I’m a little late to the game (oh, a month or so late, sorry Nick), but Nick O’Neill wrote a pretty good post on some of the challenges facing the DC web community. I won’t repeat what he said in there, but I by and large agree with what he said, so check it out. I have one amendment, and one addition which I believe is the biggest roadblock. Then I have a potential solution, which may be either the best or worst idea ever.
Not Just Good Press, but Savvy Press
The amendment is about the need for positive press. Nick writes about how the Washington Post consistently writes about how the exodus (slash collapse) of AOL is really the death knell of the DC tech community. The real problem isn’t that they don’t believe in the existing community, it’s that they don’t really get how the web works these days. They’re still stuck thinking that it takes a $1M seed and a $5M series A round to really do anything worthwhile. Instead, they don’t realize that the web doesn’t require millions anymore, it takes thousands.
The Post presumably looks at that fact and concludes that a smaller investment yields a smaller business, fewer jobs, and therefore less impact on the region, and there may be a few seeds of truth to that. But the flip-side is that the region can sustain dozens or hundreds of these medium-sized businesses, and the loss of any one, two, or ten of them would end up having a relatively minimal impact on the region. Lighter, more nimble tech businesses in greater numbers is way better for DC than an AOL or two, as we can see by the “impact” of their exodus.
The Real Problem: Quality
This is the more dangerous part of my post, and I consistently hope to be proven wrong when I make this case, so please comment if you disagree.
The DC region produces a lot of really bad web product. The way I feel about much of what I see coming out of the DC web scene is the way most Americans outside the Beltway feel about the government: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. There are a lot of people in DC who strut around and promote themselves, drop names, and tout their l33t skillz, but are in the end producing things that folks in SF, Europe, or anywhere outside the Beltway would consider lame. It’s not just the Congressmen.
I blame the government, in large part. Our government has set the standard that, inside the beltway, return on investment really doesn’t matter, and I don’t need to list examples, since it’s definitely not just a web problem. If you’ve worked on a web project for the government, you know even more what I mean — because of privacy concerns, cookies aren’t allowed, so you can’t track site use with industry-standard analytics products (like Google Analytics); designs are approved, changed, modified, etc. by a committee of folks all competing with each other, yielding a bland look and feel and a yawn from the audience; the concept of building a community site is foreign or overly risky for most government employees.
And we all know DC is an insular community. The Beltway is a bubble, and folks inside of it often forget or don’t notice what is happening outside. Whether you work on the Hill, on K street, on Mass Ave, or at a non-profit, you really do more or less the same thing, so there aren’t exactly a wide variety of perspectives.
As a result, the non-profits and other NGOs in the region feel this trickle down, since a lot of what they do is lobby the government. They see the lousy government products online, and when they can get something better, that’s a victory. The problem is that if the Government produces sites that would merit a D grade, the non-profits are happy with a C, and they spend thousands or millions of dollars to get it.
As a result, the practitioners in the area are the perpetuators of this trickle-down. Government workers have cushy jobs where little is expected, little required, and the pay raises are almost guaranteed. They have no incentive to improve at their craft, and those who do aren’t appreciably rewarded. For those in the private sector, it’s perhaps worse: they get a lot of money and happy clients when they do average (as in “a C is average”) work, and then continue to rest on their laurels. They just need to be slightly better than what the government can produce, and they’re achieving the local industry standards.
Consequently, we have viral video campaigns that cost tens or hundreds of thousands getting only dozens of submissions, we have facebook applications that yield only dozens of installations, and we have websites that don’t even satisfy the best practices of eight years ago. These sites win awards given by insular political conventions that don’t know how big a waste of money they were: a waste of taxpayer dollars and donor dollars.
Meanwhile, outside the beltway, folks who work on the web look at what is produced in DC and either shake their heads or don’t pay it any attention. I’m fortunate to work at a place where we are constantly pushing against that DC pull, and doing work that can be respected anywhere, but that environment sadly seems to be more rare than it is common.
So, as much as I’d like to just rant away and leave it at that, I suppose I should propose a solution. In fact, I have before, in person to some in the community, and it’s been reasonably well-received. But maybe by posting more broadly, we can kick the idea around a little bit more.
The idea is a trade association for web practitioners in the DC area. This is an opportunity for folks who produce high quality work to associate with others who believe the same and associate themselves with a brand of sorts. It would be exclusive, but the only requirement would be that you produce quality work that meets or exceeds industry standards, as determined by a membership committee. I’d hope we’d have hundreds and thousands of people. Membership would be a credential, demonstrating to clients, employers, and your mom that you do high quality work on the web.
The organization can do other things that would support the community too. It could assist community organizations in finding venues and sponsors. It could help match funders with entrepreneurs, or freelancers with gigs. It could sponsor events itself. It could lobby the government to raise its standards. It could work with the Post. There are all sorts of ways it could help make the DC community stronger and better.
Probably. But maybe you’re interested in it too. In the comments, shoot the idea down, let me know if you want in, and let me know if you want to help.