Why Everyone Is Fighting About CSS/UX and JS
TL;DR: There isn’t one. There’s no short way to say any of this, yet one of the reasons you keep fighting is because you misunderstand what the fight is about. Read the damn article. Please and thank you.
I hate intros. Let’s just dive in and I’ll fill you in where pertinent.
In other words, the split is real. Chris and Dave are merely putting it into words.
The discussion, though, immediately devolved into whether JS Engineers (I’ve gone ahead and accepted Chris’s proposed nomenclature) do more work than UX Engineers, and whether UX Engineers deserve to be paid the same as JS Engineers.
I should note: if you’ve seen the discussion online and the outline I’m presenting doesn’t jibe with your version of the events, that’s fine. The web is a big place, and it’s entirely possible you and I have witnessed two sides of the same coin. I’m trying to contextualize what I’ve seen with this narrative I’m building; I hope that’s OK with you.
Anyway, as a surprise to nobody in the industry, we have a recurring theme of derision and general snootiness toward other people’s tech, an attitude which developer Aurynn Shaw incisively terms “contempt culture”. In this case, we began to see this contempt target UX Engineers… and I’m certain a number of you reading this are now thinking “you mean designers, though, right? How is design also engineering?”
Because here’s the thing: even when no offense is meant, a lot of people don’t think UX Engineers are a thing, or that they’re glorified web designers at best. I observed this same attitude in the discussions surrounding the ShopTalk interviews of people who were primarily doing design-centric work. I’m not going to nag you one way or the other about whether this is correct; I’m merely pointing out that this is an attitude that people hold.
Not many are keen on defending this behavior, though, because to people specializing in the technologies being disdained, these opinions often constitute a direct attack. You can pin a huge asterisk on this point, but basically: turns out when a person feels other people are shitting on the thing that pays the bills, that person might (rightly or understandably, your choice) get defensive. And that’s precisely what we saw on Twitter.
Jen Simmons (W3C’s Working Group, Mozilla, Layout Land) describes the animosity toward UX Engineers as “class warfare”, and shot a number of choice spicy tweets toward a particular lean of JS Engineers:
I’m not doing you the (dis)favor of including any of the shittier tweets thereafter flung in Jen’s direction: it’s the web—use your imagination. On the more sensible side of things, though, this argument gets more nuanced. Dan Abramov (React, Redux, create-react-app) writes:
I’m obviously putting Dan in the JS Engineer camp because, you know, React. Then there are people who don’t fully identify with either of our new frontend designations. For example, Kyle Simpson (You Don’t Know JS, Frontend Masters) writes:
Among other opinions, though, you can see folks beginning to tire of the incessant barrage of negativity. Das Surma (Google, HTTP203) sums it up thusly (and I really wish I could say “Surma surmises” but it’s wrong diction):
By the time Surma makes this statement, though, we’ve lost all semblance of a common thread of discussion. It’s no longer about how frondend development is evolving, but about whether CSS and HTML are difficult as technologies, by way of defending people whose job might often go no further programming-wise (though in my case obviously not dismissing the wealth of education and experience required for UX Engineering).
I’ll admit that I think the discussion did seem to have jumped the shark a bit around the time DHH said this (though in the name of defending UX Engineers, so I’m not faulting anyone)… I mean, isn’t the whole point of web technologies to be accessible? Shouldn’t we take pride on the fact that HTML and CSS are as easy as they are powerful?
Somewhere around this point, there seemed to be a shift in the atmosphere: a secondary argument began to emerge… and it is where I think everything became real convoluted, and it’s where people are having trouble reconciling what the hell is even going on with this whole UX vs. JS thing. Because while one side was fighting about whether UX is as cool as JS or whatever, an adjacent and more interesting talk began to make its way forward…
From my personal vantage, it started with DHH, who goes on to make a second appearance in this story with an observation about the state of web technologies, this time in a post about how View Source is on the decline and how we shouldn’t let it die.
(Here Tom Dale throws a spicy one at DHH; I’m including these for no better reason than it’s funny:)
Anyway, the idea that View Source is worth saving is pretty interesting, because I knew I couldn’t be the only one who thinks the original discussion is coalescing into a second and more nuanced conversation, namely: what is going on with the semantic web?
Well, look, allow me a brief leap in context. In case you’re not familiar and didn’t bother reading the article I linked to just now, the semantic web was Sir Tim-Berners Lee’s idea for the future of the web, where web pages would be intelligible to humans as well as computers. To be realistic about it, though, the semantic web ultimately amounted to not much more than a bunch of schema tags that we were supposed to throw into our HTML to make it easier for Google to do their job, but while it’s fun to be cynical about it, let’s not forget the real reason the notion of the semantic web exists: the dream of a decentralized web where everyone owns their data and information silos aren’t a thing. More pertinently, though, the semantic web illustrates that, ever since the beginning of the web, there’s been the idea that the web is meant to be accessible and open.
Agree or disagree—not the point. I’m only claiming this is what is at the heart of this second round of the fight pitting JS against UX: whether or not JS is becoming bloat that is keeping the web from being accessible and open.
I wanted to back each of those sentiments with individual tweets expressing them concretely, but that’s a lot of work, so I’m using my editorial discretion and not doing any of that. However, you can go on Twitter or Dev.to or Medium and do your own research—people are expressing these opinions.
This whole fight about the state and future of the web has long been a simmering disturbance in the Force, usually felt by developers as no more than a dull background throb, but every once in a while coming back with a jolt. This is evidently one such time. As developers though, we recognize this recurring argument as the worn motif of old, morphed but yet familiar, and existing as long as our industry has existed: what role should computers play on the theme of our collective human experience?
…yeah, OK—I’ll tone down the philosophical flight of fancy.
But you know what I’m saying, at least. This is the industry that coined the hacker ethic, and free software, and open source, and Creative Commons, and “information wants to be free,” and the aforementioned semantic web, and shit, we could even take it as far back as Doug Engelbart’s notion of augmenting human intelligence with computers. All I’m saying is that developers have been known to entertain thoughts about the nature of the relationship between humans and computers.
So one good thing that’s emerged from this fight is a renewed vigor in visiting this topic from the point of view of the web: what do we want out of it? What do we want the web to look like? What’s worth preserving, and what’s expendable? What new features do we want to see? Who’s role is it to bring this all about? And what role will frontend engineers of every persuasion play?
And in one of her great videos about modern CSS, Jen Simmons recommends to stop reaching for frameworks such as Bootstrap and to begin to use raw CSS and all its awesome features (relevant bits at 8:29):
And it couldn’t hurt to also watch this other excellent talk about why the semantic web as originally envisioned failed, and what we can do about it (summary slide thrown at around 1:09:24).
But maybe I digress…
Yeah, ok. My point is that there are a number of us (whoops, I guess I am choosing sides after all) who think the web should be a batteries-included, accessible platform for everyone, and that we should try hard to maintain its open and semantic nature. Some of us (me) even go so far as to buy into Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s idea that the web should be wholly decetralized and become solid scheming turtles all the way down or whatever. In this newly morphed discussion, let’s call this extreme side A.
Then there’s others who think that it doesn’t matter if the web is just a compilation target: that the web only matters insofar as people are using it for real business purposes, and if this is so, then our only concern should be to deliver a good experience to our product’s users, and this hippy-dippy notion of the web as a place where we can hold hands and view readable source be damned. Let’s call this extreme side B.
No doubt, most people will have opinions that fall somewhere along that continuum, rather than at either extreme. To conclude, though:
You go first, though.