Saturday 6 November 2004

oh that elitist smell

A great many discussions have taken place regarding the sense of elitism in the creation, implementation, and study of web standards. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about that elitist smell that surrounds us, where it comes from, and how we can freshen the air.


The W3C often comes across as an “ivory tower” organization: cold, high, and distant. The W3C’s pervasive use of vague language and a complex process system keep it largely inapproachable to the majority of web designers, developers, software engineers, browser developers and any poor sucker who actually wants to implement web standards in their day-to-day applications.

But to criticize the W3C goes against my nature as a web standards evangelist. Producing the most significant and influential specifications, recommendations, and activities for contemporary web designers and developers, the W3C is our mother lode and we owe her respect.


I have long objected the fact that comment systems or discussion boards are not made available on the Web Standards Project (WaSP) site to allow for true community discourse.

I’ve been a member of WaSP since about 2000, and I am proud to serve the organization. Since my time there, I’ve heard from many individuals that WaSP members and the organization itself are adding to the elitist odor.

But to criticize WaSP goes against my nature as a standards evangelist. Not to mention that even as a prominent member of the organization I’m able to be here, mouthing off at will. I don’t disagree that we often come off as arrogant, opinionated, and bitchy. It’s our job to have opinions and that’s not a bad thing. But I do think that to avoid the dangers of from-the-mountaintop punditry, we must allow for more direct community interaction.

Oh, and the Rock Stars

Oh yeah, there’s also the A-listers. Sporting the fragrance of charisma, books, too many public appearances, overly popular blogs and notorious careers we have to ask: egocentric stage whores or true servants to society?

But to criticize the Rock Stars goes against my nature. It’s just not easy being seen.

Freshening the Air

So help me out with some thinking points regarding elitism and ivory tower concerns.

I’ve got these so far:

  • Don’t let the reputation of a few ivory tower holdouts outweigh the good of many cooperative peers
  • Advocate in all cases for more efficient communications (blogs, wikis, comment systems, discussion boards)
  • improve organization between web professionals of all types (more organizations? Dare I introduce the idea of unions?)

Let me hear your thoughts, and let’s let the bad air out.

Cross-posted with The Web Standards Project BUZZ blog so your comments can be taken here.

Filed under:   general
Posted by:   Molly | 15:53 | Comments (39)

Comments (39)

  1. Pingback: » Settarismo e Standard Web

  2. In my short experience in the W3C, I don’t think the problem is that people feel elite, it’s that “implementors” (browser and software makers) are over-represented, and actual document authors (you and me) are under-represented. This means that some specs end up looking a little funny to those of us using them, because they were made that way for the sake of ease-of-implementation, not ease-of-use. I don’t think this problem is insurmountable, and there are now two dedicated “authors” on at least the CSS Working Group.

    For the designers, I have nothing but respect for them, and appreciate all that they’ve done to move standards forward. Without those A-Listers, standards adoption wouldn’t be where it is today, and we owe them (and you) a great big smooch.

    That said, us standards geek get a little over-zealous, religious even, about this stuff. We need to all take a step back and look at how we deliver the message (as I’ve painfully found out at work recently – it’s all about the presentation). If we do it with “love”, and with an eye towards helping people, then it will be accepted as such. If we go about attacking folks for not using standards, they’re just going to retreat into their concrete tables and never come out again (with just the spacer gifs and non-breaking spaces to keep them company).

    Sorry this is so long, but I’ve discovered that presenting the standards message is a lot harder than I thought it was…

  3. I disagree with your small critisism of the W3C. They certainly don’t seem “cold, high, and distant” to me. Although their use of vague language and a complex process can be intimidating to a novice, it is a truly open development process that does include people from all areas, including both implementors and web developers, and I find them very approachable. I find that their public mailing lists are a fantastic place to contribute to the development of recommendations and learn from the expertise of other subscribers. Compared with other standards organisations, such as the ISO, IETF, etc. (for which, AFAIK, there is no easy method, if any, for the public to contribute freely), the W3C is one of the most approachable organisations there is.

    Regarding WaSP, although it is true that their lack of discussion boards, comments, etc. do limit the amount of community feedback (and I continue to wonder why they don’t have them), it’s not hard to write comments and feedack for them in our own blogs. The only problem is that there is no guarentee that they’ll read it. However, I’m sure all the WaSP members read numerous blogs, and if the message is good enough (even if none of the WaSP members read our own blogs regularly), chances are, the message will reach them in one way or another, since information seems to travel really fast around the web.

    The “Rock Stars” don’t deserve any critisism just for being popular. There’s usually good reasons why they are so popular, and the majority of them would be true servants to society.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Molly. I appreciate that you’re asking the toughest of questions.

    For my part, as a web designer, I’ve never really been able to go to the W3C to learn about the “standards”. The documents are cold, high, and distant…perhaps that’s why the whole organization takes on that feeling. Instead, I’ve relied on web sites like alistapart and W3Schools, books like the Visual Quickstart guides, your HTML-XHTML Magic, and several from O’Reilly to learn about them (in English). That said, most people don’t learn about the theory of relativity by reading Einstein. But to move forward, someone had to read him. If you want a glimpse of the future, go to the W3C. If you want the present, read web design books. But to be clear, that organization is one of the most important in the world, in my opinion, and if they need to be an ivory tower, then so be it. Hopefully, we’ll always have translators.

    To me, the WaSP has done some great work getting the right people involved, like Microsoft and Macromedia, but on the whole I don’t see them helping the masses in the trenches. Frankly, the WaSP selling standards every time I turn around…and I’ ve already bought into it so I’m not in the target audience anymore. In that sense WaSP is certainly staying on message, which is a good thing. What I cringe at is that whenever a big site gets converted to standards, like, it’s either heralded as a job well done (if it validates), or it’s ridiculed (as in this case: it didn’t validate). I’m not saying that validation isn’t important, but it’s only important to developers. It sure isn’t important to the folks who read news: they don’t care one jot and probably would hurl if they had to sit through an explanation. My worry, of course, is that folks learning about web standards will get the wrong idea.

    As for the Rock Stars: well, we all want to be famous. I can’t begrudge people who have figured out how to do that within the industry, and I’m thankful for their books(the helpful ones). It is real easy to tune out the, as you put it, egocentric stage whores. For the real A-list, though, I think we’re looking in the wrong place. We should look to PBS, Amazon, eBay, and the sites that are in tune with their users (millions of them), despite the fact that each of these sites uses tables for layout…

    In terms of how to approach the problem you’re talking about, I think we need a starry-eyed vision for what the web can be. That’s one thing that’s missing from this discussion, I think. I don’t get a clear vision as to what all this is for. That said, I also don’t get it from the 3 groups you mentioned, with the exception of Tim Berners-Lee. Often I’ve noticed that he starts with the vision, and rarely mentions implementation. Every time I read something by him I get excited about this stuff…and I want to go out and help build the most important application that ever existed.

    Working toward a grand vision, I think, will get web designers on board, both new and old. This is because the vision itself has nothing to do with XML, validation, doctypes, or character encoding. The vision is not one where all documents validate, it’s one where all humans communicate.

  5. I’ve met some, for my feeling, elitists yesterday, and I have nothing bad to say :) I went to a pancake restaurant after our meeting yesterday with Faruk Ates, Mark Wubben and Anne van Kesteren, people I alway deemed somewhat elitist. I know better now. Anne can’t eat for shit.

    On W3C’s stance, I don’t think many people think that (correct me if I’m wrong). I do see the W3C as the motherlode, how can you feel that the ‘inventor’ is behaving too elitist for you when there’s no instance elsewhere that does the same?

  6. You know, I don’t know that I’ve ever considered any of these elitist.

    There is the concept, I think, amongst some people, that unless you understand it, unless you are part of it, unless that person is your best buddy, they or it are elitist. I don’t have that hangup – a lot of people don’t.

    I recognize that there are things I need to learn. It’s up to me to find the way to do it. Maybe it’s going to the W3C, maybe it’s picking up a book. But it’s my choice, and the W3C does not forbid me from going to their resources, they just say, “Hey, learn our language.” Nothing elitist about that. Kind of American in attitude if you ask me.

    Access for suggestions? I think that’s there if you want to find it.

  7. I don’t have anything against unions but I can tell you right now that if you want to avoid elitism, you should run away from them, screaming.

  8. We can forgive the W3C in one regard: They speak a different language than most of us. That is the nature of written specifications. If we needed to read the design manual for the space shuttle, we might think the authors elitist.

    Recently, WASP was a big disappointment with the comments in All That Glitters. Of course, it should be natural for WASP members to have very high expectations, but this hammering of (let’s face it, trivial) validation errors was over the top. It was stated in sarcastic language that was, at best, devisive. The celebration of yet another wonderful accomplishment was overshadowed by shrill ridicule. WASP lost credibility with that shrillness, and didn’t do much to regain it with the mushy In Search of Validation article.

    As for the “Rock Stars,” their occassional elitism pales incomparison to the WASP’s recent behavior.

  9. I totally agree. I also believe there has been a huge mixup between standards advocacy and accessibility advocacy. Standards do not automatically create accessibility! Some of the standards advocate “pros” have contributed to webmasters spending their budget on the wrong things. I spewed some bad air about this in post titled Standards-wielding maniacs a while ago.

    While I believe standards are a Good Thing™ I also believe that just because you know how to read the HTML DTDs does not make you an accessibility expert.

    Where do standards advocates come from? Is there really a need for standards advocates? Aren’t we looking for something else, like say, accessibility?

  10. I was writing a comment here, but it ended up becoming rather huge. To save people from encountering this huge rant here, I turned it into a post on my own blog. An excerpt:

    There’s a trend occuring in this field of expertise that I’m noticing everywhere on the Internet, particularly in places where politics are discussed: polarisation.

  11. Very fun, I like your youthfulisms(not so seriousness explanations) about the elitist smell, sometimes we create and not even know it. I like to consider w3c and wasp as groups that are trying to make guides for designers, but most important the browser developers. Without their participation their guidance would be worthless. These groups have a very tight wire to walk(trying to please some and direct others). As a designer I must create my own way of using the standards, draw a fine/flexible line of what to use and not use, and then explain that to my customers without going over their heads. And not take all so serious.

  12. Hey, that’s not even funny :(
    Can I go to the architect and call him elitist just because of my lack of knowledge and experience his drwaings are so damn hard to decipher for me?
    Can I go to the medical workshop, and call them all elitists, cause I don’t understand a word they say (oh, that Latin!).
    No, I can’t.
    How come, we think that web can be build by anyone and anytime?
    If one is serious about developing for the web he must learn many things, reading specs and DTDs included.
    How come we dropped the bar so low, unlike any other profesional area?
    Maybe specs can be written in more clear language, but I doubt they can get much simpler – because of their nature.
    Just because one who cannot tell nice code from standards compliant code calls elitist doesn’t nesesarilly make him such.
    It is a common trend nowdays – to try to lower the bar, instead of training oneself to reach higher.
    Peopel don’t want to learn. Sad.

  13. Instead of looking at A-Listers, or other big names as elitist, how about we just recognize them for what they are — the top professionals in our industry?

  14. I don’t personally think of any of the mentioned groups as elitist. Obviously, there are those who do.
    I started writing a comment which became a little long, so I posted it over at my own site: Web standards elitism.

  15. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about the W3C or WaSP being elitist, per se. But I have gone looking for how-to-join information and not found anything.

    Suppose someone wanted to help with the heavy lifting of promoting web standards? How would they go about hooking up with either group?

  16. I’m not sure ‘elitist’ is the right word … but there is a sense that The Rock Stars are working on a different level than those trying to emulate them or start out in the business.

    If you think of it in sports terms … I don’t think that NFL players are necessarily elitist – but they’re at the top of their profession, and in some ways, I’d like to be like them. I certainly admire their ability – even though I’ll never be as good as them. I still enjoy tossing a football in the park knowing that’s all it will ever be – but if I can learn a trick or two from watching and listening to the pro’s, then that’s great.

    The difference between web design and the NFL is that I can still make a decent enough living by doing the web equivalent of tossing a football in the park, and picking up tricks as I go. And I’m amazingly grateful that the super stars are so willing to publicly share their experiences with the rest of us.

  17. Hi Molly,

    I’m glad you opted for ‘rock’ stars rather than ‘pop’ stars, ‘cos there is a usually a big difference. Pop stars burn bright for a short time and often with the artificial fuel of record company publicity machines. But a lack of substance usually means that glittering careers are limited to a few short years or even months (Can YOU remember the name of the geezer than won the first American Idol? 😉 )

    Rock stars on the other hand often earn their success through years of playing pubs or working mens’ clubs (do you have them in the US? (clubs, not working men)) before they reach the dizzy heights of stadium rock. They hone their skills and subsequently enjoy greater longevity, maybe even becoming rock ‘legends’.

    Enough of this muso-malarkey… A list elitism (IMHO) is in the imagination of the beholder. These guys do what they do, coming up with innovations and writing great stuff that people want to read. After all, they are only trying to earn a crust like the rest of us.

  18. How come almost everyone seems to miss the humor in this piece?

  19. hi molly.I am deeply impressed by your books and your articles.Just one word ,it is your work that make it more practice for the standard of xhtml.I am interested in jsp and asp,both study and apply,I always think it far from the study of the standard,maybe it is because the later is far to learn than network programming language which we are applying to form homepages.I think many programmers may have the same questions just like me when they read each standard.Is there a much good book or good way to get into the door?

  20. Molly, I think everyone who read it had some good laughs for the humor in it, but even so you touched upon a very real and serious ‘problem’ (I’m slightly hesitant to call it a real problem) that exists in the blogosphere currently.

    You got people thinking about this real problem. It’s a good thing. Be proud. :-)

  21. I think a good example of the ‘distance’ you’re talking about can be had by reading the CSS 1 recommendation, and then trying to read the CSS 3 recommendation. A lot more formality, a lot more complexity, and a lot more of a perception of ‘elitism.’
    I also agree with those above who said we shouldn’t be mad if we cann’t understand the technical documentation. But in the end, for whom is it being written, if not web developers?

  22. I see it as a clash between people who have different priorities on the web. What I smell coming from some organizations is an unfounded belief that the web is about code. This belief says that since code is the lowest level construct of the web, it is the most important aspect of the web. Nothing could be further from the truth in my opinion. Here are ten major things that are more important than “strictly validating code”:

    1. Communication objectives
    2. Usability
    3. Visual aesthetics
    4. Page load and render speed
    5. A timely site launch
    6. Stickiness
    7. Server reliability and scalability
    8. Accessibility
    9. Ease of updating
    10. Content freshness

    I could go on and on. The thing that the WaSP and other such organizations need to understand is that if they want people writing better code, they need to put “good code” in its proper context. In it’s proper context, it helps designers/developers/administrators achieve the above ten things and a whole lot more. In it’s improper, totalitarian context it not only impedes the fulfillment of the above objectives but it turns would-be practitioners away. If you want the respect of people working in the real world, you need to understand the real-world objectives of a web site. Without this understanding, you come off as detached, aloof, and naive.

    (And by “you”, I don’t mean you Molly. Just people in general. :) )

  23. Firefox received very favorable coverage in an article in today’s (November 14, 2004) Washington (DC) Post, entitled “Firefox Leaves No Reason to Endure Internet Explorer.” See You may have to sign in or register to view it. If you don’t want mail from them, then register using any name (see

  24. Elitism…tricky thing to define. Its all relative IMO. I’ve been accused of elitism in the past purely because I advocate the building of sites to web standards. In one discussion I had, I furthered the idea that if the UK ever saw fit to accredit web designers (in a similar way to plumbers, travel agents etc) then the ability to code a site to web standards should form part of that accreditation. This immediately made a lot of other people very angry and the ‘e’ word was bandied about in my direction.

    Now, I can be a bit of a smartarse, but in this case I was bewildered. I wasn’t suggesting that validation was the be all and end all of site design, there are much mmore important things than that, but the underlying solidity and real world solutions that using valid code offers has to be a boon to both the web site in question and the overall makeup of the web itself.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying that if elitism is percieved and defined usually by those allegedly upon the recieving end of it. It surprised me to be accused of elitism and I’m sure it would surprise all of your examples to be thought of in that way too.

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