That Old-Skool Smell, Part 2

The last post covered a few of the ways that the W3C isn’t effective facilitating the discussions that lead to new standards work and, more generally, how trying to participate feels as though you are being transported back to a slower, more mediated era.

Which brings up a couple of things I’ve noticed across the W3C and which can likely be fixed more quickly. But some background first: due to W3C rules, it’s hard to schedule meetings (usually conference calls) quickly. You often need 2 weeks notice for it to happen under a W3C-condoned WG, but canceling meetings is, as we all know, much easier. As a result, many groups set up weekly or bi-weekly meetings but, in practice, meet much less frequently. This lightens the burden for those participating heavily in one or two topics, but leaves occasional participants and those trying to engage from non-majority time-zones at a serious dis-advantage because the notice of meeting cancellation is near-universally handled via mailing list messages.

Yes, you read that right, the W3C uses mailing lists to manage meeting notices. In 2013. And there is no uniformity across groups.

Thanks to Peter Linss, the TAG is doing better: there’s an ical feed for all of our upcoming meetings that anyone can subscribe to. Yes, notices are still sent to the list, but you no longer need to dig through email to attempt to find out if the regularly-scheduled meeting is going to happen. Wonder of wonders, I can just look at my calendar…at least when it comes to the TAG.

That this is new says, to my mind, everything you need to know about how the current structure of the W3C’s spending on technical infrastructure and staff has gone unchallenged for far, far too long. The TAG is likewise starting to make a move from CVS to Git…and once again it finds itself at the vanguard of organizational practice. That here has been no organization-wide attempt to get WGs to move to more productive tools is, to me, an indicator of how many in positions of authority (if not power) at the WG and on the Staff think things are going. That this state of affairs isn’t prima-facia evidence of the need for urgent change and modernization says volumes. As usual, it’s not about the tools, but about the way the tools help the organization meet (or fail to meet) its goals. Right now, “better” looks like what nearly every member organization’s software teams are already doing. Modernizing in this environment will be a relief, not a burden.

It’s also sort of shocking to find that there are no dashboards. Anywhere. For anything — at least not ones that I can find.

No progress or status dashboard to give the organization a sense for what’s currently happening, no dashboard to show charter and publication milestones across groups, no visible indicators about which groups are highly active and which are fading away.

If the W3C has an optics problem — and I submit that it does — it’s not doing itself any favors by burying the evidence of its overall trajectory and in arcane mailing lists.

There is, at base, a question raised by this and many other aspects of W3C practice: how can the organization be seen to be a good steward of member time, attention, and resources when it does not seem to pay much mind to the state of the workshop. I’d be delighted to see W3C staff liasons for WGs working to make products visible, easy to engage with, and efficient to contribute to as their primary objective. As it is, I don’t sense that’s their role. And that’s just not great customer service.. I hope I’m wrong, or I hope that changes.


  1. Posted June 21, 2013 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    January 2012:

    The discussion took up a large chunk of January:

    Result: no change. Mailing lists are not going to be retired by the W3C any time soon, regardless of the obviousness of problems.

  2. Posted June 21, 2013 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure that mailing lists are, per sae, bad. The issues I’m flagging aren’t even about them; they’re about the efficiency of the organization towards the attention it demands of participants in the progress. There’s a lot that lists can accomplish (although I don’t think they’re the best way to do design, e.g.). But using them for everything means they’ll be pressed into service for things they’re clearly not suited to.

  3. Posted August 6, 2013 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Yeah, there are some tooling things that are pretty clunky. Of course there are some that are pretty awesome too.

    I’ve never encountered an organisation that can make actual meetings work as efficiently as W3C, which is something.

    There is a very very strong culture of documentation at W3C. Looking back to 2005, it is usually pretty easy to find out why something was done the way it was. That gets more difficult for things from last century, but it is often still possible. Compared to many “modern” systems (such as unrecorded voice chat) where there is no really searchable record, that’s something I find to be of immense value.

    Yes, mailing lists are not the be-all, end-all tool. But it turns out many people involved with W3C spend a lot of their day in mail already, which adds to its advantages as a common baseline.

    The dashboard issue is more complex to resolve – although you’re right that the general lack of them is a pretty simple problem to understand.

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