Ethan Marcotte now blogs at Unstoppable Robot Ninja.

Weblog entry:

Is the Buzz still worth it?

I’m beginning to wonder if the Web Standards Project is irrelevant.

To those of you familiar with the WaSP and the myriad of good works they’ve performed on the web, the above might seem a tad contentious. That’s fair, I suppose — it is intended as such, but it’s not intended to be unkind or inflammatory. If it weren’t for the WaSP and its advocacy, I wouldn’t be able to build my site as I do…heck, the WaSP provided me with my first cogent definition for web standards. Nor is my argument intended to malign any of the excellent people working on the project, any one of which has accomplished more than the wet sack of dull hammers that is your author. But I’m struggling to figure out what role the project currently plays in my life as a web developer, given that it used to occupy such a central position in my development as a front-end…um, developer.

For those of you not familiar with the WaSP’s previous achievements, their archived mission page reads:

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has established standards for interpreting Web-based content.

By releasing browsers which do not uniformly support those standards, browser makers are injuring Web developers, businesses and users alike.

Lack of uniform support for W3C standards makes using and developing Web-based technologies unnecessarily difficult and expensive.

We recognize the necessity of innovation in a fast-paced market. However, basic support of existing W3C standards has been sacrificed in the name of such innovation, needlessly fragmenting the Web and helping no one.

Our goal is to support these core standards and encourage browser makers to do the same, thereby ensuring simple, affordable access to Web technologies for all.

Web Standards Project Archive, WaSP Baseline Standards Proposal

At the time that the project was formed, everybody was building sites that played nicely to the proprietary quirks of the browsers of the time: projects I was staffed on would require me to build browser-specific code to accommodate rendering issues in the Netscape and/or Internet Explorer browsers. So to have some plucky little coalition come along and declare that there was a standard way of building websites that all browsers, platforms and internet-ready devices should support? Sounded too good to be true…and, well, technically it was. Browser support for web standards was glancing at best, and the first websites that led the standards-compliance wave were limited in what features of CSS they could implement; they pushed the envelope, to be sure, but given the browsers they were forced to support, it was a pretty small envelope.

But it was precisely because of this that the WaSP shone: they urged browser companies to get off their duffs and support the standards they helped author; they created a Browser Upgrade Campaign that enabled website authors and readers learn about standards; and, most importantly, educated the web development community that it was not only okay to code to standards, but necessary.

Now, however, the landscape’s changed; by all rights, the WaSP has been successful in all of its goals. If you’re seeing this website with my hackneyed graphics and color palette, you’re using a browser that provides support for the standards that the WaSP championed. With greater standards support among graphic desktop browsers, the WaSP now offers a new approach to standards advocacy under new leadership:

The idea is to lead by example, [WaSP Co-founder Steve] Champeon continued, rather than admonishment, and help people learn how to make use of the power of Web standards. We hope to expand on the content already available at the WaSP site, and become a central gathering point for anyone interested in learning more about the practical side of standards, and not just the world that awaits us one day. The browser vendors have done a remarkable job in addressing the needs of developers, and now we’re going to try to make it even easier for those developers to make use of the tools we now have.

I think this new role is what I’m finding most problematic. Not that help[ing] people learn how to make use of…Web standards is a trivial thing — but it seems that without a modicum of the old school fire, the WaSP borders on being…well, irrelevant. A blog that collects cool resources for hep developer cats that want to be "in the know". That sounds flip, but I’m honestly worried about that being the case — as Zeldman himself mentions,

An explosion of personal sites by and for web designers has changed the climate in much the same way that general weblogs and their network effects have decentralized web publishing for the better. Two years ago, if you had a web design technique to share, you would likely contact A List Apart or Digital Web Magazine or Evolt.

What does this change mean for a centralized web design information magazine like A List Apart? With so much wonderful material available across ten hundred thousand million design blogs, our value, we think, will come from building a library of the most and best information on a narrow but important range of design topics.

I think the parallels to the kindler, gentler WaSP are obvious; the project’s homepage acts as an excellent aggregator of links to resources on web standards and accessibility. But the discussion of web standards has become much more distributed: we’re fortunate enough now to have resources like the CSS Zen Garden and Zeldman’s Daily Report, practical, real-world tips on implementing web standards, and pioneers like Doug Bowman and Dave Shea to show us the practical — the how of moving forward.

So where does that leave the WaSP, in its role of instigator-cum-educator? Today’s post comes on the heels of an excellent discussion initiated by Evan Goer’s thoughtful article on Bulletproof XHTML, and seems almost less than timely because of it. Rather than lighting a fire under Microsoft to practice what they preach, we’ve op-ed pieces. As I said above, none of this questioning is intended to undercut the quality or the importance of the content that the WaSP 2.0 produces, or the talent of the people who power the project. I think that its work is important, is relevant — however, I am wondering just how effective it is. The project’s slogan maintains that it’s fighting for standards (emphasis mine), but is there really any fighting going on any more?

This is one of those obnoxious blog posts that’s ending on an open question, rather than providing any sort of resolution — I’m an ex-English major, and quite excel at talking at length with no discernable point. But in all seriousness, I’m trying to reconcile the WaSP I knew to the WaSP I now know, and am having some difficulty: the questions I’m raising are really driven by curiosity rather than criticism. So if you can tell me how I should proceed, I’d love to hear your suggestions.


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