationships which aren’t easily monetizable.

Human relationships are much richer and more colorful than (‘friends’, ‘interests’ and ‘colleagues’), however. And some of the social ties that aren’t valuable to investors are however very important to people. Figuring out how the web can support these other perspectives is, I suspect one of the big challenges of the next few years, and I expect the answer will come from sociologists, psychologists and designers working in concert with technologists.

What other perspectives on the social graph should there be on the net, and how can we make it possible for the web to reflect the breadth and variety of human relationships that truly exist?

Crowdsourcing thoughts

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On Wednesday, I’m attending Remixology 2, an event put together by Fresh Media, on the topic of crowdsourcing.  In particular, I’ll somehow be the representative of the entire open web perspective on crowdsourcing (!), Alfred Hermida will be talking about the journalist’s perspective, and Leigh Christie will be there representing artists.  I’m hoping that the audience doesn’t expect any one of us to speak authoritatively on any topic, and that we can instead have a conversation.  Since talking to Hanna Cho about the event, I’ve had a couple of thoughts on the topic that I’m hoping I’ll be able to fit into that conversation.

Crowdsourcing, like most buzzwords, is loaded with too many meanings, and I rarely use it.  I’m more interested in figuring out how to leverage the internet to enable collaboration on a grand scale.  Everyone has experience with 1-1 collaboration, whether through email, shared writings spaces, voice calls, etc.  The internet has provided the technologies to make such collaboration radically cheaper and faster than before, and the biggest challenge it has brought have been widely discussed: we’re always connected, for better or worse; we’re always interrupted; the world is smaller; nobody knows you’re a dog.  All of which is old hat to anyone who’se spent any time online in the last couple of decades.

The advent of mass instant collaboration and mass participation is made possible by the same technologies, but I think we’re still in the earliest stages of figuring out both how to do it well, and what the societal impact will be.  I’m hoping we can talk about that a bit.

It’s easier than ever to spread a meme, and to recruit a population the size of a small army who are all interested or even passionate about your meme.  With ubiquitous communication systems (phones, laptops, cheap broadband, internet cafes, etc), social “viral” media  (twitter, facebook, chain letters, etc.), rich media production models (video on phones and youtube), it seems that viral messages spread like wildfire (of course there’s a massive selection bias: deliberately starting a wildfire is incredibly hard in practice).  Let’s grant that getting the word out is easy.  Depending on the topic, one can get the attention of a cohort of like-minded folks fairly easy (that’s 500 soldiers, if the roman army is a guide).  If any one of them has an hour or two to contribute, pretty soon we’re talking a person-year or more of effort, which can be a potent resource if focused!

The cost of building and running web sites has also plumetted, and the number of people capable of doing so is skyrocketing, which makes it easy (in theory) for anyone to create a place for these people to gather, discuss, coordinate, work, agitate, whatever.  Some will build dedicated websites, others will use shared tools like Facebook groups, mailing lists, etc.  In most countries, such gatherings are undetected, let alone regulated.  We now have mechanisms for coordination of group action.  The potential is seemingly unbounded.

Many online activities are virtually free.  Interestingly, even when there are real (or forecasted) costs to a project, the last few years have seen the maturation of many interesting micropayment systems.  The trendiest is Kickstarter, which somehow gathered the mindshare in the “let’s get together and fund X” world, and its most famous success is Diaspora, who raised $200k, which was 20 times what they asked for, just because they said they’d take on Facebook.  So even in the treacherous arena of cash, there are now funding models which seem to work (at least for small-scale efforts).  Thus, to the sheer hours of invested time, we can now add a few thousand dollars.

So now we have a few hundred people, excited about some idea.  There’s a website, and even a modest bank balance. To use the techy jargon, we’ve got scalable models for meme propagation, recruitment, coordination & communication, advocacy, marketing & PR, and funraising.  Awesome.

Now it’s time to actually do stuff.  In particular, it’s time to plan, schedule, prioritize, make decisions, commit some code, commit to something.  In my experience, that’s the part that we still don’t know how to scale.  Everyone in the army of volunteers has ideas about what should be done (but only a small percentage will actually have relevant skills or experience).  Everyone will have opinions about what words should be used, but only a small number will actually really listen to the other’s opinions.  If we’re not careful, we now have a large group of people who think share a goal, but who are not organized.  And that can be really hard to deal with, especially given that we’ve made it really easy for them to shout at each other.

Which leads to my main point, which is that the next challenge for mass collaboration and coordination over the internet isn’t going to be technological, but human.  Specifically, what will differentiate important projects from the rest are the people who can help groups of people achieve common goals.  That’s not a new task, but the cybernetic setting will require to adapt old skills and create new cultural norms.  Three skills at least are needed to facilitate that kind of coordination:

The first is some form of leadership.  Quite often, the initiator of the meme didn’t really intend to start a micro-movement.  She just tweeted something, or uploaded a ranty video, or wrote a scathing blog post.  And all of a sudden she is the center of attention from a bunch of strangers who “agree” and want to “do something about it”.  In that kind of situation, converting emotional energy into effective action will (I claim) depend on the emergence of a leader of some kind.  Which doesn’t mean a spokesperson, or a dictator (benevolent or not).  It just means someone who, using whatever means are appropriate for that group, can get the group focused, moving in a roughly consistent direction towards some vague approximation of a common goal.  Different groups of people will respond to different types of leadership, but I’m pretty sure all large groups need at least one individual they can anchor to.

The second is organizing.  The style of organization needed will vary wildly depending on the group, from simply taking notes to gardening a wiki to tweeting a lot, nagging, proofreading, testing.  But there is a yin to the leadership yang, and the people who are good at getting people excited are rarely the same who can remind them to uphold their commitments.

The third is what my friend David Eaves refers to as negotiation, or the process of seeking common interests among a set of potential collaborators, and building commitments and mutual trust along the way.  This skill is rarely explicitly discussed in many organizations, because most organizations have built-in power structures which have well understood tie-breakers (“the senior person decides”, “the client decides”) as well as clear consequences to disagreement (“you’re fired/demoted/etc.”, “this contract isn’t renewed”, “you’re not invited next time”, etc.).  Neither of these are as clear in a setting where peering and fraternity are assumed over hierarchy and management.  If I show up at your virtual event expecting to be treated like a peer, but it so happens that I misunderstood what your goal was, the odds are pretty good that one of us will frustrate or disappoint the other.  If we both care about our own visions, the odds of a flame war are high.  To avoid that, we need to clarify the goals up front and review them often.  We need to really explore everyone’s interests and both detect overlap and explore differences.  And we need to keep in mind everyone’s BATNA.  It’s work, but it’s the only way to actually draw from everyone’s strengths.  I think the open source / open web world is still a beginner in this arena, but I’m glad that we’re working on those muscles.

Of course, the technologist and UX thinker in me is keen to figure out whether we can design systems that help with these all-to-human (and all-too-fragile) tasks, build digital prostheses of a sort.  You can see baby steps emerging among the more “social” web apps of the day: the indicators of mood on support forums like getsatisfaction.com for example, let people emote quietly, and provide non-verbal cues to emotional state, which are all to often lost in textual communications.  Building interfaces that surface the people behind the comments leads, I think, to more humane conversations (one of Facebook’s brilliant early moves was to encourage/require “real names, real photos”).  There are also simple tricks: at Mozilla, we’ve also found that if one detects conflict, it’s usually a good idea to try and resolve it using private voice calls rather than prolonged, public, painful email discussions.

I’m sure that by Wednesday I’ll have other thoughts in my head which will push these out of the way, but I’m curious to see whether these thoughts resonate with people in other disciplines, or whether different cultures lead to radically different world views.