Mozilla tries social media to get its Firefox mojo back

Mozilla used to have a scrappy underdog personality and a passionate community that evangelized for Firefox enthusiastically. Lately, though, most of what I've seen about Firefox is negative. Mozilla is responding with an increased presence in social media sites. Can a Twitter/Facebook army really undo negative perceptions?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Update 3-April: A new tweet from @FirefoxCares announces that the Twitter experiment ends later today: "Dearest users, make your questions: we are closing temporarily the experiment this evening,to decide and evaluate our future in Twitter ^RM"

Update 26-March: Mozilla's David Tenser adds some interesting comments in the Talkback section.

I heard some grumbling about Firefox this morning. In the space of a few minutes via Twitter, I saw tweets from two people who had begun experiencing a sudden uptick in Firefox crashes. Falling back on my old J-school training ("Two is a coincidence, three is a story") I asked if anyone else was having problems. In response came a small number of additional problem reports mixed in with a lot of all-clears. One tweet that stood out from the rest came from @FirefoxCares and read:

Can you get me a report ID, enter about:crashes in Firefox and DM or tweet the results? ^TM

I was initially skeptical. That's a response I would expect from an official support alias like @ComcastCares. But I didn't know Firefox had anything except community support. More red flags about the account: it only had 13 followers and appeared to have been created today. The Twitter profile page contained a link to the parent Twitter page, a social endless loop, and nothing more. Was the person behind this account legit? After a few messages back and forth, @FirefoxCares sent me this link to the Support/Social Media page at the Mozilla Wiki. According to the notes at the bottom, the goal of this experiment is to "be present on social networks to help users with their Firefox problems or prevent bad ratings from going viral, if help is not directly possible, and extract useful information for SUMO." (SUMO is the Support Mozilla project.)

"Prevent bad ratings from going viral"? That sounds like something one definitely wants to avoid. More detail from the Background section of the page:

Sites like Facebook or Twitter have hundreds of millions of users. […] Social networks make it very easy for issues to become viral. That changes the perception of Firefox in a disproportionate way.

Indeed, it seems like the people working on this program are reacting to a trend that's been under way for some time. Mozilla used to have a scrappy underdog personality and a passionate community that evangelized for Firefox enthusiastically. Lately, though, most of what I've seen about Firefox, on Twitter and elsewhere, is negative. The shiny new browser is Google Chrome, and most of the discussion about Firefox is about problems with security or stability. Earlier this month the German government officially advised against using Firefox because of an critical security vulnerability (since patched). And among the people I follow I've seen lots more complaints lately about Firefox performance.

The Mozilla Wiki page lists three objectives for this experiment:

  1. Reach out to users who need help, using little snippets that could solve their problems. Long-term, we want to reach close to 100% of all users.
  2. Get a better understanding of the current perception of Firefox and the biggest problems users experience, and act upon that information.
  3. On one hand prevent issues from becoming viral by intercepting and channeling to SUMO if help is not possible in social network. On the other hand use viral effect to our advantage: people retweeting our help messages.

It's an interesting experiment, but those are incredibly ambitious goals. How many Firefox users are there, and how many potential problem reports are they talking about on Facebook alone? Is it a failure of the free, open model that no one at Mozilla seems to have a good understanding of how its flagship product is perceived by its users? And even if this support effort can scale, I wonder whether it can keep Firefox from plateauing or even beginning a slow gradual decline. On my personal list of browsers, Firefox used to share the top spot with IE. Now it's fallen to third behind IE8 and Chrome, and judging by my latest web metrics I think I have lots of company.

That once-impressive Firefox growth curve is being dragged down by the shiny new thing, Google Chrome, which has stolen all the attention (and positive buzz) of the early adopters. It's being blocked on the other side by a resurgent Internet Explorer, which crossed the "good enough" threshold with IE8 and is getting grudging acceptance and even some positive buzz of its own for the IE9 preview Microsoft released at MIX10. It's hard being number two in any market. In the case of Firefox, which is still run by a "public benefit corporation" wholly owned by a nonprofit foundation, it's even tougher to be sandwiched between two of the wealthiest corporations in the world.

Firefox seems to have lost whatever momentum it once had.

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