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Misplaced Anger: A Rebuttal to Zeldman’s Criticism of the W3C

By Molly E. Holzschlag | July 26th, 2006 | Filed in General, W3C/Standards Documentation, Web Standards (general)

There’s been discussion in the community about unrest at the W3C. This isn’t exactly news to most, particularly if you’ve been following the WCAG 2.0 saga. This time, however, the criticism comes from a strong voice, none other than Jeffrey Zeldman.

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In his article An Angry Fix Jeffrey Zeldman writes:

“Alas, the organization appears unconcerned with our needs and uninterested in tapping our experience and insights. It remains a closed, a one-way system. Like old-fashioned pre-cable TV advertising. Not like the web.”

While I’m certain it appears that the W3C is this way to most people (heck, it always appeared that way to me before) now that I’ve spent some time experiencing the W3C from the inside I understand with a lot more clarity why the W3C is the way it is.

Am I defending the W3C’s slow-to-move process or its over-bureaucratized administration? Its lack of attention and sensitivity to gender (count the women, go ahead, dare you) and racial diversity, its frightening disregard for the real needs of the workaday Web world? Oh no, nor would I want to.

What I will defend is the fact that the W3C is, in my experience, actually opening up to new things rather than closing down as Zeldman and others have suggested. The CSS Working Group is finally aware that it must include at least one classically trained artist and graphic designer on the team. Has that taken a really long time to accomplish? Yes, but it’s happening, and that’s a good thing.

There might be strife but there’s still a fundamental passion and care about the Web at large. There’s evidence, too: A panel on microformats wouldn’t have been top of the W3C Tech Plenary Day in February if people hadn’t appreciated the hard work done by contributors working inside as well as outside the organization.

I also believe that the W3C suffers from a certain shyness. You, whoever you are, can get involved if you just ask. Get on a list and participate. Email a Working Group chair, ask to show up at a meeting. I’d be shocked if your interest was turned away, at least in all the groups I’ve ever participated in. There’s just not a lot of outreach going on, which is and always has been a fundamental flaw of the organization.

Jeffrey is wrong in his current assessment of the W3C. Clearly, there are a lot of reasons to dislike the organization, and surely we shouldn’t put all our standards attention to an organization that is known to be filled with difficulties. But the reasons Jeffrey cites aren’t the ones I’d choose as being up for criticism, knowing what I do at this point.

The W3C has been more open to a new breed of interested people than ever before. Slowly, yes, and perhaps only in certain sectors. But it is only perceived as a closed system. It isn’t one, but you have to have the initiative.

Hell, they let me in, and you all know I’m just plain TRBL.

Your Replies

#1 On July 26th, 2006 8:59 am Fred Oliveira replied:

I believe Jeffrey’s concerns were (for better or for worse) the voice of W3C’s close audience. And by that I mean the people who, even though not directly involved, still care about the organization and what it can do for the web enough to voice their opinion.

To those of us who have been working on the web for a long time, the W3C has always represented an image of security – “there’s an organization behind our cause, so we’ll be fine”. However, despite the membership prices and the several meetings and discussions, there is little momentum around it. From a professional perspective, I wish that would change. The W3C could (and should) have a loose regulatory stance on web-standards but for the most part, its still just for those of us who care enough to see (and read) behind the organizational myst. It definitely needs a new public face.

If people understand what it is, why it matters and what to do to make it better, they will.

And that being said, what about starting by telling us, the close audience, how we can help the cause?

#2 On July 26th, 2006 11:20 am Ted Drake replied:

Why does the CSS Working Group need a classically trained artist on the board? Don’t get me wrong, my background and degree is in Fine Art. But I don’t see the connection.

Now, if you have a talented developer that happens to be a classically trained artist, by all means use his/her skills. That person should have a better concept of line-quality, contrast, color theory, texture, and quality of light. So how does that help the CSS working group?

I do, however, think it is critical to have quality graphic arts developers that know the difference between leading and kern, font-weight, size, etc. Where I went to school, we tormented those individuals and put “kick me” signs on their back (in comic sans). After all, we were artists and they were going to work for the man.

So, how do fine artists help the CSS Working Group again?

#3 On July 26th, 2006 11:34 am Trails replied:

Perhaps these issues are specific to working groups? The WCAG 2 fiasco does not strike me as an improving or more open environment than it previously was. Neither does the situation that caused Björn Hörmann to leave.

Unlike the above mentioned-issues (WCAG and QA), the CSS3 spec seems to be heading in the right direction, at least from my perspective down here in the trenches. However, it certainly isn’t getting there in a hurry.

Sprawling bureacracy and glacial immobility are forms of inaccessibility. W3C threatens to become the UN of the web: academic, slow, unable to cope with real world problems, hence ignored and circumvented.

We’re still waiting for rounded corners in CSS and it’s 2006. WCAG2 took how many years? Already, we’re seeing alternatives forming, the WCAG Samurai and the WHATWG for example.

I think the W3C is at a cross roads. The standardistas have been hollering about web standards for years, and the mainstream has started to listen. If, just as the mainstream web development comunity starts to get into standards, the W3C continues to swirl and appear ineffective (as it currently does), the mainstream will simply return to hacks, browser specific coding, version sniffing etc…

The W3C was ingored before because it was out of touch with the day to day problems of web developers. The HTML 4.01 spec said not to use tables for layout, but until the version 4 browsers fell off the map, tables were the only way to layout a page.

The concerns raised by the folks leaving/upset with the group is that this is getting worse (again, possibly working group specific?). If the next phase in the development of the web is to sufer less “growing pains” than the previous ones, we need to start incorporating and standardising new techniques now, not after it’s built.

#4 On July 26th, 2006 11:42 am Fred Oliveira replied:

(That was “organizational mist” I meant on my comment #1 above. My apologies.)

#5 On July 26th, 2006 1:08 pm Brady J. Frey replied:

@Ted, I think they use the term ‘classically trained’ very lightly, and not necessarily in the context that you or I may use the term. Just like some people say ‘programmer’ when they’re just coding html.

Regardless, I don’t think there would be a negative area to have that type of insight in their development. Web design has always been behind in the concept of design theory – mostly because it’s a fledgling medium where most of our peers are developers and coders rather than people with a history comparing art techniques or pushing the medium, and so forth. Art History and my training in Oils or Typography has given me an excellent lead in print design – in web, I’ve been slow to push that envelope; but I don’t think extra knowledge in this has hurt me, in fact I think it will help, and them the same. I agree that applied arts, graphic design, is more in the area that they’re after – but a graphic designer with fine arts training almost always has a more inventive path when they’re designing; couldn’t hurt to try and teach the suits and the developers those ideals.

What I’d like to know is who is the artist? Is it someone popular in the web sphere, or did they really go out and get a classicly, renown print designer or fine artist.

#6 On July 26th, 2006 4:19 pm Molly E. Holzschlag replied:

Yes, the new w3C Invited Expert has just been announced. It’s our own Andy Clarke,!

Congrats to Andy. He does bring an eye for this to the W3C we’ve never had before.

#7 On July 26th, 2006 5:08 pm Tantek replied:

“Never had before” is a bit strong. For the record, the CSS working group has had several “web design” invited experts over the years, including none other than Jeffrey Veen and Todd Fahrner.

Certainly I expect Andy to bring a lot to the CSS working group, but it is unfair to the hard work and contributions of folks like Jeffrey and Todd (and I’m sure I’m forgetting others) to treat this as a novelty. Rather, members of the CSS working group have long actively communicated with the larger web design community, and the CSS working group should be recognized for that good behavior since perhaps the very start of the group.

That being said, it has been a while, and I for one am VERY glad to see Andy participating in the CSS working group.

Regarding the original post, and Jeffrey Zeldman’s post, that will take much more than a comment to follow-up. Suffice it to say I have some fairly strong opinions based on experience this department. It’s in my list of things to blog.



#8 On July 26th, 2006 6:23 pm Molly E. Holzschlag replied:


I’m not treating the issue as novelty. Veen and Fahrner both brought important things to the table. But it’s been a long time.

That the problem has been recognized and is being dealt with is more the issue now as support for my premise that in this case, the W3C has been very open.

Can’t wait to read YOUR thoughts on the issue, that’s for certain :)

#9 On July 27th, 2006 7:13 am Jens Meiert replied:

There are other things you can blame the W3C – see the ongoing discussion on WCAG work, which by the way hurts saying as a former WCAG Invited Expert – except that it is not open. Its processes are transparent since public, and it’s relatively easy to participate. Thus, it’s somewhat easy to try an inside-out approach, meaning that everybody complaining should apply for certain W3C activities – and improve them. [...]

#10 On July 27th, 2006 10:19 am Matt replied:

My main complaint is that the W3C is so slow. I understand the need for a good process to review standards, but it has taken the W3C longer to develop CSS3 than IE to move from version 6 to 7 (a long time, btw). It is a failure of the W3C, that new browser versions do not have CSS3.

#11 On July 27th, 2006 2:09 pm Bob McPherson replied:

“He does bring an eye for this to the W3C we’ve never had before” – well that certainly reads as ‘Andy is something (aka a design orientated person) that the W3C has never had’, and that means you’re describing his prescence as a novelty.

Please, tell us, how else was that -supposed- to read? Because it didn’t.

#12 On July 27th, 2006 5:37 pm karl replied:


maybe the CSS WG was not only working on CSS 3.

Maybe working on trying to achieve a CSS 2.1 specification which is compatbile with the market is important too. It takes time, if you want to understand part of the reasons, read the interesting discussion going on Eric Meyer’s weblog.

#13 On July 28th, 2006 9:12 am Chris Lilley replied:

Responding to one goodpoint that Molly made in passing and which has not,so far, been commented on:

Its lack of attention and sensitivity to gender (count the women, go ahead, dare you) and racial diversity

Fair point. Yes, the number of women is well below 51%. But, speaking as a co-chair of SVG (the other co-chair being female, Nandini Ramani) and co-chair of the Hypertext CG (the other co-chair being Debbie Dahl, who is female and is also chair of MMI WG) its not that W3C is opposed to female involvement or passes over qualified females in favor of males. Its more that we don’t get very many females taking part at all.
As Molly said, it a question of showing up and doing the work and having the initiative. If you do, your Y chromosome count is an irrelevant factor.

#14 On July 29th, 2006 1:39 am Max Design » Some links for light reading (19/7/06) replied:

[...] Misplaced Anger: A Rebuttal to Zeldman’s Criticism of the W3C [...]

#15 On July 29th, 2006 10:32 am Joe Clark replied:

If we’re supposed to act all understanding with the W3C because they’ve recently done one or two tiny things right, why is it we shouldn’t be critical of the W3C when they repeatedly get things enormously wrong?

You also aren’t addressing the real and ongoing issue, happening across Working Groups, of alienating and actively ejecting members. Healthy families do not disown their siblings.

#16 On July 30th, 2006 4:14 pm Don Crowley replied:

Molly, When W3C got HTML 4.0, XML 1.0 and CSS 1.0 on the streets there was momentum. We are years further… we have had nasty arguements instead of considered debate (and that was not ALL our fault), WCAG 2 being the last one (but lets not forget XML 1.1 or XHTML2.0 either). So yeah W3C does seem uncaring sometimes, maybe even abit extra terrestrial. I’d say deal with it. Maybe the CSS working group is dealing with it. That is a good next step then. Break a leg.

But are any of Bjoern Hoehrmann’s criticisms going to be addressed… like the properly fuctioning validators for a start? This is one of the many reasons people react in a frustrated manner. Dialogue, reasoned debate, solutions, “pretty please”.

#17 On July 30th, 2006 8:54 pm Richard Czeiger replied:


While a huge supporter of standards and over-arching goal of the W3C, I do have to agree with Bjoern’s comments about the W3C’s membership and its attitude towards the people who spend their lives actually ‘making’ the web: designs and developers.

We are only called in to comment a nearly finished work and rarely asked what we think is required from the beginning. Bjoern’s assertion that the W3C is essentially one-way isn’t far off. It’s certainly an image of the organisation shared by many developers (even if it isn’t 100% accurate – the perception is there).

Taking this topic further, why has the W3C not opened its doors to developers by introducing a membership structure that accommodates big money ‘sponsors’ (who are the current members) and offer membership rates to developers that we can actually afford? As an industry body we all look to, no developer in the industry feels like we can be part of it. A membership fee of, say, $500 per annum would allow develoeprs to feel as though they are able to actually contribute to the organisation who specifications we champion.

Just a thoguht….

Richard :o)

#18 On August 2nd, 2006 10:08 am Mikrofortschritte – SELFHTML aktuell Weblog replied:

[...] Misplaced Anger: A Rebuttal to Zeldman’s Criticism of the W3C, Antwort von Molly E. Holzschlag auf Jeffrey Zeldman [...]

#19 On August 4th, 2006 3:38 pm Joey A. Tyson replied:

“Yes, but it’s happening, and that’s a good thing.”

Molly, I respect you as a great standardista and appreciate your input here. But I must add that in my honest opinion, statements like the one above are getting rather tiresome. The same thing was said about IE7 – and while I’m grateful IE7 is finally fixing some important issues and that MS is listening to devheads more, that doesn’t make IE6 magically go away and doesn’t keep me from recommending other browsers to people. Now with W3C I’m wondering how much longer we’re going to have to wait before more of these issues are dealt with.

As an outsider I can sympathize with Zeldman’s take. Maybe you’re right on your assessment, but regardless, some things need to happen with W3C. I would love to see it more in touch with the market/devheads/users and addressing issues that have been raised by several bloggers.

#20 On August 5th, 2006 6:23 pm Egor Kloos replied:

I view the W3C to be relevant only when I can benefit from it. In the case of WCAG it actually doesn’t always help me so I tend to avoid it. Taking from it what I find truly valuable to the users, clients and my production / maintenance process. The W3C has low priority in my work. I validate only to check if I haven’t wondered too far of the beaten path. Whether the consortium is still relevant or no is a bit of a silly discussion. Of course it is. The fact remains that web standards are still a ways off and people need some reference when building. I doubt that many use the W3C to actually learn to author website and the like as illustrated by web standards. Most of us learn these best practices via books and well regarded examples. The W3C has always contained mistakes and ambiguous recommendations.

My advice is to use the W3C as a background reference. In my view it was never usable as a guide or tutorial for up and coming developers and thus erroneously promoted as such.

The W3C seems to be trying to be all things to all men. It shouldn’t be, and in through these discussions it seems to me that it can’t be. W3C should keep its audience narrow and let the implementation and promotion of it recommendations flourish elsewhere.

#21 On August 7th, 2006 4:01 pm Max Design » Some links for light reading (28/7/06) replied:

[...] Misplaced Anger: A Rebuttal to Zeldman’s Criticism of the W3C [...]

#22 On August 15th, 2006 10:43 am W3C - et tregt byråkrati uten realisme? - replied:

[...] Diskusjonen rundt W3Cs utvikling har i det siste svirret i de store bloggene på nettet. Sjefen sjøl støtter Björn Hõrnmanns grunner for å forlate orgranisasjonens arbeidsgrupper. Utviklingen i W3C er for treg, for komplisert og lite målrettet. Arbeidsdokument, arbeidsgrupper og utkast på formater ingen bruker, ingen ønsker å bruke og ingen kommer til å bruke dukker stadig opp. Standardene som alle ønsker og tror kan videreutvikle dagens www blir forglemt eller stagnert i nye smårettelser og lite praktiske dokumenter. Aktivisten og WASP-sjefen Molly Holzschlag forsøker å parere angrepet fra Zeldman, men får liten støtte fra andre sterke krefter. [...]

#23 On August 15th, 2006 11:55 am Discussão sobre os rumos da W3C » Revolução Etc - Web Standards em uma casca de noz! replied:

[...] Molly: A Rebuttal to Zeldman’s Criticism of the W3C [...]

#24 On August 16th, 2006 10:52 am Dustin Diaz replied:

FYI: I gather that in two years I’ll be reading about this post in a book in the context of clashing minds of the W3C, Wasp, and the awkward announcement of Andy Clarke into the W3C. This is definitely one for the history books.

#25 On August 16th, 2006 2:59 pm ScriptTeaser » Blog Archive » Fire the W3C replied:

[...] I know that the W3C has had problems. I do think it needs to connect more with the user base. I agree with Molly that it desperately needs to be diversified. But what are the alternatives? [...]

#26 On August 19th, 2006 7:48 am fantasai replied:

I’d like to second what Chris Lilley says. I’ve never noticed anything about the W3C being “sensitive” to women. Sure, there aren’t a lot of them — but look at a typical upper-level CS class, or a typical software development team. There aren’t that many there, either.

#27 On August 22nd, 2006 11:45 am Grancomo » Blog Archive » ¿W3C desconectado? replied:

[...] ¿Es esto real? Me baso en impresiones, pero creo que Zeldman y Meyer tienen razón. A pesar de ello, Molly Holzschlag, responsable actual del WaSP ha decidido iniciar un nuevo acercamiento y da respuesta a Zeldman, resaltando la voluntad de acercamiento a los problemas del día a día de la web. (Algo que en el W3C conocen y por eso invitan a sus plenarios a profesionales reconocidos como ha sido el panel del oficioso Microformatos, el más reconocido por todos los asistentes, el 90% miembros del W3C). [...]

#28 On August 28th, 2006 3:21 pm Patty Bradley-Diehl » Blog Archive » Ongoing Conversation about the W3C replied:

[...] Wrong again. Here are links to the debate so far: Leaving W3C QA Dev. from Bjoern Hoehrmann on 2006-07-16 ([email protected] from July 2006 Jeffrey Zeldman Presents : An angry fix Misplaced Anger: A Rebuttal to Zeldman’s Criticism of the W3C – The Web Standards Project Molly E. Holzschlag Eric’s Archived Thoughts: Angry Indeed [...]

#29 On August 28th, 2006 5:40 pm Qual o problema da W3C? - Bruno Torres ponto net replied:

[...] Molly Holzschlag – Misplaced Anger: A Rebuttal to Zeldman’s Criticism of the W3C [...]

#30 On August 31st, 2006 7:51 am Learning the World » Blog Archive » To Hell with Joe Clark replied:

[...] His assault on the W3C set a spark to the tinderbox, and suddenly we heard concerns confirming the bad state of the Consortium from respected celebs like Jeffrey Zeldmann, Molly Holzschlag, Eric Meyer, Björn Höhrmann, and Tim Berners-Lee, to name a few. [...]

#31 On August 31st, 2006 6:24 pm ReCoHa » Qual o problema do W3C? replied:

[...] Molly Holzschlag – Misplaced Anger: A Rebuttal to Zeldman’s Criticism of the W3C [...]

#32 On September 18th, 2006 1:34 am Dead Reckoning » Archive » Cambridge, We Have a Problem replied:

[...] Jeffrey Zeldman’s post highlights the a rash of defections from key W3C Working Groups and prompted a number of responses from prominent figures such as Molly Holzschag (rebuttal) and Eric Meyer (rejoinder). [...]

#33 On October 30th, 2006 6:27 am Andre Kramer » Blog Archive » replied:

[...] The W3C has received quite a bit of bad press lately ( we used to be a member but our leaving was not connected to this criticism) but some good work continues to be done. For example, anyone concerned with Policy should read the recently published primer: [...]

#34 On October 30th, 2006 7:18 am Learning the World » Reforming HTML replied:

[...] Many good people have expressed their concern about the state of the W3C, like Jeffrey Zeldmann, Molly Holzschlag, Eric Meyer, or Björn Höhrmann. Tim Berners-Lee responded a couple of month ago. Now he announced reforms in his blog. [...]

#35 On November 8th, 2006 5:38 am de.maschine » Design Boards and Standardistas replied:

[...] misplaced-anger-a-rebuttal-to-zeldmans-criticism-of-the-w3c/ [...]

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