If you follow me (or many of my friends) on twitter or on G+ (or even on Facebook which I don’t really use) then you’ve probably seen lots of posts about W3C elections.  The funny thing about elections, unlike most of my other projects, is that they have a hard deadline and (I think) a potentially much bigger impact than anything else I’d be working on, so I find myself especially motivated to do what I think it is I need to do. As a result, they tend to dominate my streams for a while.  Over the last few elections, we’ve been gaining steam and more and more people are asking questions about it. That’s great, but since it’s hard to respond individually (or in 140 characters), I thought it would be worth putting together a FAQ which I (or others if they are so inclined) can point people to to explain the madness.

Who the freak is TAG?

TAG is the W3C Technical Architecture group.  It is one of only two groups in the W3C which is composed by election rather than appointment by groups who (generally) pay to belong to W3C (the other is the Advisory Board, or AB).  These two groups are also unique in two ways: First, in the sense that their charters cut across the spectrum of W3C,  second they are small – only 9 members in each and they are mostly elected.

Mostly Electeded?

Tim Berners-Lee (the creator of the Web) is the chair of the TAG and he gets to appoint 3 others.  You don’t even have to be a member of W3C to serve, you just need one to nominate you.

Is this a new thing?

Actually, no.  It’s been around for a long time (since 2001) – you’ve just likely never heard of it.

Why haven’t i heard of them before?

A few reasons: First (most importantly I think) is the fact that they’ve never done anything visible that you’d care about.  It’s mostly been a somewhat academic exercise at very high levels that produce documents and notes you will probably never read.  It’s helped a bit to steer things though which I address more in another section below. Second, you (probably) don’t get a vote (yet) – so traditionally, no one has bothered to tell you.  Seems pointless, right? Before you throw your hands up and close this window, keep reading – there is a rationale here.

Wait… If they don’t do anything I care about… Why should I care?

Simply put, because they could. In developer terms, its a bit like “discovering ajax” – there’s a great tool with a lot of potential just lying there dormant – waiting for someone to tap it and use it to do great things.

An honest history of why standards are in the shape they are in would be a lengthy post of it’s own (there are already several good ones), but these things we know: We don’t want to go down roads of the past and we do want to reform things that aren’t working well. We want to help blaze a bright new future. The candidates I support have a vision and common outlook (see The Extensible Web Manifesto for the thrust), and TAG is one of the tools that we can use to help realize it.

Wait… We need less appeal to authority, not, more…isn’t TAG problematic in this regard?

I don’t think so for a few reasons: As I said, historically TAG has been kind of a non-issue. What’s more, the candidates I support are made up of people with a common vision that swings the pendulum in a new direction in which there is, by design, less appeal to authority.

Things are what they are and we don’t get to pick where we start – recognizing current realities and operating within current structures to help drive things in a better way and (hopefully) bring some reform along the way just seems more logical than pretending reality doesn’t exist or needlessly tilting at windmills: W3C has a lot of things going for it. Additionally, it comes down to what powers TAG actually has…

Yeah… What powers does TAG have?

Power is a funny word – all organizations (including governments) have only the powers constituencies give them. The TAG doesn’t have a lot of official formal powers, but that doesn’t actually reflect the reality of things. By way of a somewhat US-centric analogy (the same holds in many counties, this just happens to be mine and serves as a decent example): The US president has comparatively weak formal powers – our congress maintains the power of the purse, to declare war and the ability to make and change laws. Our judiciary has the power to enforce and interpret laws. But if you think it doesn’t make much difference in practice who the president is, you really don’t pay attention. The president has a big influence on just about all these areas, in practice. But, and this is key: Their ability to do so is somewhat limited by their ability to mobilize popular support. Support provides political capital. While limited in official powers, in many ways, these powers are enough to let them help set the agenda. The bully pulpit lets them carry the voices of many in a powerful way. This is what I see as TAGs strength, and why I think the next item is key.

I am a developer, what can I do?

Most people reading this are likely average developers, and they don’t get to cast a vote (yet). However, if this its you – you can still raise your voice. Speak up and let the people who can vote know where we stand. If electors see a surge of support for a positive movement, we are likely to swing some votes our way. This matters more than you could imagine as there is actually low turnout – a (comparatively) few really involved companies with heavy interest tend to always show up and walk away with it. There is a great untapped wealth of organizations who are entitled a vote but don’t exercise their right to do do. If you know someone from a member organization, talk to them directly. If not, just show your support – as a community we are remarkably interconnected via social media. Just because you aren’t a member doesn’t mean that your message won’t reach them. What’s more, your voice helps empower our candidates described as in the political analogy above.

Why would an AC listen to me? They represent their organization…

For two important reasons: First, they are supposed to base their vote on what’s good for the Web at large and not just their company/organization. I believe that most ACs will act in good faith if presented with a compelling case, but maybe I am native in that. The second reason is more practical: Developers are the ones that make their organizations possible. Developers like you are the engine that drives their success. Their incentive to make you happy by representing you (assuming you are asking for something reasonable) is probably even stronger than that of a representative politician- business competition is strong. Even if they don’t vote your way, no organization wants to be out campaigning hard against developers. It seems to me, organizations will want to be on the right side of history, not the ones waving their hand and saying “let them eat cake”.

The vision the candidates I support isn’t just “reasonable” – its really good.

I think that the combination of these factors is healthy -there are good incentives for ACs to have a look at their platform and vision. Once they do, I honestly think most will become supporters themselves. A good movement is contagious.

I am an AC Representative – what can I do

If you are a W3C AC Representative, you can cast your vote! More still, tell another AC about why you did and encourage them to as well.

You keep saying I don’t get a vote yet – what’s that all about?

There have been informal proposals about changing the rules in a way that would let developers have some kind of more direct voice in the election process That’s where the other group, the AB comes in. That’s their job: Rules and process. It’s another post entirely- but if you’d like to see those sorts of reform as well – we’ll need to work together as a community.