Why REST is More Like Religion than Most Technologies

As someone whose entire career has been involved with technology platforms, and specifically programming platforms in some form or another, it’s clear to me something which is obvious to most patient observers: that adherents of a particular technology platform tend to become very “religious” about it.

Advocates of specific a technology platform are known to rather vigoursly proselytize and defend their technology platform of choice, and they are also known to call out “blasphemy” (as they see it) against their technology platform. I guess it’s just human nature to gravitate to concepts and communities and to then defend them from perceived outside attackers. I myself have at times been among the technology platform devout over the years though I do try my best to keep it in check.

But I’ve noticed that the concept of RESTfulness in Web APIs has a religious tenor that is beyond what I’ve observed elsewhere. This post’s goal is to explain what I’ve perceived. As you read, note that I make several points along that way that seem to unrelated, but I bring them together at the end.

Well-Known Founders

Many technology platforms, while possibly having a single founder are promoted by companies and over time their marketing and promotion tend to minimize the founder’s visibility among its adherents, such as Windows, Java, .NET, Zend Framework, Sitecore and ExpressionEngine to name some commercial examples.

Yet other technology platforms have a single visible founder and they tend to be open source, for example: Linux, PHP, Python, Ruby on Rails, Drupal and WordPress to name just a few.

Like these mentioned open-source technology platforms REST also has a well-known founder Dr. Roy Fielding who named and defined REST in his chapter 5 of his doctoral thesis, titled Representational State Transfer (REST).

Architectural Style vs. Platform

Now if Dr. Fielding reads this post I’m sure he would first object to my associating REST with Platforms; he has made it clear on numerous occassions he considers REST to be an Architectural Style and not a Platform.

That’s fine and I don’t disagree in the least, but I’m associating them because they share at least one (1) attribute. Few (if any?) architecture styles have emerged that are the result of one man’s PhD definition, as I’m far as I am aware. And that has ramifications that caused REST to be treated by its adherents more like a software platform than a lower-level architectural style.

Requirements and Constraints

Unlike most technology platforms which are often not focused on the rules of how to use it properly, REST is instead a prescription for the requirements and constraints a system must follow. In other words its about both what you must and what you cannot do (in order to be considered RESTful).

Potential critics of this post might point out that that is the point of an architectural style. But this style has an engenered a level of religious fevor, similar to that seen around technology platforms that I’m not aware any of other architectural style receiving, at least not lately.

The Good Book

And this prescription for must and must not is where REST starts to look a lot more like a religion than most technology platforms. The Torah, the Bible and the Koran, for example, they are all written works that prescribe correct and incorrect behavior among their faithful. Similarly Roy’s thesis defines what is and what is not correct among the REST faithful.

God and the 10 Commandments

While most technology platforms that have a visible founder see the founder actively involved in evangelizing, writing about, and shepherding their platform on an ongoing basis, Dr. Fielding has pretty much been an absentee founder. In the earlier days of the web he was active on W3C and related mailing lists, and he wrote a seminal post clarifying (especially in his reply to comments) that REST APIs must be hypertext-driven But since then Dr. Fielding has been conspiculously absent when any of the debates regarding the application of REST have emerged.

In many ways Roy has been for REST like the God of the Old Testament; he spoke to the people in the early days and wrote his “commandments” in the form of his thesis, but since then the faithful have only had his thesis and that one blog post to clarify the meaning of REST.

Disagreement and Debate

Today, fourteen (14) years since Roy’s thesis and six (6) years after his seminal post on REST disagreement and debate rages on regarding RESTfulness and Web APIs, its relative usefulness, the level of RESTful purity required, and especially as it relates to one specific constraint; HATEOAS.

I’d link to specific debates but there are so many yet few epic or seminal debates so it’s hard to pick just one. But I can link to several conferences and mailing lists where you’ll find these debates and mentions of REST-related debates on blogs across the web:

The primary things you’ll find among these debates is disagreement on the role of hypermedia and an assertion that permeates much of the dialog among the most fervent being that most other people building APIs “don’t get it” and “are doing it wrong.” On the other hand there appears to be very little agreement on how to do it right, at least when it comes to specifics.

I will say that I do tend to agree with those debating that most people do not get it and that they are doing it wrong because parts of REST are not easy to fully understand so it’s very difficult to be sure of what exactly “right” is. And why is that?

Exegesis

It boils down to this. There’s little disagreement about who gets to define REST; everyone (I know of) points to Dr. Fielding as being authoritative and his writings canoncial. REST was defined by this one (1) man who wrote down it’s specification in an academically defined manner sans examples, and then briefly clarified it in one (1) blog post with follow up replies to questions for about two weeks after.

Since then the REST faithful have been left to interpret what REST means on their own much like the process of Exegesis related to religious texts.

And like religious movements, REST has a good many people who have taken it upon themselves to explain the meaning of The Good Book and the intentions of it’s founder. Without Fielding actively participating and making judgements on these debates who has the authority to declare who is right and who it wrong?

What if God was One of Us?

Imagine if God had decided to hang around all these years and intervene on the topic of religous debates? Imagine how much less contentious religion would be?

In that vein, I leave you with this joke from Emo Phillips as hopefully an appropriate analogy:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.

I said, “Don’t do it!”
He said, “Nobody loves me.”

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “A Christian.”

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.”

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
He said, “Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

P.S. Credit for Inspiration

This entire post was inspired by Nick Kallen’s comment on Roy’s blog post about REST and hypermedia. His comment starts with this (emphasis mine):

I had a hard time with the writing in this article; I don’t normally perform exegesis on blog posts. Am I interpreting this correctly?

What is a RESTafarian?

A RESTifarian is a zealous proponent of the REST software architectural style as defined by Roy T. Fielding in Chapter 5 of his PhD. dissertation at UCIrvine. You can find RESTifarians in the wild on the REST-discuss mailing list. But be careful, RESTifarians can be extremely meticulous when discussing the finer points of REST, as I learned recently while participating on the list. :)