The C-like Syntax Myth

Thoughts on JavaScript’s success.

As Node.js was first getting popular, this was in 2011 and 2012, established programmers from other languages would tell me why JavaScript was such a popular language.

JavaScript was added to Netscape in 1995 and to IE in 1996. As the web exploded so did JavaScript. JavaScript was not alone in the browser, there were several other languages competing with it to become “the language of the web.” JavaScript won.

Established programmers would tell me that it was JavaScript’s “dynamic nature” combined with a “comfortable C-like syntax” that allowed JavaScript to win the web. I would smile, I would shake my head up and down in agreement, knowing they couldn’t be more wrong.

The growth of the web is not comparable to other programming platforms like .NET, Java or Python. While traditional platform languages show steady and even strong incremental growth you can only examine the growth of the web on a logarithmic scale.

The people with voice in our conversations about programming languages and technology are people who have come up through the industry. They are established programmers and technologists. As humans we look at new trends through the lens of our own past experiences. The experiences of existing programmers was that “dynamic languages” were the new thing and the familiar syntactic elements of languages people like them learned, C and Java, were key to the success of this new platform.

Exponential growth doesn’t come from established programmers, it comes from new programmers who did not, possibly could not, program before. It comes from amatuerizing a set of tasks so that they become accessible to an entirely new class of people than could accomplish them before.

People who knew C or Java, who had a familiarity with JavaScript’s “C-like Syntax,” had nothing to do with JavaScript’s success. At the time the web saw its first boom these programmers were still betting on Java and .NET. JavaScript succeeded because it made what those programmers did accessible to people without their background, not those with a background similar to their own.

Now JavaScript is going everywhere. It’s showing up in IoT platforms, enterprise, phones, even desktop apps. As it does it brings the kind of accessibility that the web brought to those spaces, making programming of many new tasks available to people who would not have been able to do them before.

As we watch and support this growth it’s important that we find ways to give voice to the users who are responsible for this growth, often over the louder familiar and established voices.

As a community we also have to get more comfortable building and supporting people from different backgrounds. People from the enterprise, people from different countries who speak different languages. People who may be very different from the hackers and “cyber-hobos” who first built this technology and community.

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