The Web development aristocracy

Currently I'm reading Framing the Early Middle Ages by Chris Wickham, which treats Europe and the Mediterranean in the years 400-800 (this, especially the West, was my specialisation back when I was a historian). Wickham has been courageous enough to attempt a general definition of an "aristocrat", and I couldn't resist the temptation to apply his criteria to today's Web development aristocrats.

So today's questions are: what makes a Web development aristocrat a Web development aristocrat? And what are aristocrats good for, anyway?


Wickham uses the following definition:

[...] six [...] criteria seem to me particularly important as guides to the membership of a broad aristocratic stratum in our period. These are, put briefly:

These six [...] were not autonomous. Recognition or reputation, in particular, tends to depend on satisfactory performance in whichever of the other five are currently regarded as most important.

From: Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages, Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800, Oxford University Press, paperback edition, 2005, p. 154.

How do these six criteria apply to today's Web elite?

Ancestry and favour - no

Obviously, distinction of ancestry and royal favour play no part in defining today's Web development aristocracy. We're the Web's first generation, and there is no king, or an even remotely analogous figure.

These two criteria would only start to play a modest role if Web development would remain unchanged for about three generations. Fat chance.

That leaves us with four criteria. I feel that all four apply to the Web development aristocracy.

Recognition and lifestyle - yes

Recognition and lifestyle play an important role in defining today's Web development aristocracy. Aristocrats become aristocrats only because their peers recognise them as such, directly or through the intermediary of Google Pagerank, Technorati Authority, or similar measurements.

In the absence of distinction of ancestry, recognition becomes extra important, since it's the only way of distinguishing yourself from the mass.

As to lifestyle, an important part of the aristocratic role is visiting the right conferences, hobnobbing with other aristocrats, blogging a lot, and being available to help newbies along (either directly or through blog posts).

So these two criteria are as important as they were fifteen hundred years ago.


That leaves us with wealth and position. Although it might seem that these two play no part in defining today's Web development aristocracy, I feel that they do have a role, provided we change their definitions slightly.

Back before the industrial revolution, landed wealth was the mainstay of aristocratic power. Without it, an aspiring aristocrat wouldn't have the income necessary to maintain an aristocratic lifestyle or acquire the respect of his peers. In a very few periods it was possible to become an aristocrat without landed wealth, but the first step of such new men was to acquire land. So, in a way, the landed wealth criterion is the cornerstone of the aristocracy.

As far as I know few Web development aristocrats own land on a large scale (with the possible exception of Andy Clarke, who owns a Welsh village, though it doesn't seem to contain any serfs).

On the other hand, definitions of wealth have changed vastly in the last two hundred years, and it's not to landed wealth we should turn. (That's why I left out the "landed" bit in this section's header.)

When we change the "landed wealth" criterion to "wealth of information", it suddenly starts to make a lot of sense in a modern context.

What is a Web development aristocrat's wealth? His or her website. More precisely: the knowledge and information contained in that website. After all, recognition comes only after an aspiring aristocrat has published a wealth of information. Only then he or she is noticed and linked to by others, and starts to rise to aristocratic status in the public eye. Conversely, it's very hard to become an aristocrat without wealth of information.

So wealth of information is the essential criterion for the Web development aristocracy, just as landed wealth was the essential criterion for medieval aristocrats.

The hard work that creating this wealth of information entails is too little appreciated by the detractors of the Web development aristocracy. Every single person who's well known, has written books and is invited to speak at interesting conferences has spent a considerable amount of time writing and publishing on his or her website. Occasionally I feel that those who disparage the aristocracy want the perks of aristocratic status but are too lazy to do the hard work that goes with it. That's one reason I can't quite take them seriously.


The official position criterion also seems inapplicable to the Web, because there are no official positions in Web development land. Nonetheless there are a few unofficial ones, of which WaSP hood is by far the most important.

WaSPhood is a coveted status; witness the eternal question "How do I become a WaSP" that seems to crop up at every meeting. Last March in Austin, Steph Troeth gave the best answer (paraphrased): It doesn't matter. If you want to do something for the standards, just do it, and don't wait for official recognition.

Despite the wisdom in these words, the question is bound to pop up time and again, because right now WaSPhood is the only more-or-less official position that Web development land has to offer, and such positions are important indicators of aristocratic status.

I feel that we should capitalise on this mechanism. I'm starting to see the WaSP as the Roman Senate, membership of which conferred enormous status but could only be gained by serving the public cause in an official position. We could do worse than copy this mechanism. If people want WaSPhood so much, allow them to acquire it by doing something useful for the Web development community.

What are aristocracies good for?

We must conclude that the Web development aristocracy conforms to four of Wickham's six criteria, and can therefore be (loosely) compared to historical aristocracies. To finish this entry, let's take a look at some consequences of the development of an aristocracy. We'll start with the early medieval situation.

Early middle ages

Back in the early middle ages the aristocracy was a necessary conduit between the state (the king) and the common people. On his own, a king could do nothing because he could not enforce his laws and decisions by himself. He needed locally powerful men to do that for him: aristocrats.

These aristocrats could also ignore the king, or even revolt against him, but Wickham argues that even a civil war is a criterion for a strong state, since the parties in the civil war feel that the state is important enough to fight over. If they didn't think so, they'd just split off to form their own kingdoms.

This is also where the office holding criterion comes in: if the king regularly gives fancy titles to aristocrats, they get more of a stake in the survival of the realm, since their enhanced status only makes sense in the context of the state.

Besides, a wealthy aristocracy had an important economic and social function. Back in the middle ages, as a rule of thumb it took nine to nineteen peasant families to create the surplus that fed one non-peasant family. On the local level, this meant a village could support one or two non-peasant families (often immediately useful people such as smiths or carpenters).

Once a wealthy aristocrat concentrated the surplus of, say, thirty villages in his hands, he could afford to feed about thirty to sixty families, who in turn had the leisure to become jewelers, clerics, lawyers, and other mid-level professionals, as well as warriors. Back then there wasn't really any other way to create such a concentration of wealth, since taxation was lax and often circumvented, if it existed at all.

Therefore a wealthy aristocracy was a simple way of concentrating the wealth of an entire realm, especially when they lived in the same city so they could share lawyers and jewelers (though never warriors), allowing even further specialisation to take place.

The Web

That's all fine and dandy, especially for early medieval historians, but what does it have to do with Web development?

Let's first substitue wealth of information for landed wealth, as we did before. Then we get concentration of information on the sites of relatively few people. Although this may seem dangerous from a censorship perspective, it also has the great advantage of giving aspiring web developers easy access: they don't have to search and collate information as much as when it had been divided exactly equally among all Web development sites.

Concentration of information allows specialisation. This, in turn, leads to better and more detailed information, which leads to even more specialisation. This site would have been a poorer resource if I'd had to treat interaction design, PHP, database architecture, and copywriting, too, in the same amount of space and time.

As to the conduit function, since the Web development aristocracy's blogs are better-read than the average ones, they can be quite powerful in communicating new techniques, browser bugs, or opinions. Here, again, the fact that newbies don't have to search and collate hundreds of sites helps them get a grip on web development.

Therefore, it doesn't seem to be too far-fetched to state that the current Web development aristocracy fulfills a role analogous to the medieval aristocrats by concentrating information, so that it can be easily accessed. In that sense, I feel the aristocracy is a vital part of the Web development community we know now. Without them, the Web would be much poorer.

Open games

I should end by pointing out one important difference between the two aristocracies. Medieval aristocrats played a zero-sum land game. They all wanted as much land as possible, but that mostly meant taking land away from others, first from peasant-owners, then from less powerful aristocrats.

In contrast, the information game we're playing on the Web is open. My publishing a certain JavaScript trick on this site does not take that trick away from other sites. There's always room for more information.

Therefore the infighting in the Web development aristocracy will never reach the lethal phase so many medieval status games did, and will probably be restricted to polite yet firm differences of opinions, discussed on blogs in the public eye.

We did get slightly more civilised in fifteen hundred years.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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Comments are closed.

1 Posted by Alejandro Moreno on 14 August 2007 | Permalink

Excellent post! I enjoyed it immensely. Especially:

"These two criteria would only start to play a modest role if Web development would remain unchanged for about three generations. Fat chance."

And also the closing line.

2 Posted by Scott on 15 August 2007 | Permalink

Does this mean that those of us who read the blogs of the aristocrats but have no aristocratic blog of our own are the serfs?

3 Posted by ppk on 15 August 2007 | Permalink

In my analogy serfs would be people who "harvest" information for the aristocrats, but that's not a feature of the current web world.

This only goes to prove you shouldn't stretch an analogy too far.

Nonetheless, for the sake of argument, blog readers would be small independents who could choose to become followers of certain aristocrats. In any case they'd keep a considerable freedom of action.

4 Posted by steph on 15 August 2007 | Permalink

Very interesting analogy, PPK :) I'm actually more inclined to compare the state of Web "aristrocracy" (for want of a better word) to the Hollywood model of stardom that has more or less replaced the traditional model of monarchy and titled elite in old Europe. It's less about what you inherit and what you build, but how you capture the headlines.

But as you know, coming from me, it's terribly difficult for me not to be tongue-in-cheek :)

5 Posted by ppk on 15 August 2007 | Permalink

If you analyse them, Hollywood stars would probably conform to five of Wickham's criteria, and some sons and daughters of famous people would even conform to the distinction of ancestry criterion.

Aristocracies will remain aristocracies as long as the human race exists.

6 Posted by Eric Hobart on 16 August 2007 | Permalink


Have you read "Salt: A World History," by Mark Kurlansky?

Wonderful stuff.


7 Posted by pauldwaite on 16 August 2007 | Permalink

> "there is no king, or an even remotely analogous figure"

Dude... Zeldman. A newspaper said so.

8 Posted by Elaine Nelson on 17 August 2007 | Permalink

I think pauldwaite is joking, but there's a reasonable point to be made:

* distinction of ancestry ~= time online, designing, or in the web standards community. (you are your own ancestry!)

* royal favor ~= links from web aristocracy higher in the hierarchy.

Thanks for sharing a thought-provoking analogy!

9 Posted by Tom on 18 August 2007 | Permalink

I agree with Paul I have read the newspaper! Go to his blog and check the new posts(What crisis?) for me he is "the king" of web development!

10 Posted by Ion Morega on 23 August 2007 | Permalink

I think a better analogy can be made for "wealth": instead of "wealth of information", I would propose "mindshare" - how many eyeballs see your content, and how much time (or, more appropriately, how much attention) they spend. So, going with this analogy, mindshare is like land: it's a finite resource.

11 Posted by ppk on 23 August 2007 | Permalink

That's an interesting thought. I hadn't taken attention span into account at all. I suspect you're right.

12 Posted by David on 24 August 2007 | Permalink

Some interesting contrasts. Coninciedntly, WaSP could also be translated as Whie Anglo-Saxon Protestant - a term synonyms with such cliques as the Boston Brahmin, the Anglo-American Establishment, the Rhodes-Milner set and many other elitist British and American sets since around 1850.

13 Posted by Ryan Weinfled on 30 August 2007 | Permalink

Q:what makes a Web development aristocrat a Web development aristocrat? And what are aristocrats good for, anyway?

My Answer: Unique Development and Creations, Web Development I n my opinion is all about being unique in designs yet so appealing that the design enough is ready to have your hand in the mouth.

What are Web Dev Aristocrats good for? Who care less for money than for the mental satisfaction there clients get.

14 Posted by Constantine Vesna on 30 August 2007 | Permalink

Web-dev aristocracy ?
Sorry, comrades, but with all my respect to any of named people and ppk himself, i dont think that we, the web-devs, can be considered aristocrats, even between ourselfes. Medieval master craftsmen will be better analogy.

Let me just quote Peter Druker:

" 25 years after the Gutenberg's invetion printers had become great stars.
By 1580 or so, the printers, with their focus on technology, had become ordinary craftsmen, respectable tradesmen to be sure, but definitely not of the upper class.
Their place was soon taken by what we now call publishers ... whose focus was no longer on the "T" in IT but on the "I."