That Old-Skool Smell

One of the things that the various (grumpy) posts covering the recent W3C TAG / webdev meetup here in London last month brought back to mind for me was a conversation that happened in the TAG meeting about the ways that the W3C can (or can’t) facilitate discussion between webdevs, browser vendors, and “standards people”.

The way the W3C has usually done this is via workshops. Here’s an examplar from last year. The “how to participate” link is particularly telling:

Position papers are required to be eligible to participate in this workshop. Organizations or individuals wishing to attend must submit a position paper explaining their perspectives on a workshop topic of their choice no later than 01 July 2013. Participants should have an active interest in the area selected, ensuring other workshop attendees will benefit from the topic and their presence.

Position papers should:

  • Explain the participant’s perspective on the topic of the Workshop
  • Explain their viewpoint
  • Include concrete examples of their suggestions

Refer to the position papers submitted for a similar W3C workshop to see what a position paper generally implies.

It is necessary to submit a position paper for review by the Program Committee. If your position paper is selected by the Program Committee, you will receive a workshop invitation and registration link. Please see Section “Important dates” for paper submission and registration deadlines.

ZOMGWTFBBQ. If the idea is that the W3C should be a salon for academic debate, this process fits well. If, on the other hand, the workshop is meant to create sort of “interested stakeholders collaborating on a hard problem” environment that, e.g., Andrew Betts from FT Labs and other have helped to create around the offline problem (blog post on that shortly, I promise), this might be exactly the wrong way to do it.

But it’s easy to see how you get to this sort of scary-sounding process: to keep gawkers from gumming up the works it’s necessary to create a (low) barrier to entry. Preferably one that looks higher than it really is. Else, the thinking goes, the event will devolve into yet-another-tech-meetup; draining the discussions of the urgency and focus that only arise when people invested in a problem are able to discus it deeply without distraction. The position paper and selection process might fill the void — particularly if you don’t trust yourself enough to know who the “right people” to have in the room might be. Or perhaps you have substantial research funding and want academic participants to feel at home; after all, this is the sort of process that’s entirely natural in the research setting. Or it could be simple momentum: this is the way the W3C has always attempted to facilitiate and nobody has said “it’s not working” loudly enough to get anything to change.

So let me, then, be the first: it’s not working.

Time, money, and effort is being wasted. The workshop model, as currently formulated, is tone-deaf. It rarely gets the right people in the room.

Replacements for this model will suffer many criticisms: you could easily claim that the FT and Google-hosted offline meetings weren’t “open”. Fair. But they have produced results, much the way side-line and hallway-track meetings about other topics have similarly been productive in other areas.

The best model the W3C has deployed thus far has been the un-conference model used at TPAC ’11 and ’12, due largely to the involvement of Tantek Çelik. That has worked because many of the “right people” are already there, although, in many cases, not enough. And it’s worth saying that this has usually been an order-of-magnitude less productive than the private meetings I’ve been a part of at FT, Mozilla, Google, and other places. Those meetings have been convened by invested community members trying to find solutions, and they have been organized around explicit invites. It’s the proverbial smoke-filled room, except nobody smokes (at least in the room), nobody wears suits, and there’s no formal agenda. Just people working hard to catalog problems and design solutions in a small group of people who represent broader interests…and it works.

The W3C, as an organization, needs to be relevant to the concerns of web developers and the browser vendors who deliver solutions to their problems, and that to do that it must speak their language. Time for the academic patina to pass into history. The W3C’s one and only distinguishing characteristic is that some people still believe that it can be a good facilitator for evolving the real, actual, valuable web. Workshops aren’t working and need to be replaced with something better. Either the W3C can do that or we will continue to do it “out here”, and I don’t think anyone really wants that.

Update: A couple of insightful comments via twitter:

Sylvain nails one of the big disconnects for me: it’s not about format, it’s about who is “convening” the discussion. Andrew Betts has done an amazing job inviting the right people, and in the unconference style format, you need a strong moderator to help pull out the wheat from the chaff. In both cases, we’ve got examples where “local knowledge” of the people and the problems is the key to making gatherings productive. And the W3C process doesn’t start with that assumption.

Next:

I think this is right. A broad scope tends to lead to these sorts of big workshop things that could cover lots of ground…but often don’t lead to much. This is another axis to judge the workshop format on, and I’m not sure I could tell you what the hoped-for outcomes of workshops are that matter to devs, implementers, and the standards process. I’d like to hear from W3C AC reps and staff who think it is working, though.

9 Comments

  1. Posted June 19, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of something I call the “use my toys or you can’t play with us” phenomenon that keeps designers out of the code-side of front-end development. When designers want to learn JavaScript, often the starting points suggested to them are not things designers are interested in (IRC) or understand (books written by and for programmers). The same with participating in the W3C: we’re asked to sign up for and participate in a bloated mailing list which will be like piping a fire hose into our already swamped inboxes.

    It’s not that enticing if you can’t access something on your own terms. This means the only people attracted to an feeding into these conversations are those who can appreciate or stomach the existing infrastructure, essentially cutting off or dismissing an entire segment of users and builders with very important feedback.

    Do I have all the answers? No. I can only recognize this as a problem. But if I had to start somewhere, I’d start by reaching out to these people on their own terms: How do they communicate on their own passion projects? Can we bring the mountain to them in some way (like @CSSCommits)? Is there a more modern, transparent way to communicate?

  2. Posted June 19, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I don’t pretend to have more than the vaguest idea of how as a developer I’m meant to involve myself in the W3C’s process, other than posting to WG mailing lists (after a suitably stiff drink and a deep breath). However, like most people I’m trying to unhelpfully solve the problem from a position of ignorance, and my solution is Edge conference (Obvious plug: http://edgeconf.com).

    If the problem is that devs are typically too ignorant of context to be insightful in these conversations, then setting up a system that requires them to have a full understanding of context in order to contribute (or be ‘known good’) is simply elitist, exclusive, and rather self-defeating.

    If the fear is that altering the process to be inclusive of unknown people will prompt a tidal wave of contributions from the ignorant AND incompetent, then perhaps a middle ground is to have a process that welcomes the (partially) ignorant, but selects for competence. That’s what we’re trying to do with Edge.

  3. Posted June 19, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Hi Alex,
    I hope that what you’re writing about relates only to a minority of our workshops, and that in addition to this post and the Twitter conversations, you will (if not done already) ensure to share your opinion either with your TAG staff contact or with the W3C Communications team (via publicly archived site-comments@w3.org that Ian Jacobs monitors.)
    Best regards.
    Coralie

  4. Posted June 21, 2013 at 4:36 am | Permalink

    (Speaking as an AC rep …)

    Workshops’ scope and expectations vary quite a bit (as they should) and it is certainly important to try to clarify that as much as possible in the announcement and to make sure the moderator(s) have the appropriate skills (which doesn’t necessarily mean domain knowledge).

    Anyhow, one of my colleagues had a similar response after attending a Workshop (basically “WTF, we didn’t talke about any details at all!”). Consequently, I tell everyone interested in a workshop two things: 1) the probability of a deep technical dive during the workshop itself is low (although the workshop can lead to more detailed corridor/lunch discussions); 2) the “best” outcome is a relatively clear understanding of Who is actually committed to do What and some idea of When.

  5. Posted June 21, 2013 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Hey Art:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m curious to know, in your view, if W3C’s current approach to Workshops is functional. E.g., is it producing a great quantity more value for the community than they necessarily consume in terms of direct and indirect costs?

    What is the AC’s expectation of how Workshops create whatever value they generate? Are they meant to be pre- or post-WG-formation activities? Both? How should they differ if so?

    Regards

  6. Posted June 22, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    I always thought the main purpose of a workshop was mainly to introduce people to each other, and the ‘position papers’ were the ways in which workshop participants and others could discover who they really want to talk to, what stakes the stakeholders held, and to elucidate issues.

    You seem to be wanting design meetings where the stakeholders and issues are already known, and you’re just trying to be most productive. That’s a different kind of “workshop” (more like an ‘open working group meeting’).

  7. Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    Hey Larry,

    Digging further into the stated justifications for workshops, I found this. It seems to indicate that the goal is to help facilitate early spec work. The main workshops page is even more explicit:

    W3C organizes Workshops to promote early involvement in the development of W3C activities from Members and the public. The goal of a workshop is usually either to convene experts and other interested parties for an exchange of ideas about a technology or policy, or to address the pressing concerns of W3C Members

    I suppose that falls into line with both of our assessments but we seem to differ in our perspective on if or how the goals meet the formulation.

    Perhaps I’m bringing too much context to this, but it doesn’t seem to me that it is a productive use of anyone’s time for these sorts of meetings to happen without something concrete to discuss: a scoped problem, a clear proposal, etc. It also seems evident that the stakeholders are a largely fixed cast: web developers of varying origin have interests in building better things, platform vendors need to prioritize work and ensure that they’re paying attention to the right bits, and the W3C as an organization needs to ensure that it is relevant.

    It doesn’t seem as though these meetings are likely to be a success (as defined by “are the catalyst for useful design, implementation, and standards work”) unless the W3C is facilitating them in such a way that they are bringing that cast together to discuss a shared problem that everyone understands some part of. Assuming that the W3C will know nothing about the problem area, won’t have local knowledge of the issues, and is a context-free referee for a game it doesn’t care about seems like the heart of the disconnect.

    At a greater remove it becomes evident that the W3C must choose its facilitators well and help set the tone and environment to encourage productive outcomes. There’s a lot to the functional goals that defines the form, and right now the goals appear confused, so the format of the meetings is similarly amorphous. A focus on results might create a different set of priorities and a different structure for the meetings.

    Regards

  8. Posted June 24, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Re the value of workshops, that’s a bit of a judgement call and I don’t think it would be accurate for me to try to extrapolate my personal experience to cover “the so, what do the ~400 Members think about workshops” question. That said, in my experience, when the expectations and scope were clear, I think the workshops were valuable.

    Re the costs, I don’t think the overall costs of a workshop are that high and it could save resources in the long-run if the outcome is to not start related work (e.g. a new Working Group) that otherwise would have been started and dragged on, and eventually died.

    Re, what could be done to make workshops more useful. That’s a good question and something W3C staff should ask the Members. Perhaps it could be useful if workshops were a bit more “organic” (lower overhead to organize). For instance, members of a CG could host a virtual/distributed workshop e.g. to try to engage a larger community, determine if there is interest in doing X, etc.

  9. Posted August 5, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Hi Alex,

    Workshops offer an important opportunity for people to get together and share perspectives, but as you rightly note the requirement for a “position paper” doesn’t look like it works well for a real segment of the people we should have around the table.

    On the other hand, it is important for another segment. And in practice, there is a lot of flexibility in what is required.

    One of the risks in just inviting “all the right people” is that you don’t. Announcing a workshop long in advance, and looking for ways to get the right people there is some help in getting more of the right people. Admittedly, it might bring in people whose contribution ends up not being very relevant, but it is the purpose of a “program committee” to try and filter effectively, keeping the signal/noise ratio high but also maximising the signal in the first place.

    Ad hoc meetings often get a good signal/noise ratio, but also tend to get a pretty restricted set of signals.

    I strongly agree with Art and Larry – the success of a workshop depends a great deal on the people running it. I have been to W3C workshops that were successful, and that have not. But I think they are generally useful, and I expect to attend more of them.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] « That Old-Skool Smell [...]

  2. [...] That Old-Skool Smell from Alex Russell – which sounds like an ad for a new fragrance, but it’s a blog post about how to reform W3C to work better [...]