Who cares about validation?
14 October 2004
Mike's rather altruistic article about his efforts on the re-design of ABC News sparked Ethan's commentary about validation, which set Keith off about Web Standards zealotry and 73 comments ensued with little resolution. Who knows what other carnage was wrought on weblogs I didn't have the time to read. Essentially it all boils down to this:
Can you have Web Standards without validation?
Quite obviously, the term Web Standards means different things to different people. Recently, we have seen the popularisation of this term which previously only members of the W3C ever thought about, let alone uttered. And as with all things that become popular, the masses have a way of morphing it into something they can use best – subtracting bits, adding bits and changing bits, until the only part that's recognisable from the original is the name.
Because of the open – some would say easy – nature of web development, you get a more varied range of people plying their trade in HTML than you do in other areas of programming: marketing staff, graphic designers, coders, lecturers, tech support staff, babysitters, parents, children and web professionals. Most of these people don't care how their code looks – or even how their pages look – so it's no surprise that when some of them become interested in "Web Standards", it's not because they like encoding all their ampersands.
The enduring benefits of "Web Standards" are smaller file sizes, user customisability, easier maintainability and better accessibility. (If you want a comprehensive list, there's several places you can look.) All four of those points are more related to the separation of content and style than to the validation of code. You should be able to understand, then, the tendency for the popular definition of "Web Standards" to mean semantic code and CSS, with valid code hanging somewhere off the end.
Compliance with semantic code and CSS has visible benefits, visible in time and visible in money. At the moment, any validation errors that don't affect the visible benefits are invisible to 99% of the population; the other 1% being the self-priding Standards adherents who decry Mike Davidson's use of the phrase "Web Standards" in any relation to "ABC News".
I personally like my code valid – it gives me a nice warm fuzzy feeling when I get up in the morning – but I also don't freak out when I accidentally post a URL on my site which has an unencoded ampersand in it. Why? Because it has no effect whatsoever. I also don't freak out when I find that someone else's site doesn't validate because they accidentally posted a URL on their site which has an unencoded ampersand in it. Why? Because I don't know why they have that ampersand there. It might be because in order to change that ampersand they have to reconfigure their entire CMS, which would entail a change to their quality system, requiring the re-training of over 200 staff, which would affect their inventory output for the month of October, causing them to lose their biggest client and sending the company into financial collapse. And what for? An ampersand that has no effect whatsoever.
In every other area of "Web Standards" we recognise the inherent imperfection of the system: CSS hacks for IE 5, <table cellspacing="0">, <div class="clear">, PNGs without transparency. These are parts of our technological environment which we cannot easily change, so we adapt to them, we loosen the rules. They mightn't be within a strict definition of Standards, but their detriment is minuscule compared to their benefits.
You might be clinging on to that 1998 definition of what "Web Standards" are, hell, I like to spell colour with a "u", but if you want good development to become popular, you also have to be willing to be flexible. Web Standards isn't just a set of rules anymore, it's a movement. It's about people wanting to change the way the Web works, for the better. But change is gradual – you can't have it all in one bite.
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