March 14, 2011

Enter The Hackasaurus

I've recently switched projects at Mozilla. I was previously the technical lead for the Jetpack project, but at the beginning of February 2011 I started working on a new project called Hackasaurus: a toolkit and curriculum to help kids and other "non-techies" understand the Web and how to hack it.

The origins of this project go back to a blog post I wrote in 2009 called Kids And The Open Web, where I compare a Web page to "magic ink". This metaphor is based on a realization I had when I joined Mozilla in early 2008.

Before joining Mozilla, the last time I had done anything with HTML was in the late 1990s, when Web pages were very static and boring. After joining Mozilla, I learned about new tools and concepts that had emerged over the past few years: Firebug, jQuery, Greasemonkey, Ajax, bookmarklets, and browser add-ons. All of these suggested a completely different metaphor for the Web page, from something that was immutable to something that was dynamic and remixable. Learning how to use these tools was also empowering: since I already lived much of my life on the Web, being able to alter any website at will was effectively like being able to see through the Matrix.

Most people don't know about these aspects of the Web, though. And whenever we've talked about what makes the Web great, we've always had trouble explaining concepts like remixability and transparency to newcomers: to them, the Web is just as immutable and opaque as Flash, iOS, or any other platform.

But as Mitchell likes to say: at Mozilla, we don't just talk. We make things. And Hackasaurus is a toolkit and curriculum to help ordinary people see through the Matrix and understand, at a visceral level, what makes the Web so awesome.

The project is still pretty young, but we're moving quickly: we've held 5 events over the past month in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco that have given us a chance to put the tools in the hands of kids, see what they do with them, and quickly iterate in response.

For me personally, working on the project has involved a blend of heads-down coding, teaching, engagement, and user testing that I find challenging and fulfilling. My teammates—Ben Moskowitz and Matt Thompson from Mozilla, Jessica Klein from the New Youth City Learning Network, Taylor Bayless from YouMedia Chicago, Jack Martin and Chris Shoemaker from the New York Public Library, and Rafi Santo from Indiana University—have also been terrific to work with. It's inspiring to collaborate with people who are so passionate about learning and the Open Web.

If you'd like to know more, feel free to check out the nascent Hackasaurus website. I've attempted to maintain a concise history of the project there to make it easier for newcomers to get involved or stay up-to-date without being overwhelmed.

© Atul Varma 2020