Context Graph: It’s time to bring context back to the web

The largest button on a modern browser is the back button. Trips to the web are short. Enter a search, get a result, click back, then try again. This feels backwards (forgive the pun!). What if there was a better forward button? One that helps you understand a topic better or find alternative solutions to a problem you’re solving? What if web browsers were immediately useful instead of demanding input when you launched them? Browsers could do so much more, through a better understanding of your behavior and by using the experience of people at human-scale to give you content that enriches your life, regardless of whom you know or where you live.

The web today is like an old growth forest, with little light hitting the ground, and well-worn paths to specific points of interest. It is a tough environment for new ideas that try to improve on existing ones. Incumbents now have the power to spend their competition out of existence. Tall trees block the sun from the ground, making it all but impossible for new things to grow in between. This pushes growth to the edges and makes the continuous improvement that is the result of competition all but impossible. The result- less biodiversity in the web ecosystem.

The trees are tall because scale has value. Facebook login is convenient. Google’s services are broad and capable. Tall trees are great — for tall trees. What concerns us is the long term impact of a world where a small number of companies dominate the web for discovery and services, and the leverage that creates. In this world of tall trees the only path for new ideas requires either payment or acquisition, either of which tend to cost a lot of money.

New ideas are like sunlight, opening our eyes to possibilities and alternative futures. With sunlight new ideas can grow and flourish, increasing biodiversity. We want light to hit the ground on the forest of the web so that new ideas can flourish and the quality of an idea and its execution play a larger role in its success.

The early web was like a meadow- with meandering paths that people explored, with less of an expectation of utility and a higher expectation of surprise and delight. We think a healthier web has a meadow at the base of the trees. Today’s web can be both useful and magical.

We aim to do this by building the recommender system for the web. We’re calling this effort the Context Graph. We’re calling it this because we believe that developing an understanding of browser activity at scale unlocks the next generation of web discovery on the internet. For instance, if you’re learning about how to do something new, like bike repair, our forward button should help you learn bike repair based on others who have taken the same journey. This should work regardless of whom you’re connected to, because your social network shouldn’t be a prerequisite for getting the most from the web.

Using context to get you what you want on mobile is especially important. Who wants to type on a tiny screen? What if we did more to bring the right web page to you on your mobile device? Beyond just your history, we could use your location to return the most useful websites for where you are in the world. Wikipedia articles, company pages, and URLs emitted from Bluetooth beacons are all fair game. Do these features have to be in our browser, or can we bring the best version of the mobile web in every browser? We aim to build apps that are intended to help us quickly learn the right path. The light we want to set free need not be trapped in traditional form factors or applications, just as the web itself is evolving rapidly to support entirely new uses and platforms.

Activity Stream is the first Context Graph feature, currently available in Test Pilot. Initially a much better way to get you to where you’ve been, it will evolve into also helping you discover places on the web you’ve never seen. We’re building it for both desktop and mobile platforms, and we will continue to do this by building our new products on all the platforms that our users spend time on today.

We will not sacrifice user control. The best products today use their understanding of user behavior to make them better. Firefox, because of who we are and what we stand for, is uniquely suited to build this understanding. We’re working on how we can collect data with a group of volunteer users so that we can start building experimental systems for making contextual recommendations. We also believe there is no necessary trade off to be made between user control and personalization, and we will prove that these products are achievable without violating user trust or privacy. We will work to make sure our users understand what they’re sharing and the value they get in return. True to our open heritage, our methods will be open for scrutiny by anyone.

Just like when we launched Firefox 1.0 in 2004, there is no guarantee that we’ll be successful. But we exist to fight for the web, its users, and the ideas that we hope will continue to flourish and spread online for many years to come. Tackling the Context Graph is the perfect challenge for Firefox because it is one that nobody else will. We’ll do this in the only way we know how — by being open and getting help and advice from anyone who wants to contribute. Firefox has had enormous impact because it lowers the barriers to participation on the web. In order for us to serve our mission to keep the web an open public resource, we’re going to do more to help the web.

We’re going to build a new meadow and open up many new paths for light between the trees, to illuminate all the hidden trails that people would love to find. We hope you’ll come along for this next chapter and grand adventure. Let’s build that forward button that the web and its users really deserve.