The Language of the Web
The Breaking Development conference is wrapping up here on spacecraft Opryland One. It’s been a wonderful experience. The conference itself was superbly curated—a single track of top-notch speakers in a line-up that switched back and forth between high-level concepts and deep-dives into case studies. I hope that other conferences will take note of those key phrases: “single track”, “curated”, “top-notch speakers” (see also: An Event Apart, dConstruct, Mobilism).
I opened the show with a talk that sounds controversial: There Is No Mobile Web. Actually, it wasn’t as contentious as it sounds (I originally proposed a talk called Fuck The Mobile Web: Fuck It In The Ass—then it would’ve been controversial). You can download a PDF of my slides if you want but, as usual, they won’t make much if any sense outside the context of the presentation.
My talk was concerned with language; Lakoffian political language in particular. When I say “there is no mobile web,” I mean it quite literally: there isn’t a separate world wide web for mobile devices. But by using the phrase “mobile web” we may be unintentionally framing the discussion in terms of separate silos for different kinds of devices (desktop and mobile) in a similar way that a term like, say, “tax relief” automatically frames the discussion of taxation as something negative. By subtly changing the framing from “the mobile web” to a more accurate phrase such as “the web on mobile” we could potentially open new avenues of thinking.
By the same token the phrase “one web”—which is the drum that I bang—is really a tautology. Of course there’s only one web! But the phrase has political and philosophical overtones.
So I asked the assembled audience if we could come to an agreement: I’ll stop saying “one web” if you stop staying “mobile web.” How about …”the web”?
I also talked about the power of naming things, invoking the foreword I wrote for Ethan’s book:
When Ethan Marcotte coined the term “responsive web design” he conjured up something special. The technologies existed already: fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries. But Ethan united these techniques under a single banner, and in so doing changed the way we think about web design.
I’m not invoking the Sapir Whorf hypothesis here, I just wanted to point out how our language can—intentionally or unintentionally—have an effect on our thinking.
One of the other phrases I discussed was “web app.” The timing couldn’t have been better. Fellow Breaking Development speaker James Pearce has just written a blog post all about defining what makes something a web app. It’s very detailed and well thought-out but I’m afraid at the end of it, we’re still no closer to having a shared agreed-upon definition. It’s like the infamous Supreme Court definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
My concern is that the phrase “web app” is wielded as a talisman to avoid best practices. “Oh, I totally agree that we should care about accessibility …but this isn’t a web site, it’s a web app.” “I think that progressive enhancement is great …for websites; but this is a web app.” The term is used as a get-out-of-jail free card and yet we can’t even agree what it means. I call shenanigans. I don’t think it is useful or productive to create an artificial boundary between documents and applications when the truth is that almost everything on the web exists on a continuum between the two poles.
As I said, the Breaking Development conference did an excellent job of balancing the practical with the inspirational. Stephanie’s intensely useful case study was perfectly balanced by an absolutely incredible call to arms from Scott Jenson called Why Mobile Apps Must Die (and you thought my talk title was contentious), in which he expanded on his brilliant writings over on the Beyond Mobile blog.
The next Breaking Development event will be next April in Orlando. Single track. Curated. Top-notch speakers.