Some Thoughts on Standards and Dare Obasanjo

I’m a big fan of negative gestures, something I’ve talked about over a long period of time. What I mean by that is the power that can be derived from not saying something, not liking something, not tipping a hat to something, etc. I’ve used (jokingly with a smidgen of truth) the John Dvorak test, where if John comes out strongly against something (blogging, podcasting, Twitter) it’s likely a buy signal.

Factor in that John is a serial instigator whose editorial model is to stretch the truth to elucidate a more fundamental underlying truth. This also pays well historically for John. But nonetheless Dvorak is one of my most reliable negative signals. To reiterate for those who haven’t followed my theories on attention and gestures, negative nodes produce a much greater opportunity for ruling out memes and threads of discussion than most modern aggregators, which use last-in first-out UIs or explicit voting to push things up the priority list. Negative thought leaders wipe out large swaths of nonsense across many domains.

Aggregating those negative gesturers would further improve efficiency, by triangulating various attitudes into a synthetic consensus. The Gillmor Gang is such a mechanism. These supernodes are fairly static in their evolution, as it takes time to acquire and maintain some sense of stability among these volatile creatures. Witness how difficult it is to keep Arrington amused long enough to get into an enterprise discussion, or Calacanis engaged enough to have him not retire from yet another sector of new media.

The only option to increase the flow of negative nodes into the system is to move vertically, or deeper into the disciplines that underly the vendor and startup sports that attract most of the raw attention. It is here that the Open Web Foundation appears on the scene, a honeypot for attracting negative gesturers. The brainchild of David Recordon and emergent standards artists such as Chris Messina, the group seems to have a strategy of reusing lessons learned in the emergence of OpenID and OAuth as a series of best practices to inform a wider range of ad hoc open standards.

In doing so, it has attracted the vitriol of Dare Obasanjo, the brilliant Microsoft engineer who has gone from being the most outspoken Redmond blogger to the most partisan one. Obasanjo retired from the blogosphere some months ago, seemingly frustrated with the Vallywaggish nature of the conversation at the time, and has recently reemerged first on Twitter and then again on his blog. In addition to his knowledgeable commentary on issues of sustained interest to him, he has added a curious tone of anger that mostly finds its target in Microsoft competitors, most consistently Google.

Dare’s recent post on OWF follows a Twitter pointer at a Google Groups discussion by many of the players. Obasanjo sounds neutral: “Open Web Foundation is not a standards body.But it wants to do the same things they do only hipper.” But his post almost immediately delves into the kind of political insinuations that seem to fuel his return to blogging, quoting “Google evangelist Dion Almaer as rationalizing the need for yet another “standards” (Dare’s quotes) organization by providing “justification for why existing Web standards organizations do not meet their needs.”

Specifically, Almaer mentions “pay to play” orgs such as the W3C and Oasis, as well as what Dare calls OWF spin about “one off organizations like the Open ID foundation and the WHATWG that are dedicated to a specific technology.” It now becomes clear that Obasanjo thinks there’s no need for a newer hipper replacement for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which he suggests already has proved its worth by providing RFCs for the browser content transport (HTTP) and what he calls the RSS reader that consumes his Atom feed.

Never mind that “RSS” is a specification that never would have seen its successful penetration into all manner of media and platforms if not for ad hoc support from people like Dare Obasanjo, who in his previous incarnations was a singular balanced voice in calling for rational and fair analysis of the benefits of open technology (XML) and its derivatives. Take this post from 2004:

The value of RSS is fairly self evident to me but it seems that given the amount of people who keep wanting to reinvent the wheel it may not be as clear to others. As someone who used to work on core XML technologies at Microsoft, the value of XML was obvious to me. It allowed developers to agree to use the same data format for information interchange which led to a proliferation of a wide and uniform set of tools for working with data formats. XML is not an optimal format for most of the tasks it is used for but it more than makes up for this with the plethora of tools and technologies that exist for processing XML.

Understand the context and particularly the political risk Dare was incurring with his unbiased view – this was not an evangelist talking openly inside Microsoft about technologies not controlled by Redmond but an engineer whose voice stood out markedly from most who came before and since. He concluded:

We need less data interchange formats not more. It is better for content producers, better for end users and better for developers of applications that use these formats. Existing problems in syndication should focus on how to make the existing formats work for us instead of inventing new formats.

Vive la RSS.

Replace the word “syndication” in the last sentence with “open standards” and we might see how Dare could support what OWF is trying to do. Surely there are many reasons to doubt the effectiveness of Yet Another Standards Group, but surely the folks who have squired OpenID and OAuth through the thickets have the right to be given a chance to share their experiences and hard-won successes with the rest of the community. That is, without a partisan and petty attack such as the one Obasanjo leaves as his contribution:

I can understand that a bunch of kids fresh out of college are ignorant of the IETF and believe they have to reinvent the wheel to Save the Open Web but I am surprised that Google which has had several of it’s employees participate in the IETF processes which created RFC 4287, RFC 4959, RFC 5023 and RFC 5034 would join in this behavior. Why would Google decide to sponsor a separate standards organization that competes with the IETF that has less inclusive processes than the IETF, no clear idea of how corporate sponsorship will work and a yet to be determined IPR policy?

That’s just fucking weird.

For the same reasons that RSS emerged. Because it needed to. Obasanjo is consistent across the years in his desire not to reinvent the wheel, but today he refuses to support not reinventing the OpenID/OAuth wheel because it has Google’s fingerprints on it, among others. That’s just fucking weird.