Has the Web Standards & Web Accessibility Movement Lost Its Mojo?

Was just reminiscing…  Remember the good old days when it’d be just so much fun to sit around and talk about things like Web standards or Microformats or Web accessibility?

It seems like back in the day every week there was some new article in A List Apart or Digital Web Magazine that just blew your mind.  I remember when the thought of getting something published in A List Apart was talked about like you were getting something published in the Harvard Law Review or the American Journal of Medicine.

I used to eagerly download the speaker audio from all the Web developer conferences (An Event Apart, Web Directions South, @Media) because these titans of industry would unlock the solution to some type of major development problem that I had been having for months.

I remember when I’d go into Barnes & Noble and I’d dart for the Web Development section because there was sure to be some kind of new book by one of these titans of industry.  I can’t remember the last time I got excited about a new Web development book.

I remember when being appointed to a Web Standards Project task force was considered “making it.”

It really seems like all the excitement around things like Web standards, Web accessibility, microformats, and such has stopped completely.  Granted I’m in a bit of a differnet line of work now but I still stay pretty tuned into that scene.

Is this good? Have we achieved success?  Is the world accessible and standards compliant… or have we just become incredibly complacent?

With the innovations in things like HTML 5 and WCAG 2.0, can the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) reinvigorate the whole web development standards movement?

I don’t think we’ve achieved complete success.  I think there is still a lot of work to do.  But how does Web standards get its sexy back?

11 thoughts on “Has the Web Standards & Web Accessibility Movement Lost Its Mojo?”

  1. Web standards has gone from being sexy to being professional, which is even better.

    It’s the evolution of every idea in every industry: it’s radical when it’s proposed, it generates some steam, things begin to change, and after things have changed, it’s something you only notice when it’s not done well.

    Being an experienced practitioner of web standards has become like being a doctor: there are new techniques and new research to keep on top of, but it’s not as eye-widening stuff as the stuff you learned in med school, or the first time Anton van Leeuwenhoek proposed germ theory.

    Now the exciting stuff is in the changes happening in other related sub-fields, which is sometimes related to standards development. Microformats is still kinda cool, but OAuth is cooler. The conventions put forth by Rails and Django are more exciting than PHP or the code soup of perl.

  2. Second thought: I think folks are growing a bit tired of dogma on the web.

    A practical example: When you release a site and someone runs your markup through a validator and complains about some miniscule error, it’s just annoying, not helpful.

    Web standards was built around dogma, and now it’s tired. It’s the same reason why graphic designers don’t usually get excited about grids — you learn about grids to know how to effectively break (or stretch) them.

    But when a graphic designer doesn’t know how to use the grid, their work is affected, and they come across as amateur.

    I think that’s where we’re getting now.

  3. I think what happened was that the browser war had a ceasefire for about 6 years, when IE died. With no promise of fixing what was broken in IE6, WaSP and others did what they could, taught others, and most of us moved on.

    Now, there’s a different problem. I don’t think there’s a lot of agreement about whether HTML5, as it is, is worth rallying around. We’re learning it, and we’re tracking it, but the only action that matters to us now is still pegged to IE6, more or less, just as it was with Netscape 4 back in the day. I think a lot of people heard about standards-based development, but a lot more haven’t. And some people have an allergic reaction to giving up tables. Hell, I read a book that was released _two months ago_ that teaches presentational HTML, under the guise of an “XHTML & CSS” book.

    On the accessibility side, we’re all waiting for WCAG 2 to be done. We can’t do much but repeat ourselves until that happens, though the work on ARIA is a bright spot. And we’ve had at least 3 good accessibility books come out in the last year, not counting mine (because it’s not out yet, and I will leave it to others to say whether it’s “good” 🙂 ).

    So, yes, there’s some action, but everything is relative. You may not see it, but the wheels are still turning.

  4. I think that as the industry gets more and more people working in it, things like standards and accessibility are going to get less and less sexy. For one thing, it’s not easy – and most people look for the easy way out of everything. For another thing, once everyone is doing something or talking about something that makes it boring as well.

    I’m not sure what we can do to make it interesting again. But we should keep trying as both standards and accessibility are important.

  5. I think the web accessibility times are more exciting now than they ever have been. Granted, the work has shifted from the single-point incidents you cite to more collaborative efforts like IRC, mailing lists, and wikis. For the first time, there is now a full stack of open-source accessibility solutions: browsers like Firefox, screen readers like NVDA and Orca, testing tools, and JavaScript toolkits. WAI-ARIA has been developed with Firefox implementing the proposed standard as progress was made, and the NVDA and Orca teams testing out what is exposed to determine if this is the best solution for screen reader users. The Dojo toolkit implements WAI-ARIA and tests the implementations with those screen readers. The WAT toolbar for Firefox will give authors the chance to test for web accessibility including WAI-ARIA. All parties learn from one another, allowing us all to deliver better quality for the end users in the outcome.

    Lively discussions take place on both the mozilla.dev.accessibility newsgroup and the free-aria Google group.

    The Mozilla Foundation has been giving grants to various diverse enthusiastic, visionary, or down-to-the-point accessibility projects such as development and research for the Dojo toolkit accessibility, NVDA, Orca, the WAT toolbar for Firefox, HTML accessibility techniques usage studies, a feasibility study for migration of the Linux AT-SPI messaging mechanism away from Corba to D-Bus, which will in the long run benefit accessibility on Linux-based mobiles, etc.

    So, there is loads going on, and all is very exciting stuff! Aaron Leventhal posted a great summary on his blog showing ways to get involved in open accessibility.

  6. Glad you raised this. I think we may have reached a stage of diminishing returns in preaching web standards – with the people who are not yet converted not seeing a reason to convert. Ultimately, it is frustrating because there are still a huge number of non-standard, non-accessible sites – my guess would be in the 90-95% range (by number of sites. If taking into account which sites were viewed the most, it would be somewhat better).
    But if you are the owner of a non-compliant small-to-medium-sized site, is there a compelling reason to change? While I’d want to scream “yes,” the reality is that it would usually involve the site owner spending a considerable amount of money, and probably firing their current web designer who doesn’t know enough coding to deliver standards-compliant sites. And to the site owner, the ultimate look of the end result would not be much different.
    So my guess is that there will still be a huge amount of non-compliant sites until something more dramatic happens – like quirks mode no longer being supported.

  7. I have to agree in that the conversation about web standards and web accessibility has matured and is more in the professional than the sexy zone.

    Matt is also right in that we are all waiting for WCAG 2.0; once that’s out accessibility will be front news again.

    For me the main thing now is not winning hearts and minds with talk about the why accessibility but rather how we can make it happen and making sure that the developer community talks to real users to figure out what’s needed.

    This weekend in London we had an accessibility hack day which was a great success, lots of people telling geeks what their barriers were on the web then hacking away to come up with solutions. I’ve posted a write up on my blog here https://drinkingoatmealstout.com/2008/09/18/has-the-web-standards-web-accessibility-movement-completely-lost-its-mojo/.

    I think it’s a good question to be asking Justin, the battle for web standards definately rumbles on but like with most things is evolving. We need to make sure that we understand what has and what hasn’t progressed and therefore what gaps to fill.

  8. I think that the sexiness has gone because there of the mass of “dark matter developers” (to coin a phrase Stuart Langridge used on my blog).

    It was sexy when sexy designer “X” redesigned site “Y” with CSS. But evangelising to the 90-95% of web developers who aren’t already in the choir is inherently unsexy.

    Stuart wrote,

    Dark matter developers don’t care about their job when they’re not at it. They don’t read blogs, they’re unaware of trends in the industry, they don’t really know what RSS is, they’re unaware of validity and the point of it, they’re Internet Explorer users who may have heard of Firefox but almost certainly haven’t heard of Opera. They don’t go to conferences or join local meetups or use Twitter. As far as I’m aware, they have two, and only two, points of contact with what we’d call the web community: books (and that infrequently), and the tools they use. This means that reaching out to this rather disconnected group either involves creating a new way to talk to them, writing a new book which everyone reads (unlikely, since people doing the job already think they know how to do it and don’t need new books), or adapting their tools. …one of the reasons why people don’t do this: it is distinctly unglamorous. You don’t get to speak at conferences, to gain the respect of your peers, to have people talk about you in admiring terms, to push the envelope or to build th state of the art. Since the whole web community runs on ego-gratification (well, there’s money in it too for our freelance brethren, and I confess that there’s also the desire to Do It Right in an altruistic sense), that’s a fairly major motivating factor yanked out from under those who want to appeal to dark matter developers.


    Sexy got the work done. But it doesn’t now. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t getting done.

  9. I was working actively in web accessibility and Section 508 compliance back in 2004, for a vast multinational corporation that served, among other clients, human resources departments of other companies. The web properties we developed were integrated into other sites (including company intranets), and since HR is very discrimination-phobic, it was an absolute must that any integrations had to be 100% 508 compliant — for governmental regulations’ sake, as well as just being good practice.

    I really believe that there is still a strong need — and a market — for web accessibility, but unless you’ve got a background in HR and legal (which I do — over 10 years worth, in my former pre-web professional life), you’d never really know it.

    Large companies that do business with the government (at home or abroad) or are subject to possible litigation due to lack of accessibility, still have a need for accessible web development.

    I think one of the barriers to this — even with the so-called “dark matter” web developers — is lack of adoption of the policy of 100% web accessibility at the highest organizational levels. I can tell you, as someone who was responsible for ensuring the Section 508 compliance of a site that served over 16 million end-users, and hundreds of clients through integration, that the initiative I was in charge of never would have succeeded, had there not been a mandate from the top that this HAD to be done.

    Even with the live-breathe-eat-sleep developers, there was deep-seated resistance to doing the work, perhaps even moreso than the dark-matter folks. They were under tremendous pressure to perform, their jobs were being shipped overseas and/or they were struggling with legacy code that was a challenge in and of itself. When I tried to explain why it’s so important to make the web accessible to all human beings who wish to use it, I was greeted with resistance and a certain amount of hostility that I was making their jobs even more complicated.

    But when the word came down from the top that web accessibility was a requirement that was not to be sloughed off, they grumbled, but they buckled down and did the work. I also had been granted the power to veto the push of any code that failed to meet requirements, so that was handy, too. I spent a lot of time educating and proofing code and finding alternatives and compromises, which I think helped me — instead of the “Thor’s hammer” approach, where I indiscriminately said “NO that will NEVER do!”

    I showed reason and a certain amount of compassion, and I worked with the developers to not only train them, but to assist them, the first couple of passes. I also did a whole bunch of documentation and was always available for people to ask questions of.

    Just handing down the edict of 100% Section 508 compliance probably would not have worked, had I not been willing to train, educate, advocate, evangelize, and support the development efforts of those tasked with making it so.

    Sexy is over, I think, when it comes to web accessibility. But it’s still an issue, and if we can raise it to the attention of the People Who Run Things, I believe we as a “tribe of converts” stand a better chance of seeing it implemented as widely as it really needs to be.

  10. I think with ARIA and mobile accessibility just to mention a few things, it is more exciting than ever. There’s a lot to be done when we look at the existing sites, but with new technologies coming out, I believe we have not reached the end of new and exciting things coming out. Personally, I subscribe to enough RSS feeds so that I get more information quite frequently. There are excellent bloggers out there, for example, who often come out with new ideas, they are worth reading.

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