July 9, 2009
Follow me on Twitter


XHTML2, a standard-building project planning a successor to XHTML, has been cancelled.

Jeffrey Zeldman, a noted Web designer and editor of A List Apart, blogged the news: XHTML DOA WTF. Mark Pilgrim, a Google employee and noted Web curmudgeon, gloated and ridiculed XHTML — and Zeldman.

This is the header
That nobody sees
’Cause they see the namespace
That doesn’t do squat
When we parse the slashes
That end the tags
That live in the house
That Jeffrey built.

(The poem goes on and on like that.) Zeldman A commenter (whom I, among others, mistook to be Zeldman but is someone else entirely) responded:

You are a very small child in the world of men. And nobody will change your diaper. Rot in hell.

Zeldman denounced the Pilgrim piece in his weblog: In Defense of Web Developers.

None of this throws much light onto the standards process or the underlying technical issues. But I think there are some useful lessons here for one of my Ten Tips (an essay of mine that Zeldman published and that has, surprisingly, gone on to be reprinted in textbooks and widely read): Choose Good Enemies.

This dustup adds special interest to Rudolf Ammann’s intriguing Hypertext 2009 paper on Jorn Barger, the NewsPage Network, and the Emergence of the Weblog Community. Many observers (including myself) had credited the early blogroll of Cameron Barrett with giving weblogs a sense of community; Ammann argues convincingly that the Barrett’s early list depends on Barger’s, and that therefore Barger is the key figure in the invention of the community that we call the blogosphere.

That’s a surprise. Barrett was the sort of guy who comes to mind when you think of “community builder”. Barger was an angry troll. Barrett seemed to have lots of friends and went to lots of conferences; Barger was famously a loner. Barrett often seemed steeped in personal and professional success, while Barger was suffused with a venomous anger at Yale, at Roger Schank (who, long ago, was briefly his graduate school supervisor), at academic computer science, at everyone who crossed his path. Barrett used to seek out new people to publicize; Barger didn’t. Lots of early bloggers were fun to listen to in person, fun to be around – PeterMe, Molly, Megnut, EvHead, jill/txt, the baby squirrels. Lots of them started companies with their pals. Dave Winer could be rough if you got athwart his hawse, but he was in general a nice guy who always seemed to want to get a lot of bright people around a big table with plenty of food. I know only one Web celebrity (KiaMennie) who actually met Barger, and until Amman’s talk I had never met anyone who was confident in pronouncing his name. So, it’s surprising that Barger seems to have played this central role.

I find Ammann’s evidence pretty convincing. I understand this paper is the start of a larger work, and that’s good news. As it stands, it leaves a few obvious questions open. This is not a flaw – a ten-page conference paper can’t answer everything. But there is a lot we’d like to know.

  1. Barger seems an unlikely, even preposterous, candidate to build a community. This begs for analysis and explanation.
  2. If Barger played a central role in the history of the weblog, how much of that history is tinged with, or influenced by, the fact that he is unhinged. He is a notorious anti-Semite; his weblog’s tagline is “judaism is racism is incompatible with democracy”. Other opinions are nearly as bizarre. Overt anti-Semitism after 1945 sits outside the boundaries of civilized discourse in a way that arguments over XML parsing or software business models, however passionate, do not; it's literally a third rail, and I don’t think any open anti-Semite has led a community that wasn’t overtly crazy since the war. (Sure, Nixon – but he didn’t say this stuff on the record or in public.) How did these opinions affect the coalescence of the blogosphere?
  3. Several other early bloggers were technically talented people who had already built significant systems or published notable books and articles. Barger’s CV has a blog and one obscure paper about Joyce. What does this mean?
  4. Who makes a good historical analogy to Barger? If you take Ezra Pound, remove the poetry, the criticism, the editorial work, and the circle of literary expatriates. do you wind up with Barger?
  5. Working in the other direction, who has been most influenced by Barger. Matt Drudge, surely. Who else?

In posting this, I am not pursuing Rule 5: Find Good Enemies. I haven’t heard from Jorn since April 1995, did not expect to hear from him again, and had mentioned him only three times (1, 2, 3) among the 4,934 notes in the weblog. Ammann’s paper is good. It raises a lot of questions, as good papers do. I find it a curious starting point, but it will be interesting to see where the work goes.

Note: an earlier version of this post attributed to Zeldman a comment which was not, in fact, his. While other discussions had led me to think the attribution not only correct by widely understood to be so, I should have checked. A good lesson.

Update: Dave Winer replies.