Round 2 of the 2007 SXSW Interactive Panel Proposal Picker has just gone live and I’ve got one proposal in the bunch.
Semantics Semantics – A Plain English Guide to Web Standards Jargon
Every specialized field evolves its own internal language of jargon, slang, insider references and buzzwords. We’ll cut through the technobabble and define the terminology of modern web development in plain English, and in so doing, reach a better understanding of the concepts behind the vocabulary.
There was a 75-word limit for the description at submission time, so if that isn’t quite enough to get your juices flowing, allow me to elaborate.
Whenever I attempt to learn some new and different technical thing, the first hurdle I struggle with is learning the new vocabulary. New acronyms and abbreviations, strange new words I’ve never heard and familiar words that have very different meanings (“Getting a good bead” means something entirely different to a sniper than it does to a welder). Familiarizing oneself with jargon is one of the main obstacles in any learning curve.
A few years ago I decided I wanted to learn Perl, so I borrowed my friend’s copy of O’Reilly’s llama book, “Learning Perl.” It seemed like a good place to start. That particular book assumed some prior knowledge of programming (I had none) and right off the bat referred to a mysterious and arcane rite called “looping through an array.” I knew what each of those words meant, just not in that order. I was completely lost, and immediately abandoned my Perl studies. Not only did I lose interest in Perl, but was so stung by that first experience of frustrated confusion that to this day I have a strong aversion to dealing with Perl.
Many web designers have a similar experience on their first dive into standards and CSS. Advanced books, articles and tutorials must assume prior knowledge to avoid rehashing the basics and so tend to use language that confounds the beginner (“We can use image-replaced sliding doors for our tabs without sacrificing semantics…” Huh?). At the same time, there are relatively few introductory resources that define these terms, and those tend to be too elementary for someone with a little experience under their belt already (“I know what a ‘tag’ is, but what’s the difference between a ‘tag’ and an ‘element’?”)
Unfamiliar jargon can make the learning curve seem too steep, and hence make standards-based design with CSS seem “too hard.” Some will struggle on through confusion and adversity, while others give up and resume the tag soup they’re comfortable with. Worst of all are those few who decide that CSS is a bunch of complicated hooey that doesn’t really work. If John Dvorak knew what the word “cascade” means, maybe he wouldn’t have made such a fool of himself.
Simplifying the language will simplify the concepts. Understanding the jargon helps you understand what it refers to. When a community of designers and developers can agree on what these words mean, we can better talk to each other. And best of all, comprehending the subject in plain language will help you talk about it to your bosses and clients when the need arises.
The presentation at SXSWi will be aimed at beginners and intermediates, but will hopefully appeal to experts as well. My intent is to reexamine some of the core concepts of web standards by boiling down the linguistic ambiguities that crop up when we discuss them.
So please mosey on over to the Panel Picker, find mine listed under “CSS / standards”, and give me a vote to stroke my fragile ego.
See ya’ll in Austin.
Update: On December 18 I finally received word that my panel didn’t make the final cut. I shall not be presenting at Suckswuh. I take this news with a mixture of disappointment and relief. Even so, feel free to ask me about web standards jargon in the hallways, but you won’t get to see any pretty slides.