Web standards elitism

In Oh that elitist smell, Molly Holzschlag writes about the perceived elitism of web standards advocates like the W3C, the WaSP, and the A-list bloggers.

I have to say that I don’t see the elitism. Sure, you can probably define “elitism” in different ways, but I haven’t had any reason to believe that anybody belonging to either of those groups feel that they are “elite”. I could be wrong – I don’t know any W3C members, WaSP members or A-listers personally.

However, I think there are a couple of things that can make some people feel like these groups aren’t living and working in “the real world”:

  • Documentation. The W3C specifications and recommendations can be really difficult for a web developer to read and understand. Considering that those documents are aimed more at browser developers than at web developers, this isn’t too surprising.

    I believe that rewriting a set of documents (the HTML, XHTML and CSS specifications come to mind) to make them aimed specifically at web designers and developers would improve the W3C’s image among those groups. Maybe something like HTML Dog, but officially sanctioned and hosted by the W3C.

  • The “Anybody can build a website”-mentality. Somehow this has become a widespread belief. Well, I have news for you. Building good websites is hard. It is not something anybody can do well without spending plenty of time (years, I’d say) working on their skills. And you never know everything. You constantly have to learn new techniques and technologies. Some people don’t want to spend all the time and energy that is necessary. Does that make the W3C, the WaSP or A-listers elitist? No. It just means that someone expecting to learn all there is to learn about web development in a week will be disappointed.

So, personally I don’t see the elitism. That doesn’t change the fact that there are others who do. Hopefully Molly’s post will bring out some good ideas on how to fix that problem.

Posted on November 7, 2004 in Web Standards


  1. Aye, I’m with you on this.

    The “anybody can build a web page” thing can be a bit of a problem - its like saying “anybody can program in C++”. Sure they can, it’ll just take a lot of learning to be able to get decent results.

    We have to learn graphics tools, XHTML, CSS, perhaps some ECMAScript, a smattering of server-side tools, and if we’re lucky, a database engine. Then there’s all matter of rich media tools. Its a full on technical skillset. We’re graphic designers, programmers, document strucurer people, accessibility experts and so on, all at once.

    And people say making websites is easy :-)

  2. “Elitism” now seems to have been redefined as meaning, “pointing out that I’m doing something silly.” I’ve been called elitist for pointing out that something very common is, in fact, pointless.

    People simply don’t want to hear that they’re making mistakes. As far as I know, no human being is infallible; we all make mistakes. Personally, I’m grateful when someone makes me aware of mine (provided they do it politely).

  3. I think there’s plenty of elitism going on, it’s just not usually seen as elitism by people like you and me, but mostly by people who are just making their very first steps into this world of web standards, xhtml/css, etc.

    In any case, I wrote my thoughts about it on my own site, because it became too large for a mere comment on Molly’s site:

    Being smelly together

  4. Though I really don’t see the elitism, I recognize that it exists though… how can it not? The web design community is split among an us and them line right now with standards and usability. We have made the switch, and we don’t look down on people who haven’t yet, but we do see what they do as substandard—- that is elitism (or at least it will be viewed that way). The A-Listers are no different, they have simply achieved a higher level of proficiency, and don’t have the time to sit down with each and every one of us to hold our hands. Eletist? Maybe. Deserving of respect still, yes.

    What do you think are the real chances of the W3C writing a “dumbed down” version of their standards? I am not so sure they ever will, nor need to. That realm can be left open to other groups (if they choose to take on the chalenge.) You don’t see the DVD groups writing the manuals for the users, nor should you—- they write for the producers of the technology.

    If the w3c did make the change though, I am sure that it would lead to a faster furhterment of standards compliant sites… just as soon as people started using it. (I don’t know very many beginning web coders that actually look to the W3C at all).

  5. i’ve worked with some members of a W3C working group that shall remain nameless, and i have to point out that there was a fair amount of elitism going on, i even felt it being a new member of the group, even though i was implementing and developing stuff on the web for them that few of the other members could manage to do themselves.

  6. Since it’s almost impossible to have different people on different levels of skill and not have some poor schmo feel as though he/she is the vicitim of elitism simply because they don’t understand everything, we must concede that, relatively speaking, this elitism exists.

    However, do we look at that as a problem, or an opportunity to educate those who are coming up in the ranks?

    I agree that the W3C could use a bit of “web developer face time.” Also, I would agree that the WASP’s recent articles “sounded” a bit elitist. But when you look at what these articles were talking about, you find that the first one, “All That Glitters” was a retort to Mike Davidson who tried to use the term “real world standards” to rationalize his apathy toward valid markup and, in turn, marginalize those who take the time to make sure their work is up to snuff. It wasn’t elitist. I found Davidson’s comments infuriating.

    As far as the “Rock Stars” go, they’re rock stars because they stand out. For them to point out things they see as substandard is not elitist, it is the very nature of what they do.

    Just my opinion.

  7. November 8, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Tommy: Agreed.

    Dan: Even if it isn’t the W3C’s job to write documents aimed at other groups than their current specs are, I think it would be great if they did, or at least referred to some officially endorsed such documents.

  8. In a way, elitism is indeed inevitable when you have a vast community led by a pretty select view.

    But it was only a matter of minutes until after I had made my post about elitism that I was told by someone who is interested in writing sites according to web standards, but doesn’t have enough passion for it to put as much time and energy in it as I do, that there is definitely a level of elitism keeping him away from several sites. These are sites that I personally think of as quite informative, but I also recognize that their authors do have a “holier than thou”-attitude that shines through a lot of the time, and it doesn’t surprise me that someone who doesn’t quite grasp the level of detail fully feels that he/she doesn’t have to deal with a snobby attitude on top of struggling to understand the content.

    Basically, my point is: elitism is inevitable, but even if one IS more informed and knowledged and therefore effectively an elite, it doesn’t mean we have to act that way. I say “we” because I know I’ve been seen as elitist by plenty of people already.

    We don’t have to behave like elitists (intentionally or not — usually unintentionally), when we already are, simply by knowing the subject(s) very well.

  9. Re: dumbed-down version of W3C standards, I doubt that those will come from the W3C itself. If they do, they’ll have to be non-normative (i.e. not “the law”). Standards have to be unambiguous and precise, so that they can be implemented correctly, and that requires an exacting language that may be difficult to understand for beginners. There are other resources, such as W3 Schools that explain these standards in a way that is better suited for non-experts.

    I don’t quite agree with Faruk’s opinion that discussing intricate details is inherently elitist. There needs to be sites dedicated to those who are new to web design and -development, and there needs to be sites for those who have reached guru status, and all levels in between. Beginners will be horrified by an experts’ site, while experts will be bored by a beginners’ site. A site that tries to cater for all levels at the same time will most likely be ignored by all. :) This is not elitism, it’s just a matter of writing for the intended audience.

  10. Roger: Endorsing would be a very good, achievable, measure.

  11. Tommy: you’re right, there should be both types of sites. Perhaps people should specify somewhere, somehow, what level of expertise is expected of the reader.

    In fact, I’m going to implement just that right now on my own site. :-)

    Also, I’m already planning to re-write the CSS and XHTML Specifications so that they’re easy to use and understand for beginners/designers. Andrei Herasimchuk is sortof helping me with that, too. Should prove interesting to see where that leads us, once I actually get the time to kick-start that project…

  12. November 10, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Faruk: a few months back I started working on a reference guide to XHTML, complete with examples. I never finished it though. I’ll take a look at it — maybe some of it can be useful.

  13. Comments like “some poor schmo feel as though he/she is the vicitim of elitism simply because they don’t understand everything” pretty much expose why Web Standards advocates are considered elitist and why you don’t get why you’re considered elitist.

    That comment (along with several others in this thread) doesn’t allow for the possibility that someone understands the issues either as well or, more importantly, someone understands the important issues as well as you do but simply disagrees. After all, you’re right and they’re wrong, right? So if they’re not evil, they must be ignorant.

    I created my first XHTML Strict page that validated in 1999 but have fallen off the bandwagon to a great degree because the lack of “Web Developer Face Time” demonstrated by consultants and W3C apologists put me off. I know what MIME types are; I know what the Box Model Hack is. But when you have paying clients who give you a design created by their print-trained designer friend and say “make me a Web site, and a board member is using Netscape 4 at home” (and you’d be amazed at the size of organizations where this occurs), simply saying “upgrade” or “you’ll see something functional but it doesn’t look like the design” or “the design will have to alter slightly depending on the browser” doesn’t cut it and they take their money and go home.

    Now if your money comes from consultant fees for exhorting other people to use XHTML Strict sans tables for layout, groovy. If, however, you depend on that development job to eat, well, sometimes you have to target NS 4 and use some dirty tricks to get it working there.

    Even without the NS 4 requirement, sometimes implementing a design mocked up in Photoshop with certain rules for behavior will take 2x or 3x as long for all but the most experienced designers to do “right” (and, famously, even Zeldman says it takes longer to do it “right”—see, I do understand). In an effort to be able to continue employing said designers, you do it in a way that looks better for the vast majority of your users while being slightly sub-par for non-sighted users. Heaven forbid you have a CMS with text fields and clients who demand the ability to paste in Word HTML because, realistically, it’s not useful for them otherwise. Try using XHTML Strict in that setting.

    But read the major bloggers and it’s rare to find acknowledgement of these real world difficulties and how you can eliminate most of the harms of font tags, et. al. while making concessions on, say, minimal use of tables for layout. Just admitting that it’s not always possible to produce something pure that passes every theoretical test would go a long way toward removing the patina of elitism and would raise the overall level of standards usage.

    I’d love to have the kind of clients who accept less than pixel-perfect results in IE (any version), but I don’t, and most people I know don’t. Great that you seem to, but a little help for the guy struggling with these “dirty” concerns would go a long way toward not infuriating the people whose cooperation you’re trying to elicit.

  14. November 19, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Sandy: If “must look the same in Netscape 4” is a requirement (something I’ve been lucky not to come across for over two years), then yes, it’s going to be hard not to use layout tables. Nevertheless, you can still use reasonably semantic markup and valid HTML. Probably not HTML 4 Strict, but Transitional will work.

    The issue of clients pasting stuff from Word into a CMS is a constant problem. This is where you need to both use some kind of scripting/programming to clean up the code, and gently educate the client to make them understand why it’s better for them to do it another way. Most of the time, you can meet somewhere in the middle.

    As for pixel-perfect cross-browser design, well I guess that would be nice, but it’s unrealistic, all but impossible. And I can’t remember ever having a client open several different browsers to compare the results.

    I think you have a point about acknowledging real world difficulties, and I’d say there are lots of articles that describe ways of making things work while still keeping within the spirit of web standards, which is almost always possible (and is only impossible when a print-trained designer refusing to accept that the web is not print or television is involved).

    Is there anything in particular that you’d like to see?

  15. “Elitism” is another modern word. I doubt that it’ll survive our decade. Only think of all the computer jargons we have created. I really pitty our children who will be forced to study them all.

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