Shipbuilding (or, cruel to be kind)

When groups of implementors and others (working groups in standards bodies and what have you, or groups of implementors and others with shared interest in a certain set of technologies) gather together publicly for focused technical discussion on a particular topic — or, say, to pool their efforts to produce specifications for new technologies — there’s a common scenario they can sometimes find themselves facing.

That scenario starts with the appearance in the group of certain kinds of new arrivals (for lack of a better term) — sincere, well-intentioned people who show up with some ideas that are often pretty interesting but that they’ve cooked up sorta on their own, in relative isolation. The new arrival — driven by a strong personal conviction that his ideas have real value — then makes a sustained effort for a while to do everything he can to get the rest of the group to pay attention and consider spec’ing out and implementing those ideas.

But the reaction of the rest of the group in such cases can often range from simple indifference to sometimes-polite and sometimes-not-so-polite attempts to point out to the new arrival that his ideas have some fundamental problems that make implementing those ideas impractical or impossible or even just plain undesirable.

In a recent real-world case of something that could be seen as an instance of that kind of scenario, Michael Kay posted a message that makes an interesting analogy:

To be honest, it’s a bit like walking up to Boeing and Airbus with some sketches of a new plane and asking them to build it. We can wish you luck, but we won’t be placing our bets on it.

So the way the scenario more often than not ends up getting played out is with the new arrival — met with that kind of “We can wish you luck, but we won’t be placing our bets” reaction, and becoming frustrated/angry/confused about why the rest of the group just can’t see the value in his ideas that he sees in them — getting marginalized or ignored by the rest of group (as they grow impatient with the discussion and give up), or with the new arrival leaving altogether.

It is a mistake to dismiss such people outright as dilettantes or dabblers and to simply ignore them. At the same time, it may perhaps also be a mistake for groups working on standards to — in an effort to avoid offending people or making them feel unwelcome or unappreciated — to adopt completely welcoming/accepting “all ideas are created equal” discussion norms that risk encouraging continued, extended discussion of any proposal regardless of its lack of intrinsic merit or implementability.

It is perhaps far better for the group to encourage a discussion atmosphere of evaluating all ideas and proposals based on their technical merit and likelihood of being implemented. That does not mean the group shouldn’t remain open to all proposals and new ideas. But it should recognize that there are proposals that some amount of initial discussion will likely reveal as clearly not meeting the group’s baseline criteria with regard to technical merit and implementability — and recognize that it may not be the best use of the group’s time and energies to entertain continued discussion of such proposals indefinitely.

Being frank to people with regard to lack of viability of particular proposals in which they are personally (sometimes emotionally) invested may seem cruel — but I think it’s far kinder than misleading people into investing further personal time in exploration of ideas that have little chance of actually making it into the final version of a spec, or zero chance of ever getting implemented.

The goal of working together on technical specifications is to produce standards that actually get implemented. We don’t make standards for the sake of making standards, we do it with the goal of making them as implementable as possible — and to actually get them implemented as widely and interoperably as possible. Standards that don’t get fully implemented are not real standards. At best, they’re just wish lists. And we’re not in the business of producing wish lists (or should not be, at least).

6 thoughts on “Shipbuilding (or, cruel to be kind)

  1. It’s a tricky situation, it is hard coming into the middle of an established group. It would be nice to see more induction and mentoring of new members … posts like this may help those that read ’em though :)

  2. I think this approach is valid to a lot more than just web standards, and i’m glad you’ve addressed it.

  3. While I’m quite sympathetic with this view, I think it misses a fact about WGs that is important – they have a social and political structure as do most groups. Just as an example, I recently quit a working group because I got tired of being told that my approach was wrong or that I didn’t understand. I was constantly being asked to justify my opinions, where others were held to a different standard (since the majority of participants agreed with them). I could see where the criticism of this blog post could be leveled, although in this case I am generally considered an expert in the subject and actually chaired the original Working Group that this one is a follow on to.

    Basically, I realized that few if any of my ideas had a chance of making it into the standard and the unpleasantness of spending my time to no avail outweighed my willingness to keep fighting. Terms like “technical merit” and “likelihood of being implemented” sound like metrics, but like all things politic, they are determined in a context, and that context may or may not be the neutral one we strive for in setting standards.

    I agree with the author that it is very important that those of us who participate in, and especially chair or team contact for WGs, keep in mind that at least prima facie, all ideas should be considered fairly. However, while discussion cannot and should not go on ad nauseum, there should be a clear effort made to make sure that everyone is heard, and that the process, which protects the minority, is followed carefully. The fact that someone is in the minority does not mean they are wrong.

  4. What i understanded during discussion in public-html@w3.org and xml-dev@lists.xml.org,
    and about what significant people inform me in personal letters (in background of public mailing lists):

    • Western world does not interested in implementation of progressive ideas,
      because Indian slaves have been executing job for Western world free of charge
    • Nobody allow me to kill his investments, even it’s investment into frankly nonsense (you guessed, what term i implied)

    P.S. >to produce standards that actually get implemented

    As comment to 2).

  5. And i forgot to mention third item:

    All international standardization organizations are founded not by users, but by corporations – and not for user, but for corporations (to impose own decisions to young rival firms)

  6. No offense to anyone on here, but it is funny how new users like myself trust everything that they read hear. Just because youve been a member longer than me does not mean that you are smarter. Please heed all advice before taking :)

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