Desparately Seeking Jimi: The Web Standards Mountain

Over the past year or so, a number of very smart people have asked me privately or made comments about how I expend my energies with regard to standards: I’ve dedicated a lot of time toward elections to two advisory groups within the W3C (currently AB). Most of the comments can be distilled down to “why bother?” While there are varying arguments, the most prevalent can be summed up as “The groups in question have no real power…” Others argue that W3C is increasingly irrelevant, and that such efforts are a lost cause. More generally, that my time and talents would be better spent in other ways that didn’t deal with seemingly mundane details or bureaucracy. I thought it worth a short post to explain why I do what I do, and why I want you to care too…

Creating standards historically has a way of making one feel a little like Sisyphus in Greek mythology – forever compelled to push an immense boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again and repeat.  Time and again, we’ve seen struggles: Small groups of very bright people with nothing but the best intent work hard – of that there can be no doubt. They discuss and debate a LOT – progress and consensus takes a long time to arrive, implementations don’t aways arrive at all – and frequently what we get isn’t really usable as we’d like.  A change of venue alone doesn’t solve the problem either: The WHATWG has struggles and conflicts of its own – and has created failures as well. Maybe it’s a smaller mountain, I’ll give you that – but it’s still a big task.  And with the smaller mountain comes a lacks the Titan-sized support of W3C membership.  While I think the WHATWG makes a good argument about the importance of this, it takes a planet to really make it a good standard and having the support of W3C’s membership is still a good thing.  It’s not the fault of the people (ok, sometimes it is), it’s mainly the fault of the process we’ve created based on an outlook of where standards come from. The W3C organization and its processes are geared toward serving this model and that outlook is in need of revision.

A few years ago, several of us converged upon similar ideas which, almost exactly 1 year ago, were written down and agreed to in The Extensible Web Manifesto. It presents an alternative vision –  one that recognizes the importance of developer feedback, contribution and ultimate adoption as well as the evolutionary nature of successful and valuable standards that can both compete in an ever changing market and stand the test of time. Getting a bunch of smart people to sign a document about core principles is an excellent start, but, effectively convincing the larger standards world that it needs to change and embrace important elements of this vision is, to stick with my earlier Greek mythology theme, a Herculean task.

It takes movement on many, many fronts – but interestingly, they all involve people. All of these member orgs, all of the reps, all of the developers out there – it’s just people… People like me and you. The fist step is getting all of those members to pay attention, and then getting everyone to agree that there is a problem that they actually want to solve. It involves realizing that sometimes change requires some brave souls to stand up and make a statement. Sometimes just the act of hearing someone else you respect say it can lead to others standing up too, or at least to opening a dialog.

There are lots of ways to accomplish this I suppose, but it seems efficient if there were some ways to capitalize on the fact that we’re all really connected and, ultimately, wanting the same basic goals. If only there were a way to create a network effect – a call for change and a perception of value that picks up steam rather than simmers out after hitting the brick wall. One way to accomplish this might be give the right people some microphones and stick them in front of the right folks. As the W3C has two major “positions” (Director and CEO) and two advisory bodies (TAG and AB) that have their ear, and, in a more direct way, the ears/role of communicating with technical folks on matters related to the long term architecture (TAG) and on direction /process with AC members (the AB) – those seem like excellent intersections. Getting people elected to these positions involves us reaching out to get enough ACs to vote for them in the first place, electing many gives them perceived volume. It makes people sit up and take notice. It stimulates the debate. It means we have to work together to find agreement about which pieces we are willing to pursue together. It means making sure someone is looking out for developers and finding people who are willing to put in incredible efforts to help make that change happen. – And these are all Really Good Things™.

We’re technically minded people.  We don’t generally like this sort of thing.

So yes, it’s true that I might see more immediately tangible results on a particular API or set of APIs if I very actively focused efforts in that direction, but it doesn’t deal with the bigger problem – the mountain.  What I’d really like to to is help to change the whole world’s mind, it seems like a bigger win for us all in the long run. What I really want to do convince us all to channel Jimi and say….

Well, I stand up next to a mountain And I chop it down with the edge of my hand…

If any of this makes any sense to you – or if you’re just willing to humor me…

If you are an AC in the W3C – lend your voice and vote for a reform candidate (below).  If you’re not an AC, but know one – reach out.  If you don’t know one – tweet or share your support – we’re all connected, chances are pretty good that someone in your social network does.  While I believe that all of the nominees below are excellent, I think there is something critical about sticking one or more developers directly into one of these slots for reasons explained above. If I’m wrong and these groups don’t matter, you’ve lost nothing.

Lea is an actual developer and active in the community — you can find her at talks and conferences all the time. It should be obvious why think some real practitioner voice is important, but she also is an invited expert in the CSS WG and worked for W3C for a while in developer relations — so she has a very unique perspective having seen it from all sides and brings a direct connection to represent developers in the dialog.

Boaz is also a developer and the flâneur at — a passionate advocate of the open web who has done quite a bit of outreach, hosting (recorded/live) TC-39 and TAG events and whose employees are especially active in the community. He brings a drive and understanding of what it’s like for developers and non-megalithic companies to be involved and has a serious interest and skills with process. (Update: Boaz has since posted about why he is running).

Art is from Nokia — he has been working with standards for a long time, he’s been effective and involved and is outspoken and thoughtful on issues of process, involvement, licensing, etc. and has led efforts to streamline the ability to keep track of what is going on or how to get involved and open things up to developers.

Virginie is from Gemalto and active in a number of groups (she chairs the security group) and I think she can sum up why she is running and why you should vote for her much better than I can. Suffice it to say for purposes here: She sees the problems discussed here (as well as others), brings a unique perspective and has been increasingly involved in efforts to figure out how to help give developers a voice.

David is from Apple and he’s also been working on standards for a long time. He knows the process, the challenges and the history. I’ve not always agreed with him, but he has expressed a number of good things in relation to things mentioned above in his candidate statement which make me especially hopeful that he would be an excellent choice and a good voice to round things out.

While I left him out of my original post, it was an oversight – Soohong Daniel Park from Samsung also wrote an excellent AB statement which is full of great things and I believe would be a great choice as well.  I’ll leave you to read it.