Web Of Information: Philosophy In A Broken Web

Before I continue, let me provide a much belated disclaimer. I am not an expert. I’m just some guy who works with this web stuff for a living. These are just my opinions and thoughts. I welcome discussion on this. In fact, I crave it. This isn’t stuff that I can just turn to a co-worker and say “Hey Bob” and start in on a conversation about information theory and the web. The few of you reading this are probably the only ones I can get any sort of dialog with. Every opinion counts, so please share. Even if it’s to say I’m so off base that I might as well quit my job and become a lumberjack.

And so I move on, with my flannel shirts packed and my saw sharpened.

Philosophy?

Yes, philosophy. The web has become a game of interpretation and philosophy. It is still a “wild west” of sorts. Nobody can tell me that I must use an html or body tag within my HTML documents. In fact, there are quite a number of sites out there that use neither, but still deliver HTML content. Web browsers (most of them anyways) will render these pages exactly as if those tags existed. The HTML spec seems to be more suggestion than law.

Here’s the worst kept secret about the web: You don’t have to follow the rules.

So why should you?

This is where philosophy comes into play. You have to want to follow the rules. There needs to be some kind of motivation to follow the rules. User experience is, usually, the goal web developers use as their motivation. I’m going to use those HTML and BODY tags because if I don’t, users that have browser X installed on their system won’t be able to browse my website. There’s the motivation, and I think that’s the most common form of motivation found when constructing HTML documents.

We need to change this philosophy – this reasoning behind the motivation. The web isn’t about the user experience. The web is about information management. If you read through the history of the web, you would see that this is exactly what the web’s fouders had planned. It was the advent of the graphical interface web browser that caused a shift in web development philosophy. It became focused on user experience.

Going Off Track

Picking up where the history lesson left off…

During the mid 1990s the Internet became an entertainment playground. Web browsers were being created to operate outside of the HTML spec. They were using proprietary tags to create a more interactive user experience. The idea of information organization and structure was ignored as webmasters focused on user experience. The largest, and longest running symbol of this abuse is the use of tables to create multi-columned layouts.

The table tag was created for the purpose of structuring tabular data within HTML documents. A person or application that is processing an HTML document would expect table elements to contain only tabular data. That is no longer the case. It is similar to an author writing a novel entirely within Microsoft Excel. Can it be done? Absolutely. Should it be done? Absolutely not!

Another example would be the heading tags. Headings help break down large amounts of information into small sections. Each heading provides insight into what the subject of each group of information will be and makes it very easy to scan a document for specific topics within a large document. An application might be able to generate an abstract of an HTML document based off the order and organization of headings within the document. This could be quite useful, such as enumerating web pages within a large web site to help create organization out of the mass of information. But many webmasters found alternative uses. Headings provided an easy way to increase and decrease font sizes. Whole HTML documents have been written inside of heading tags just to increase or decrease the page’s font size.

The result is that applications which process information stored on the web, outside of popular graphical interface web browsers, can no longer rely on document structure (HTML tags and their content) to reliably discern meaning of the HTML document.

In the late 1990s the web became a collection of PowerPoint presentations. Access to information on the web was limited to visual means by graphical web browsers. User experience was based on visual experience. Providing structure and organization to information was ignored. The point of the web’s creation was to manage information. But now we can no longer manage information in any method other than in a visual manner.

The web has been broken.

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0 thoughts on “Web Of Information: Philosophy In A Broken Web

  1. Yes, and that’s why we have to start putting it back together. Convince people it’s not only the way it looks in IE-something, but also the way the information is ordered, accessible etc dont know how to say it. It’s a shame some people don’t bother if a webpage is just a table with some jpg files or xhtml/css… :(

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