Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

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.


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.