They Live and the secret history of the Mozilla logo

I'm going to draw a line through 1930s agitprop, Ronald Reagan, methane-breathing zombie space aliens, the Mozilla logo, Barack Obama and the International Commiunist Conspiracy. It's a long walk, so please stick with me.

Let's start with They Live.

I've talked to a number of people recently who haven't seen They Live, and that's a real tragedy, because even though it is technically a sci-fi / horror movie, it is also the best documentary about the Reagan Administration you're likely to see.

If you haven't seen it, it is a 1988 film by John Carpenter whose premise is this: an out-of-work construction worker finds a box of special sunglasses near his homeless encampment. These glasses let you see the world as it really is: the Earth has been invaded, and all of the "one percenters" and most of the cops are actually skinless space zombie free-enterprisers.

"Earth is being acclimatized. They are turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere. Deplete the planet. Move on to another. They want benign indifference. We could be pets. We could be food, But all we really are is livestock."

And most importantly for our story, the glasses also let you see that all advertisements are actually black text on a white background with simple exhortations such as "OBEY", "CONSUME", "MARRY AND REPRODUCE".

It is not necessarily a great movie: it is extremely low budget, and somewhat slow-paced. As a horror movie, perhaps it hasn't aged well. But as a political statement, it is still absolutely fantastic and relevant.

Though, a friend tells me that some of his friends in their 20s watched it recently and thought it was very dated: it was "too 2011". It was entirely too "Occupy Wall Street".

Last week I was bicycling through The Mission and absentmindedly beginning to compose this story in my head. I glanced to my left and said aloud, "You have got to be fucking kidding me," because this is what I saw on a building across the street:

Apparently our local muralists find it to be still relevant as well.

And speaking of graffiti...

There's an artist you may have heard of, Shepard Fairey. He did the Obama "Hope" poster in 2008. But long before that, in the early 90s he had this semi-anonymous graffiti campaign, "Andre the Giant Has a Posse". It was everywhere. Stickers, stencils, wheat-paste posters, I saw them in every city I ever visited. It was a global propaganda campaign whose goals and meaning, if any, were completely obscure. I loved the mindfuckery of it, a campaign with no purpose, for which he had somehow managed to mobilize a worldwide army of helpers, primarly by intentionally giving up control of it and allowing it to take on its own life.

In the mid 90s, his Andre the Giant has a Posse campaign morphed into OBEY GIANT. Andre glowers out at you from under his enormous brow in a style referencing the Big Brother posters from the 1956 film of 1984 as well as the Futurist propaganda art of the 1930s and 40s.

Since then, the OBEY brand has grown tremendously, nearly outstripping even Hot Topic in our suburban malls. It has become the go-to fashion statement for backwards-baseball-cap-wearing bros across the nation. But let us not forget! It is a direct reference to They Live.

So why am I telling you about this odd series of un-ad campaigns? Well.

I was one of the founders of this company called Netscape. You might not have heard of it, because it was a while ago. We built the world's first web browser that mattered. The first one that normal, everyday people could use. It was the browser that your parents used. We did a pretty excellent job of it, too, and our success ushered in the first "tech bubble".

I'm sorry about that part.

Well, in the fullness of time, 1998 to be precise, the company began its process of self-destruction. And through a long series of bizarre events, it turns out that some things I had written about free software led my bosses to decide that we should give away the source code to the web browser. This sort of thing was utterly unheard of at the time.

So we created

Though the world knew the web browser as, alternately, "Mosaic Netscape", "Netscape Navigator" or just "Netscape", we had always known it internally by the name "Mozilla", a name that I came up with. (These days, you know it as "Firefox".)

Mozilla had a cartoon dinosaur as a logo and mascot. In the early years of Netscape, this little guy was plastered all over our web site, in banners at the top of every page, and scattered throughout. The artist was Dave Titus, and he went for a very "cute" look with the art. But some time in 1994, before Dave's vision of Mozilla came to be, I threw together a version to hang on the wall above our cubicle farm, pictured to the right. It's about 4' tall. The original source was a 2" high picture of Godzilla from a newspaper ad for a local toy store. I blew this up on the company photocopier one late night, zooming and zooming and zooming. I spent a lot of late nights slaving over photocopier-based art projects back then, while waiting for things to compile. Every now and then we'd get email from facilities asking why we seemed to burn through so much toner.

I wasn't able to find a contemporary photo of that protozilla, but fortunately, my strict data retention policy applies also to grainy black and white pieces of paper, so I was able to dig the original out of a very old cardboard box that I haven't opened since, I'm guessing, 1996.

When Dave started working on the mascot, I remember that one of the references I passed along as a suggestion was this manga called Gon, a dialogue-less story about a baby tyranosaur just trying to make his way in the world. I'm not sure if he used that as inspiration, but I hope so.

There were many illustrations of our little lizard in various thematic poses. That lasted until, of course, at some point the marketing department decided that for our (already fantastically successful, publically traded) company to appear to be "professional", any trace of fun or whimsy, no matter how harmless, must be scraped away. As they do. Because they are terrible people.

Also, at one point we were threatened with a trademark infringement lawsuit by Toho, the Japanese company who own the Gozilla franchise! They contested our trademark on "Mozilla". They were in the habit of attacking anyone with "zilla" in their name, but our legal staff reached a settlement with them when Toho realized that our t-shirt sales were literally beneath their notice.

For the purposes of this story, here's a glamour shot of Mozilla wearing sunglasses. You know, just the sort of sunglasses that allow one to pull the veil of lies from the face of the world:

With the launch of, I felt we needed to distance ourselves to some degree from Netscape itself, and that meant that, beloved though our little lizard was, we needed a new look. What we were trying to accomplish here was something of a radical idea, so I wanted artwork with a revolutionary feel...

So I called up Shepard.

I didn't know the guy, but I was a fan, so I figured I might as well give it a try.

I remember giving him a brief explanation of what "free software" was all about, how it was based on the principle that when people work on the things they personally care about, but share their work with others, then everyone benefits. That sharing is not inimical to competition and so on. He said, "That's interesting, because that's kind of how 'Andre the Giant Has a Posse' took off," and I said, "I know! I thought you'd get it, which is part of why I thought of you!"

He asked if I had seen his more recent work, and I said, "Yeah, in fact, right now I'm looking at a poster on my wall that you did for Crash Worship, Circus Maxiumus." He said, "Wait, what? How did you get that?" I said, "I bought it at the show." He said, "Oh, well you probably bought it from me, then, because I think I only printed like 50 of those!"

I like to think that the Crash Worship bonding sealed the deal.

So he designed our new mascot:

A much more imposing lizard, rising above the industry that spawned it.

So that was the time that I somehow convinced a multi-billion dollar corporation to give away the source code to their flagship product and re-brand it using propaganda art by the world's most notorious graffiti artist.

At the time that this was happening, the "free software" world had not yet been rebranded as "open source" -- in fact, I attended the meetings of the Secret Cabal where that decision was made, though it was a lot less Eyes Wide Shut than you might expect -- and so, much of the rest of the software industry didn't know what to make of what we were doing. Even though the internet had been built on free software, part of our job was convincing Capitalists, Libertarians and methane-breathing space zombies that giving away the source code to your products and allowing outsiders to participate in your development process actually made sense from an economic point of view, that it was compatible with unfettered free market capitalism, red in tooth and claw. We had to convince them that these "open source" people weren't just a bunch of hippies and Communists.

To that end, the branding strategy I chose for our project was based on propaganda-themed art in a Constructivist / Futurist style highly reminiscent of Soviet propaganda posters.

And then when people complained about that, I explained in detail that Futurism was a popular style of propaganda art on all sides of the early 20th century conflicts; it was not used only by the Soviets and the Chinese, but also by US in their own propaganda, particularly in recruitment posters and just about everything the WPA did, and even by the Red Cross. So if you looked at our branding and it made you think of Communism, well, I'm sorry, but that's just a deep misunderstanding of Modern Art history: this is merely what poster art looked like in the 1930s, regardless of ideology!

That was complete bullshit, of course. Yes, I absolutely branded that way for the subtext of "these free software people are all a bunch of commies." I was trolling.

I trolled them so hard.

I had to field these denials pretty regularly on the Mozilla discussion groups; there was one guy in particular who posted long screeds every couple of weeks accusing us of being Nazis because of the logo. I'm not sure he really understood World War II, but hey.

I'm not sure how much more explicit I could have made the gag than the t-shirts we gave away at our launch party that said PARTY MEMBER!

So that was all pretty fun, but back to They Live.

If you've ever been to DNA Lounge, at this point you might be thinking, "Oh, hey, there's all that weird shit on your ATMs. That's all just another reference to They Live, isn't it?"

Yes. Yes it is.

And finally, to wrap it all up, here's a photo of me in (one of) my Halloween costumes for 2016 (since we have three different parties at DNA Lounge this year!)

And as the rat's milk returns to the sewer, the cycle of life is complete.

The hat is, of course, a reference to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign slogan. For truly, the monsters of the 1980s are still with us, perhaps now more than ever.

And do you see that poster over my shoulder there? That's a poster for Alamo Drafthouse's 2011 revival of They Live... this poster created by Shepard Fairey, specifically for that event. Shepard said at the time, "They Live was the basis for my use of the word 'obey,' The movie has a very strong message about the power of commercialism and the way that people are manipulated by advertising. [...] One of my main concepts with the Obey campaign as a whole was that obedience is the most valuable currency. People rarely consider how much power they sacrifice by blindly following a self-serving corporation's marketing agenda, and how their spending habits reflect the direction in which they choose to transfer power."

In this upcoming presidential election, please vote against the methane-breathing zombie space alien.

Because we're all out of bubblegum.

Previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously.

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81 Responses:

  1. What's with the rise of medium-form writing on jay dub zed dot org lately?

    Because it's pretty great. These are great. Thanks for writing them.

  2. Geoff Smith says:

    Man, this was a great read.

  3. Eric Smith says:

    Loved the movie. Entertaining both at face value and as political/economic commentary. Recently I OBEYed the directive to CONSUME and bought the Blu-Ray. Attached to the shrink-wrap it had a round white sticker with "BUY" in black text. :-)

  4. Stewart says:

    This is very interesting, thanks for posting. This should be on gruntle. I have wasted many hours in gruntle.

  5. John Morton says:

    WTB: They Live! Adblocker mode. Why is this not a thing?

    (The source for CatBlock looks promising.)

  6. fujimotos says:

    If you love watching movies and Shepard Fairey's artworks,
    you'll surely love the 2010 movie "Exit through the gift shop".

  7. Aaron says:

    Which one isn't a methane-breathing zombie space alien? Because they both look like methane-breathing zombie space aliens to me.

    • anaran says:

      exactly what I was thinking!

    • jwz says:

      If you choose to draw the "herp derp they're all the same" false equivalence between Hawkish Grandma and Unhinged Angry Rapist Cheeto, you deserve the world you'll have to live in. I just hope the rest of us don't have to live in that world too.

      • Aaron says:

        I mean, voting for the less awful of the methane-breathing zombie space aliens on offer doesn't mean I'm not still voting for a methane-breathing zombie space alien.

        • UnlikelyLass says:

          So your argument is that this is a "don't blame me, I voted for Kodos" situation?

          That's so wrong I don't know how to respond to it.

          • "It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see..."
            "You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?"
            "No," said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, "nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."
            "Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."
            "I did," said Ford. "It is."
            "So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't people get rid of the lizards?"
            "It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."
            "You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"
            "Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."
            "But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"
            "Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?"
            "I said," said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, "have you got any gin?"
            "I'll look. Tell me about the lizards."
            Ford shrugged again.
            "Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happenned to them," he said. "They're completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone's got to say it."
            "But that's terrible," said Arthur.
            "Listen, bud," said Ford, "if I had one Altairian dollar for every time I heard one bit of the Universe look at another bit of the Universe and say 'That's terrible' I wouldn't be sitting here like a lemon looking for a gin.”

          • Aaron says:

            Is it, though? Kang is a corrupt apparatchik and Kodos is a rapey loonball, and we're all to blame.

            • UnlikelyLass says:

              I'm pretty sure Hawkish Grandma hasn't raped any kids.

              Something, you'll note, Unhinged Angry Rapist Cheeto is actually about to be on trial for.

              Sue me, but I happen to think that's actually kind of an important difference, you know?

              • Aaron says:

                Beats me. How many rapes add up to one war?

                I kind of feel like I'm on the pointy end of an assumption that I must be voting for Kodos because, I don't know, I guess I don't think highly enough of Kang? I thought "hold your nose and pull the lever" was still allowed to be a thing. Is there a Kool-Aid requirement now too, and the bulletin just didn't make it as far as me?

                • pavel_lishin says:

                  We're not voting for Prom King and Queen, here, but the person we think is best suited to hold the position of President.

                  Do you really think the guy who can't even keep his lies straight and doesn't understand how elections work is going to be better at the job than someone who's been working in the government for most of her life?

                  • Chris says:

                    Nothing this person has said implies "you really think the guy who can't even keep his lies straight and doesn't understand how elections work is going to be better at the job". Are you deliberately missing the point?

                  • rozzin says:

                    We're not voting for Prom King and Queen, here, but the person we think is best suited to hold the position of President.

                    When I was a kid, I seem to recall encountering a statement that "the American President is the most powerful man in the free world". That must have been when I was something like 10.

                    In my 20s, at some point I happened to remember that and had the sudden realisation that the "most powerful man in the free world" was an example of irony--because the whole point of `the free world' is that it's a place where people don't have power over each other.

                    In my 30s, I started wondering when we must have collectively forgot that there was supposed to be irony in the phrase.

                    More recently I've been wondering whether anyone ever even actually used that phrase ironically to begin with. And what the context was when I encountered it as a kid.

                • Nota bene: This election is not a choice between a warmonger and a serial sexual assaulter. This election is between two warmongers, both of whom are on the record as desiring to increase our combat presence in the middle east (although depending on which of Trump's off-the-cuff statements you choose to regard as authoritative, they may differ somewhat on which specific group of dirt-poor brown people they'd prefer to bomb), one of whom is also a serial assaulter on top of that.

                • Editer says:

                  The argument that Trump, hasn't personally started any wars, having been a private citizen his whole life with no opportunity to do so, and therefore he's the moral equivalent or superior of anyone else, is so nonsensical it doesn't even count as wrong. Crimes committed in the private sector are still crimes.

    • Krinn DNZ says:

      Unrelated: I haven't talked to you since a billion LJ-years ago. Hit me up on Twitter? KrinnDNZ there, also at gmail. Cheers. :)

  8. S says:

    Amazing. And miles above the logo redesign campaign:

    • Xemoka says:

      Absolutely. Such a shame this aspect of Moz's public face is gone.

    • jwz says:

      I had no idea they were doing this, but wow, all of those are remarkably terrible.

      I don't know when, and certainly not why, they chose to scrub the big red dinosaur from the web site, but I'm sure it won't surprise you to learn that I think that was a bad decision.

  9. Line Noise says:

    The Big Issue magazine here in the UK is on the same wavelength.

  10. Theodore says:

    Stop putting layers of fake methane-breathing space zombie costumes over your real methane-breathing space zombie body, please.

  11. Carlos says:

    Thank you for this; I enjoyed this as much as any other piece of your writing, and perhaps moreso.

    I still watch They Live every year or two.


  12. Susan Benson says:

    I do love reading you, Jamie. Excellent storytelling and writing.

  13. Walter Heukels says:

    You made me feel old, because I was around for most of this. Thanks though, for everything.

  14. That costume is AMAZING!

  15. Shea says:

    Basically, ++ to all the above. Bless you and thank you for this.

  16. Ron says:

    That was amazing.

  17. "It is not necessarily a great movie"

    The way I describe "They Live" to all of my friends who I force to watch it (which is, eventually, anyone unfortunate enough to stay in close proximity to me for more than a few weeks) is that it's not a good movie. In fact it's in many ways a terrible movie. But it's one of the greatest terrible movies ever made, if not actually the greatest bad movie ever.

    As a fellow They Live obsessive, I assume you've read Jonathan Lethem's collection of essays about it? (Yes, essays, plural.)

    • jwz says:

      I had no idea that existed. But I just clicked BUY... (Because there was no OBEY button.)

      • James C. says:

        Slavoj Žižek gives his analysis of “They Live” in his “Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”. This includes the famous quote:

        I already am eating from the trash can all the time. The name of this trash can is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I am effectively eating.

        He also refers to the movie as “one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left”. His approval seems to have encouraged a new generation of viewers to watch the classic.

      • anon3494 says:

        There should be a CONSUME button.

  18. dinatural says:

    Excellent writing there, I love all these history lessons even though I used Netscape, reading all this makes the nostalgia more nostalgic :)

  19. Timmay says:

    Thank you for writing this up. I had been wondering if there was a link between the Obey clothing line and the movie.

    The circular connection to Mozilla and Netscape (which I did use, long, long ago) is great.

  20. Zach Lipton says:

    Beyond the newsgroup discussions, which were endless, you can relive the glory days of Mozilla with bugs like 194337 - Repulsive picture remniscent of Nazi Germany propaganda. 190078 (Steps to Reproduce: 1. start mozilla 2. run to the toilet - FAST), 32218 (308 comments), and 114061 ("this makes Mozilla communist by definition").

    • Frank Hecker says:

      Speaking as someone who participated in those endless newsgroup discussions, and had to patiently explain the history of Russian constructivist art more times than I can remember, I'll skip on reliving the glory days. I love the original design (and all hail to Jamie for getting it created), but it was a pain to deal with all the critics.

      I will also put in a good word for Netscape's original Mozilla mascot. We loved that little guy in the Netscape Federal sales group, and put him on a whole series of polo shirts we created to give away to customers and prospects; I still have several of these in my closet. (We knew his days in this world were numbered, so we put "STL" on the sleeves, code for "Save the Lizard".) I also saved a copy of a design that I think we had commissioned specially, and scanned it in just in case you've ever wanted to see Mozilla in a leather jacket (and shades, natch).

      • jwz says:

        Art history lessons were just one of those services we provided! And they didn't even thank us.

    • margaret says:

      oh my. what a bunch of precious little flowers.

      • margaret says:

        (i mean the people choosing to be so offended by something they don't understand, and their confusion about knowing why they are offended, and their eagerness to make the symptoms go away)

    • Frustrated says:

      Do people still write Mozilla bugs? Do people still read them?

      I haven't checked to see if any of the bugs I opened fifteen years ago are still open. Because they will be.

  21. calvin says:

    There are two kinds of people: Those who like They Live because of the fight scene, and those who like They Live in spite of the fight scene.

  22. saddan says:

    young jwz = skrillexx confirmed

    also crash worship = best work soundtrack oscar nominee

  23. Wow, this is an awesome post. Probably my favourite thing on this blog that I've seen, and there have been some corkers in the last few months.

    Thanks for telling this story!

  24. BrendanEich says:

    > So we created

    1998 jwz would never have capitalized the M. I still don't when the ".org" is part of the domain-noun.


  25. jwz says:

    In case you want to print your own methane-breathing space zombie business cards and money, here are my props. You know, in the interest of open source.

  26. NikBorton says:

    This was great.

    Not as great as that cap, which is the greatest.

  27. Dav says:

    I was at that launch party (the one where the source code was scrolling on the projector all night, right?), and I"m kind of upset now that I didn't get one of those T shirts.

  28. jet says:



    p.s. thanks for writing all this up. we should all be documenting our history while we can, before we're off at the Branson Goth/Industrial retirement camp in wheelchairs and crappy, publicly funded VR headsets.

  29. Worth noting an example close to the home of Netscape. In the 90s, Cisco Systems' corporate artwork was very Stalinist; blank-faced white men in white shirtsleeves, thrusting glowing network cables to the heavens as they earned certifications and solved important problems.

    You get the idea. Now imagine these in full, framed in protective glass above cubicles.

    Arbeit macht EIGRP!

  30. zaba says:

    This is such a rich post. Thank you so very much. I'll keep it in my version of bookmarks for a long time to re-read and to share with others. Oh, and to go down the rabbit hole of all the different links that are involved.

    There is simply too much to comment on, so I'll only grab a few highlights:


    The first one that normal, everyday people could use. It was the browser that your parents used

    And... Now I feel really old on a Saturday morning.


    And then when people complained about that, I explained in detail that Futurism was a popular style of propaganda art on all sides of the early 20th century conflicts; it was not used only by the Soviets mozilla-partymember.jpg and the Chinese, but also by US in their own propaganda, particularly in recruitment posters and just about everything the WPA did, and even by the Red Cross. So if you looked at our branding and it made you think of Communism, well, I'm sorry, but that's just a deep misunderstanding of Modern Art history: this is merely what poster art looked like in the 1930s, regardless of ideology!

    That was complete bullshit, of course. Yes, I absolutely branded the way for the subtext of "these free software people are all a bunch of commies." I was trolling.

    I trolled them so hard.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! I have always appreciated and admired what you have done for free/open source software and have never been able to articulate that admiration to others because I have always sensed there was something more than what I was grasping. The above quote made me finally understand, hopefully. Basically, you fought bullshit with bullshit and laughed while you did it. Very awesome.

    3. I want to send this link far and wide, but there will probably be 10 (that may be binary) people who will "get it". Thank you very much for writing it, because it hit all of my geeky spots. It might become my litmus test for people who have a deep comprehension of who I am. Yeah, I am weird enough/appreciate what you did enough that browser history and open-sourcing software is something important.

    unrelated: Blink is still an option???? Holy cow, I thought that was deprecated.

  31. margaret says:

    loved the logo. i changed the solaris login window logo to a riff on that logo. had to create a whole bunch of host configuration managements to get it to stay put, and since i had made it for my host, why not push it out to the whole division? unfortunately my data retention policy is lacking.

  32. Grego says:

    Jamie, the "party member" shirts were for mozilla party 2.0 in 1999. The first party's shirts just said "".

    Thanks for the good times and the reminder thereof.

  33. Sheeple says:

    That was a great read jwz.

    Things haven't changed much in 20yrs. I'm currently experiencing a post acquisition death march that involves the digest juices, from one of the pillars of capitalism, eradicating all the personality and fun that made us successful.

    Also this week I attended talks about the "long nose of technology", 15 to 20yrs out. The speakers suggested leaning into the current trend so the next generation will be used to having surveillance in every app. You know, lets make personal computing too personal. Because if you don't find utility in the data collected, the government definitely will.

  34. Sam Wilson says:

    Did you get that hat custom, or is it available somewhere?

    • jwz says:

      I drew it by hand with a fabric marker.

      I had ordered a custom-embroidered one, but it didn't arrive on time. It's still on a slow boat from China, it seems.

  35. thielges says:

    [bowler topped man applauding while standing on the edge of his seat]

    Funny that the Mozilla cabal was concerned about communist imagery. Didn't they get the memo that terrorism has replaced communism as the bogeyman to scapegoat when starting pointless wars?

  36. Hey, thanks for that fantastic background info. I always was surprised by that propaganda poster style of the logo (and liked it very much). But your introductory to what Netscape was really made me feel old. You know, optimizing for Netscape was a thing I had to do. Maybe I am old, fuck.

  37. Azundris says:

    Very topical, just saw Carpenter in concert day before yesterday. Good show. Also rewatched They Live! a few weeks back; I think it still holds up. Next up: Christine, Prince of Darkness.


  38. qweo says:

    A fascinating read!
    Thanks, jwz!

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