Hidde gave a great talk recently called On the origin of cascades (by means of natural selectors):
It’s been 25 years since the first people proposed a language to style the web. Since the late nineties, CSS lived through years of platform evolution.
It’s a lovely history lesson that reminded me of that great post by Zach Bloom a while back called The Languages Which Almost Became CSS.
The TL;DR timeline of CSS goes something like this:
- June 1993: Rob Raisch proposes some ideas for stylesheets in HTML on the
- October 1993: Pei Wei shares his ideas for a stylesheet language, also on the
- October 1994: Håkon Wium Lie publishes Cascading HTML style sheets — a proposal.
- March 1995: Bert Bos publishes his Stream-based Style sheet Proposal.
Håkon and Bert joined forces and that’s what led to the Cascading Style Sheet language we use today.
Hidde looks at how the concept of the cascade evolved from those early days. But there’s another idea in Håkon’s proposal that fascinates me:
While the author (or publisher) often wants to give the documents a distinct look and feel, the user will set preferences to make all documents appear more similar. Designing a style sheet notation that fill both groups’ needs is a challenge.
The proposed solution is referred to as “influence”.
The user supplies the initial sheet which may request total control of the presentation, but — more likely — hands most of the influence over to the style sheets referenced in the incoming document.
So an author could try demanding that their lovely styles are to be implemented without question by specifying an influence of 100%. The proposed syntax looked like this:
h1.font.size = 24pt 100%
More reasonably, the author could specify, say, 40% influence:
h2.font.size = 20pt 40%
Here, the requested influence is reduced to 40%. If a style sheet later in the cascade also requests influence over h2.font.size, up to 60% can be granted. When the document is rendered, a weighted average of the two requests is calculated, and the final font size is determined.
Okay, that sounds pretty convoluted but then again, so is specificity.
This idea of influence in CSS reminds me of Cap’s post about The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck:
Hold on a second. I’m like a two-out-of-ten on this. How strongly do you feel?
I’m probably a six-out-of-ten, I replied after a couple moments of consideration.
Cool, then let’s do it your way.
In the end, the concept of influence in CSS died out, but user style sheets survived …for a while. Now they too are as dead as a dodo. Most people today aren’t aware that browsers used to provide a mechanism for applying your own visual preferences for browsing the web (kind of like Neopets or MySpace but for literally every single web page …just think of how empowering that was!).
Even if you don’t mourn the death of user style sheets—you can dismiss them as a power-user feature—I think it’s such a shame that the concept of shared influence has fallen by the wayside. Web design today is dictatorial. Designers and developers issue their ultimata in the form of CSS, even though technically every line of CSS you write is a suggestion to a web browser—not a demand.
I wish that web design were more of a two-way street, more of a conversation between designer and end user.
There are occassional glimpses of this mindset. Like I said when I added a dark mode to my website:
Y’know, when I first heard about Apple adding dark mode to their OS—and also to CSS—I thought, “Oh, great, Apple are making shit up again!” But then I realised that, like user style sheets, this is one more reminder to designers and developers that they don’t get the last word—users do.