Last week, two blog entries caught my eye because they discussed a problem I've started to notice, too. In Reflection Jeremy Keith bemoaned the lack of blog comment quality for the umpteenth time; while in The HTML 5 circus Roger Johansson explained that he temporarily left the HTML WG mailing list because there were too many people who just shouted at others without making any positive contribution.
Jeremy and Roger are talking about the same problem. There are quite a few semi-professional web developers who have excellent knowledge of the web standards but spend their time shouting at other people on blogs, forums, or mailing lists, and they are taking over most public spaces of the web standards movement with their ideologically pure drivel; proving the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory beyond any possible doubt. We ought to get rid of them, but I don't know how.
Who are these semi-professionals? How do they differ from professionals?
I define professionals as web developers who follow the web standards and have a professional attitude in their work. Semi-professionals are those web developers who adhere to only one of these criteria (and amateurs adhere to neither criterion).
That means we can split the semi-professionals into two groups: web developers who don't follow the standards, and web developers who don't have a professional attitude.
The first group is easily dealt with: it's going to disappear slowly over the next three years or so. Once you start to earn serious money by making websites, you should conform to high requirements; most importantly standards compliance. If web developers continue to ignore the standards I'm all in favour of gently nudging them out of the web development trade from 2010 or so onwards.
That may sound harsh; so be it. Improving the quality of our profession means weeding out the undesirables—eventually.
That deals with one group of semi-professionals. Getting rid of the other group will unfortunately be much more difficult.
Briefly, this group consists of people who are standards-aware (in fact, they occasionally have a greater knowledge of the arcana of the standards than professionals) but have an amateurish attitude. It's this group that infests the blogosphere, mailing list and forums with their ideologically pure but aggressive posts; it's this group that Jeremy and Roger denounce.
Let's try to define this troublesome group. As far as I can see three criteria are important:
The first criterion is the definition of this group; while most, but not all, semi-professionals also exhibit the traits of the two other criteria.
The first criterion is that semi-professionals have (or wish to have) no experience with limitations that may affect the perfect standard compliance of websites. The ideological purity that they've invested themselves with prevents them from handling such limitations.
A simple example is unencoded ampersands; as soon as one creeps up, your HTML doesn't validate any more. Sometimes this problem is just outside the reach of a web developer; back-end systems may spew out all kinds of junk code, and sometimes project budget and planning simply leave no time to do anything about it.
Other examples include cutting-edge designs that require some extra HTML tags; theoretically questionable but practically necessary changes in the HTML specification; or helping browser vendors to get their priorities straight by splitting their standards compliance issues into urgent problems that should be solved right away and less urgent problems that can wait a while more.
All these limitations have to do with leaving part of the standards out of the picture if the situation warrants it. Finding the right balance between standards compliance and external factors is a crucial part of a professional's skillset, but, blinded by the light of ideological purity, semi-professionals are aggressively unable to appreciate that fact.
In fact, semi-professionals denounce true professionals for trying to work in the real world, and instead congratulate themselves with their intransigence and feel that others should follow their example—and never mind practicalities. Meanwhile they don't have anything to show for themselves except for a bunch of worthless comments.
Second, the vast majority of semi-professionals is lazy. They feel that a few harsh blog comments or forum postings suffice to put them on the map as "real" professionals, but they will never start their own blog and offer a series of high-quality postings.
In fact, there seems to be a sort of five-minute rule: semi-professionals usually take about five minutes (or ten, or whatever, but in any case not hours) to write their "contributions". Compare that, for instance, to the eight to ten hours I spent writing this post.
Semi-professionals will never take that much time, and as a result their posts far less interesting than thoughtful blog posts or articles written by true professionals.
Their laziness also shows in another way: some semi-professionals don't read the posts they're supposed to be criticising. I regularly encounter comments to my posts and ideas that clearly show the writer has only read part of the article, because the original article deals with (part of) his critique. Again, there seems to be a sort of five-minute rule.
Do semi-professionals have an attention deficit disorder? Apparently, yes.
Note: this is the behaviour of the majority of semi-professionals. Some do take the time and trouble of creating interesting sites and blog posts, and are quite attentive (sometimes even too attentive).
Finally, few semi-professionals seem to actually earn their money as web developers.
I've been searching for good freelancers for about three years now, and I received about 100 applications. Many applicants are professionals, or people who only need a bit of experience to blossom into professionals; some applicants (those I refused) don't know web standards. No semi-professionals have ever applied, though. (I'm probably too ideologically flawed for them.)
This lack of practical experience is perfectly understandable. Practical work means compromising, and as we just saw semi-professionals are unable to do that.
Note: again, this is the behaviour of the majority of semi-professionals. Some do have paid jobs in web development—though one is left to wonder how they can ever take on large projects if they refuse to compromise.
Why do semi-professionals behave as they behave? Why all the aggressiveness, the total lack of attention, and the absolute refusal to compromise?
I don't really know, and I'm going to resist the temptation to play amateur psychologist and point to uncertainty as a cause for their behaviour. To get more insight in the murky ways their minds work you can study the comments below; no doubt some semi-professionals will rise to the occasion by aiming their daily dose of shouting at me and this post.
In daily professional practice these problems do not matter a lot. As soon as a job applicant starts to shout semi-professional drivel you just say KTHXBY to him (rarely her) and hire a true professional instead. (Besides, semi-professionals never apply for jobs anyway.)
Instead, semi-professionals endanger the web standards movement. As I said above, the semi-professionals' aggressive shouting may scare away thoughtful would-be professionals, and it hampers the work of serious W3C Working Groups.
(Incidentally, I've started to wonder if opening up the HTML WG mailing list for all comers was a good idea. It was definitely the noble thing to do, but asking prospective members for professional credentials before allowing them on the list might have increased the level of discussions a bit.)
Serious professionals, as well as those web developers aspiring to become true professionals, will start to pay less and less attention to blog comments, mailing list and forums, because these public spaces of the web standards movement are infested by semi-professionals. Professionals do pay attention to serious blog postings or articles, but writing those is outside the semi-professionals' mental horizon.
Unfortunately this process has positive feedback: the more semi-professionals scream, the less professionals visit public spaces, which causes the semi-professionals to scream even harder because they (correctly) imagine themselves ignored.
For aspiring web developers, the most obvious counter-measure is concentrating on the blogs of serious, sober-minded professionals, and especially the blogs of those professionals that are well-known.
Essentially, therefore, the shouting of the semi-professionals causes a gap between themselves and true professionals. This may strengthen the process of aristocratisation that I feel is currently taking place in the web standards movement.
In a way, anything that gets rid of the semi-professionals is good enough for me. Nonetheless, excessive power for the aristocracy is something to be avoided, but something we're probably going to get nonetheless, thanks to the semi-professionals.
I feel that by their ideologically pure, sneering, amateurish attitude semi-professionals force the web standards movement in the direction of more aristocracy than is healthy. This will change the movement considerably; maybe for better, but probably for worse. I don't see a real solution, either; most of the semi-professionals will resist any attempt to coax them into more constructive behaviour.
How do we get rid of the semi-professionals? I don't know; I even doubt it can be done, except by rigid aristocratisation, which I don't like.
There's no doubt, we have a problem on our hands.
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