Journal tags: evolution

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Influence

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:

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.

Today on 24 Ways

Drew has clearly forgotten how much work he put into last year’s advent calendar because he’s only gone and relaunched 24 Ways this year.

It being the 18th of December, the webby festivities are well underway so be sure to read through all the morsels that have been published thus far. Today it’s my turn to pop something out of the calendar. I’ve written a piece called Boost Your Hyperlink Power, dedicated to the humble hyperlink. It’s mostly about the little used rel and rev attributes.

I’ve also included some microformats in there. I’m particularly pleased with the example I came up with for vote-links:

I agree with <a href="http://richarddawkins.net/home" rev="vote-for">Richard Dawkins</a>
about those <a href="http://www.icr.org/" rev="vote-against">creationists</a>.

I’ll take any chance I can to strike a blow for science. Mind you, I’ve got nothing on Patrick: he’s managed to create entire case studies in his new book that champion evolutionary theory.

Maybe we should form a web ring of Humanist web developers: explaining semantic markup whilst battling against the forces of superstition and ignorance.

Darwinian webolution

Odeo have released an embedded recorder that you can add to your own webpages.

Del.icio.us now offers private bookmarks.

Flickr now marks up profiles using the hCard microformat.

viewing source on my Flickr profile

Something that became very clear — both at the Carson Workshops Summit and at the many web app panels at South by Southwest — is that websites like these are never finished. Instead, the site evolves, growing (and occasionally dropping) features over time.

Traditionally, the mental model for websites has been architectural. Even the term itself, website, invites a construction site comparison. Plans are drawn up and approved, then the thing gets built, then it’s done.

That approach doesn’t apply to the newer, smarter websites that are dominating the scene today. Heck, it doesn’t even apply to older websites like Amazon and Google who have always been smart about constantly iterating changes.

Steve Balmer was onto something when he said “developers, developers, developers, ad nauseam”. Websites, like Soylent Green, are people. Without the people improving and tweaking things, the edifice of the site structure will crack.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to stop thinking about the work I do on the Web in terms of building and construction: I need to find new analogies from the world of biology.

Update: Paul Hammond told me via IM about a book called “How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built”. Maybe I don’t need to abandon the architectural analogies completely.