New Blood: Reform the W3C Process

Unless you are a big W3C policy wonk, or actually a W3C AC member – chances are pretty good that you’ve never even heard of the W3C AB (Advisory Board).  Chances are also pretty good that your immediate thought is “why should I suddenly care?”.  Well, let me break it down for you in a few simple bullets:

  • The Advisory Board’s job is to manage the evolution of the W3C “Process” and inform and advise the W3C on issues like licensing.  As part of this, they can also recommend changing the relationship/workings of the Advisory Board itself, and some kind of synergy between who we elected there and who we elect here would be awesome.

  • It is an elected committee just like the W3C Technical Architecture Group (TAG) made up of 9 members elected to offset terms.  This year 4 of those 9 seats are open and, in the nomination process we have an historic 12 nominees for those four seats including number of “reformers” who would like to affect some change.

  • At the end of last year, the public got personally involved in an unprecedentedly public campaign to elect TAG reformers and we managed to win an historic election getting a whole slate elected.  We can do it again.  I argued then that changes to the process were necessary to the health of the platform: AB is a necessary element.

  • The  process is exceptionally static and slow changing historically and comments and public discussion are few and far between.  In fact, the public mailing list for AB has been around since 2007 and contains a whopping 12 total postings: 1 of which is clearly spam, another which appears to be posted to the wrong list and a few announcements about talks or conferences (http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/public-process-comments/).  The members only list is sadly similarly sparse.  HOWEVER, that isn’t to say that nothing has happened in that time!  Instead, it is an indicator of how closed off from us all of their work and discussion has been historically.  So much so, in fact, that some started an open W3C Community Group dedicated to revising the process!! Which leads to the most important part and why you should care:

This is Our Web.

The Web is a commons and the W3C is a group that we entrust with its general safekeeping.  As a constorium, it needs to operate and it needs members who belong to big companies that make things like, oh I don’t know, phenomenally complex Web browsers.  At the same time, we need to continue to strive to keep it open, participatory and representative of the interests of people who care about, use and write for the Web at large. In fact, this is how it is supposed to be – an AB electee is supposed to represent the interests of the Web at large, not their company or even just companies in general: They are supposed to represent you and me.  If they have no connection, visibility or openness – how is that even possible?

What can I do?

Whether you work for a member org or not – you should Tweet, Like, Plus, blog and just generally show your support.  This is an election and the W3C and its member orgs are not ignorant of social media or public perception – let them know who we’d like to cast a vote for.

Here’s my short list:

So here is my short list of supportable candidates, composed of folks who have both publicly and privately expressed some positive changes/openness or even potential changes to the AB itself and have worked for increased openness in the past.  I’ve included their public posts when available, unfortunately unless we can make this process more open, you’ll just have to trust me that they have done so on the W3C members only list.  During the TAG elections several folks contacted me and said “I can’t vote for X, but otherwise I agree” – so I am including a qualified “5th” candidate below.


Tantek Çelik

A Mozillan, frequent blogger, always dedicated to an open Web and participation.  Freedom fighter.  I’ll let him explain why he is running.  I’m not sure what else there is to say: A vote Tantek is a vote for the future I’m looking for.

Chris Wilson

Now a Googler, formerly with Microsoft, Metallica (j/k) and worked on Mosaic – always involved with standards.   Here’s his public statement.  As with Tantek – you should know who he is and what he’s about:  We want him.

 Charles McCathieNevile

Co-founder and chair of the afforementioned “revise the process” Community Group, Yandexoid. “Chaals” is currently an AB member, but is also responsible for a great deal of the openness that we do see and many of the criticisms in this election.  Here is why he is running.

Virginne Galindo

Virginne is from Gemalto and is the chair of the Web Cryto group. I think she explains why she is running better (and funnier) than I possibly could… Really you should give it a read.  She is determined and pragmatic and I think she would have a good impact.

Daniel Glazman

Daniel is co-chair of the CSS Working Group and has done a ton to open things up there.  A former Mozillan, he now represents his own Disruptive Innovations.  He has been working with W3C a long time and cares and contributes in a number of arenas.  Daniel hasn’t publicly blogged on why he is running (if he does I will post it) and I’m not even sure some would consider him an ‘outside’ candidate or reformer – in fact he is last on my list because of his positions “anti-” positions on open-licensing, but his comments and answers to questions and history of being rational lead me to believe he would be an excellent choice.

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Dropping the F-Bomb on Web Standards

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photo credit: wiccked via photopin cc

In 2012, Mirriam-Webster’s dictionary added a definition for the F-Bomb.  Why?  Because the elite Mirriam-Webster work
d-wonk committee decided it was necessary to mint a “steamy new word”?  No, rather, because it is a well-established part of the common vernacular of the English language. There are occurrences of it going all the way back to 1988.  Not every slang term someone makes up will get into the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary has a vault full of millions of words that currently do not make the cut.  Many never catch on.  Some die out quickly and others change shape as they spread, that is what etymology is all about.  Some stagnate and maintain distinct and valuable regional meanings, and that is fine, but they aren’t part of the standard language.  The ones that are ultimately widely understood and eventually become commonly used are accepted and codified into the dictionary. Some words even become extinct.  In other words, the process of word standardization is evolutionary.

What’s this got to do with Web Standards?

There are actually many similarities between a dictionary which codifies and specifies the English language and a Web standard, but today the two work in nearly opposite ways*.

I didn’t come up with the dictionary metaphor (I dont know who did first).  I first heard Alex Russell mention it in 2011 in a Fronteers talk while I was trying my best to find a way to describe it succinctly myself and it really struck a chord with me.  It very simply illustrates in a way that is easily understood, not just the problem itself, but some excellent/proven solutions that we can use to solve them:  What we really need is a way to develop the slang of the Web and, as it catches on,  potentially mutates or dies, eventually have a way to recognize that, pick it up and codify it into the standards dictionary.

* Some attempts at seeing what people are doing outside of Web standards has happened, but for the most part, the real work of creation happens in a committee and the   dominance or extinction happens by browser vendors (who also dominate the committees).  This has, so far, left us with APIs that are often less than what we want, general slowness in rate of change and lots of other undesirable qualities for developers.

A Path for Natural Platform Evolution

photo credit: Kaptain Kobold via photopin cc

photo credit: Kaptain Kobold via photopin cc

Yehuda Katz and Alex Russell gave an excellent presentation on the importance of Layering at the first W3C Technical Architecture Group F2F recently.  As you can see from the minutes, they returned on to this idea again with some positive/open responses from other member including questions and observations that further illustrate the language-link from Sir Tim Berners-Lee who seemed to express a lot of interest in parts.

It is critical to have competition/mutations and a population to evolve a platform – it is important to the long term health of the Web that we be able to evolve the slang of the Web (not just specify and release).  Yehuda called this a “Path for Natural Platform Evolution”.

What’s in it for me?  What do I have to do?

If you have ever participated in the open standards lists you know:  Most people aren’t that committed to bettering something that might make their lives easier years from now.   They have a job to do.   Within a month or two of following any list, you will begin to recognize the same small group of people who really contribute at that level.  It’s not that the general public is unwilling to contribute, it’s just really difficult to do and they don’t actually get anything out of it now.  This is distinctly different from words in a language – it’s very easy (and cheap) to pick up words that you find useful or descriptive and use them in your everyday parlance, on Facebook or Twitter.  You get something out of it when you find something becomes much easier to describe or maybe even makes you sound a little smarter or hipper than you might be without them.  Web standards on the other hand are kind of the opposite of that at the moment.

Cheap ways to help

  1. Collect the slang:  One very cheap way that you can help if you have chrome is to install Meaningless and help collect anonymous statistics about the elements and approaches used in sites that you visit – this helps inform what slang is actually picking up and which is mostly just theory or fad.  What benefit do you, personally, get out of it right now?  Actually none, but it’s so easy, why not help 🙂
  2. Provide the environment, use the slang:  Prollyfills (which I write about a lot) are to standards as slang is to words in the dictionary – they are essentially proposals that we hope catch on.  Using them right now actually does deliver value and it can be pretty cheap to try them out and provide some feedback.  If you’re very interested, join the Extensible Web Community group (see prollyfills link above) and help out – it’s open and you can do so in any way you like, and at your own pace.  You can comment, show us examples/use cases, contribute new ideas, or help create tests – or just help promote some proposal you really like.

Missing links….

Unfortunately this will only take us so far with the Web platform as it is today.  As Yehuda and Alex explained in their TAG presentation – it is hard to impossible to prollyfill some things in order for us to develop this slang in the real world: The platform doesn’t contain the right layers for people to step in and tweak/develop just one piece.  The only ones capable of doing this are browser vendors.  The architecture is lacking.

Thus, today, developers write increasing complex JavaScript: Re-implementing in order to emulate things that are already natively implemented in the browser just to make a single piece work a little better.

In order to fix this problem, we need to fix the gaps in the platform.  Some of this will take a while.  Luckily we have some good people working on it.  We’ve elected some good guys to the W3C Technical Architecture Group, both the membership and private encouragement we have gotten in the W3C Extensible Web Community Group have been encouraging  and there are spec authors like Tab Atkins who are helping to open new doors to make things like this more possible in places where they are currently very hard.