Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

The politics of web standards

This is an idea I've been turning over in my mind for some months now, and while it's still resisting a really clear formulation, I want to try to put something down about it. It seems to me there is a tension in the web design world that might be best described as a difference in political philosophies. What's especially interesting to me is that I don't know which side I am on. I see viable arguments for each and, so far, no plausible way of completely reconciling the two.

The tension I am concerned with could be expressed several ways: amateurism vs. professionalism, usability vs. accessibility, ease of production vs. ease of consumption. I choose to call it a conflict between aristocracy and democracy.

The aristocratic philosophy is that represented by those who insist above all else on accessible, standards-based web design. This approach is aristocratic because, practically speaking, only a small minority of potential authors have both the expertise and the time to adhere rigorously to all the standards. Simultaneously reconciling the requirements of validity, accessibility, semantic markup, and good aesthetics is not impossible, but it is a task beyond the ability of casual web authors (by which I mean everyone except professional designers and extremely dedicated amateurs). Virtually no authoring tools, including all the popular blogging platforms like Blogger, Movable Type and WordPress, fully meet accessibility standards. While professional designers can create standards-based templates for such tools, as long as nonspecialists are responsible for a portion of the content, there exist ample opportunities for them to break standards. As an example, take this recent A List Apart article describing what is necessary to effectively meet standards regarding acronyms and abbreviations. It's a lucid and comprehensive tutorial, but it is hard to imagine secretaries or student interns or classroom teachers or academic department chairs or just about anyone else rigorously applying the techniques it describes. That leaves web authorship in the hands of an orthodox elite that has been schooled in the craft.

The democratic philosophy focuses on the web's potential to act as a universal publishing medium. The important consideration from this perspective is removing barriers to entry for potential web authors. Such a philosophy has been invoked by champions of virtually every Internet phenomenon from Usenet to wikis. It was explicitly part of initial justification for HTML and the web (intended to enable scientists to easily share information across networks), and has been, at least implicitly, behind every advance in web authoring tools from the first WYSIWYG editors to content management systems and blogging platforms. However, the democratization of publishing has its drawbacks. People create ugly sites to exhibit their poor writing skills; they publish things that range from trivial to fraudulent. On the technical side, the "browser wars" of the early 90s, which brought us the dreaded BLINK tag, showed that feature implementation based on user demand alone could be a bad thing, while the subsequent ascension of Internet Explorer to monopoly status has given us a form of tyranny of the majority. At its worst, the democratized web looks a lot like the bogeyman of classical antidemocratic critiques: a mobocracy in which that which is good is all but drowned out by so much that is mediocre or bad.

As is often the case, then, the path of virtue would seem to lie in compromise. Just as in a political democracy, there must be laws (standards) on the web to protect minorities, to ensure equal access, and to generally facilitate the 'commerce' of ideas. At the same time, these laws must not ossify into unquestionable dogma. Also as in a political democracy, finding the ideal balance between freedom and restriction is no simple feat. Unfortunately, it strikes me that the web, like other political spaces, has vacillated between extremes rather than moved toward harmony.