So, it's 4AM. I'm procrastinating, as these days I tend to alternate
between states in which I'm not motivated to work or too terrified of
not getting everything done to do anything at all productive. This is
almost certainly contributing to the rather severe insomnia which I
So I decide to do something. What shall I do? I stumble across an
article with a funny quip. "Back then, 'fancy HTML' meant using
<BLINK> tags." (You may have seen it... it was in Salon all this
<BLINK> tags, for those who don't know, are one of the most hated
developments in HTML, well, ever. Netscape was originally responsible
for the <BLINK> tag when it first began to rewrite the language in
which the WWW was written.
That language was HTML, the HyperText Markup Language, designed by
now-famous Tim Berners-Lee, based on the musings of the not-so-famous
Ted Nelson. Nelson is a truly fascinating character in his own
Writing before there was an Internet, or even before there were
personal computers, Nelson envisioned a world in which people would
sit at computer screens in their own homes and read books on those
screens, much like a television. But the book they would be reading
wouldn't be like an ordinary book displayed on a screen... no, it
would be hypertext.
The difference between text and hypertext, as Ted Nelson imagined it,
was that hypertext would be directly connected to other related text.
If I'd posted a paragraph or two about Ted Nelson, much like this one
and you wanted to read more about him, or perhaps read his books, or
read those who had criticized him, you could do so simply by touching
the article on the screen. These connections between pieces of
hypertext (or "links") would be painstakingly forged by the users of
hypertext themselves. We would all contribute these links to a giant
database which could keep everything straight.
Of course, the "linking" needn't stop at text. Nelson imagined
hypervideo, hypermusic, hyperart of all kinds. He immediately saw the
need to have some sort of content filtering mechanism, so you saw what
you were looking for immediately (or as quickly as possible). But he
also insisted that you be unable to block out links to criticism and
such. He called his project Xanadu, and, if it worked as designed,
Nelson believed that it could literally save the world.
I happen to share some of his optimism about that. However, his
project was considerably more difficult than he had imagined. Some
parts, the first parts, were easy. There were many hard parts,
however. Too many. He failed miserably.
Berners-Lee realized that Nelson's project was quite difficult. So he
implemented only the very easiest part. Using SGML (Standard
Generalized Markup Language), the international standard for text with
commentary on itself or "markup," he devised a simpler version, HTML,
a simpler language in which you would markup your own text. One kind
of markup that the designers of SGML had already anticipated was the
"reference" of one text to another. Berners-Lee automated the process
of reference by inventing a tag that would say: "this area of the text
X is about this other text Y, and here's how you can find it
electronically." Berners-Lee's program would then automatically
retrieve the document for you if you ran that tag through a computer.
He called the tag a "link" and declared that hypertext had finally
This wasn't a "link" of the kind that Nelson had originally imagined,
however. Nelson's links worked both forward and backward. That is,
suppose that I had written a piece of text about this fragment of a
soliloquy from Hamlet:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
Hundreds of thousands of critics have already cited this speech, and I
have done so yet again. (In this case, I cite it merely as a heavily
cited quotation.) But even when I read it on the WWW, I cannot tell
who else on the WWW has written about this text, even if they have
linked to it in their own documents.
This means that Nelson's nightmare has occurred: I can visit Nike's
hypertext page at http://www.nike.com and be unable to see the most
important criticism of Nike's business practices. I'd never know that
Nike employed sweatshop labor, never even necessarily realize that
there was a debate ongoing as to what might be done about it.
Instead, I see only the links that Nike has chosen: mostly links to
other Nike affiliates, but most prominently to a Flash animation about
basketball players who wear Nike footwear.
There were other blaring failures in HTML. The first and by far the
most obvious flaw was that there was no way to incorporate anything
but text into hypertext. This was tolerable when compared to its main
competitor, Gopher. Both systems were probably designed under the
premise that the majority of users would be accessing these systems
from text-only terminals in schools and libraries.
But it was lacking in other ways as well. HTML was descended from
SGML, which, you'll recall, was the international standard for
commentary on text, better known today as meta-commentary. I now feel
remiss in failing to point out earlier that, although SGML is an
international standard, almost no one actually uses it, except to
bastardize it by making it more specific. Since all it was designed
to do was comment on the text, neither SGML nor HTML had any way to
describe, except in the most general terms, how the text would appear
on the page. Instead, SGML/HTML text would have "tags" which would
tell you what the text was. The <HEAD> tag, for example, would
enclose the header of a document. The <TITLE> tag, which would appear
in the header, would enclose the document's title. So reasonable SGML
might read like this:
<TITLE> Twelfth Night </TITLE>
<SUBTITLE> What You Will </SUBTITLE>
These tags don't tell you anything about how the text should actually
LOOK, obviously. The header might appear at the top of a page in the
center in bold in a larger font, or it might appear in the same size
font, like any other text, only in italics. It might read "Twelfth
Night, or What You Will," or it might just have "Twelfth Night"
written large and "What You Will" writ smaller just below that.
Another tag which exemplifies this philosophy is the <EM> tag, where
EM is short for EMPHASIS, which states that the text which followed
was to be emphasized. It didn't say whether that meant that the text
should be all in capital letters, or whether it should be in bold, or
underlined, or what. It could even be blinking on and off, though, of
course, no one (presumably) would be quite that masochistic.
The web really started to take off, however, when Mosaic was
designed. Mosaic took HTML, which was an open standard which anybody
could implement as well or as poorly as they wanted, and added a new
tag: <IMG>, which is short for IMAGE. The IMG tag allowed you to
include images in your documents, though not music or video or
Of course, the IMG tag didn't do anything on text-based terminals, for
which Berners-Lee had designed HTML. It would put in some alternate
text, if you liked, or just the word [IMAGE] if not, just so you'd
know what you were missing. So this tag only really worked if you ran
it on a high powered workstation, which nobody had back in those days,
or if you used it on your personal computer in your office or in your
Seeing this tag at work got the ball rolling for the WWW, because
Mosaic pages were beautiful. (Or, at least, they could be.) People
started to see what was possible for the Internet and the modem, and
pages started popping up everywhere. To say "and the rest was
history" at this point would be ridiculous, but there's no doubt that
the <IMG> tag was crucial in bringing the complete works of William
Shakespeare onto the WWW:
But this brings me to Netscape, and the blink tag. Just as
Berners-Lee had broken hypertext to get a workable product, and the
designers of Mosaic had "added" on to HTML while still being fully
compatible with all of the old stuff, so Netscape started adding
dozens and then hundreds of new tags to HTML. Since these tags were
popular, people started writing their web pages with these new
Netscape-only tags, which could be viewed only in the Netscape HTML
browser. (This strategy would later come to be known as "embrace and
extend:" you embrace the standard, then you add things on to it, so
that only your product can be effectively usable.)
One of the big developments which Netscape added was the capacity to
specify whether you wanted that text in <BOLD> or <UNDERLINE>, rather
than simply emphasized. It would let you specify whether you wanted
your font size bigger or smaller. And, worst of all, they added an
option to make the text blink on the page: <BLINK>
If you enclosed your text in the <BLINK> tag, it would blink on and
off. This was extremely difficult to read and quite distracting from
the rest of the page. Everyone hated it. But people noticed how
well it would grab your attention, so lots of people started using
it. Since you had to use Netscape to view Netscape-only pages, you
had to take the risk of loading up a page with blinking text.
Years have passed since this development, and now I'm using Internet
Explorer, thanks to the hard work of Microsoft, who embraced
Netscape's new tags and extended Netscape into financial obscurity.
And when I read that quotation with which I opened this page, "Back
then, 'fancy HTML' meant using <BLINK> tags," I realized that I hadn't
seen blinking text in quite a long time.
Nowadays HTML documents can contain animated pictures which fulfill
much the same purpose as the <BLINK> tag (if only by virtue of
distracting you from what you're trying to read).
Suddenly, I was filled with nostalgia for the good old days.
So I cracked open my text editor and wrote this:
<BLINK> Hello world! </BLINK>
and opened it up in Internet Explorer v5.5.
And nothing happened.
It didn't blink at all. It just sat there, welcoming itself to the
world in the most uninteresting way possible, for a web page.
Fortunately, I still have a copy of Netscape around for just those
times when pages don't look quite right in Internet Explorer. I
opened it up, and loading my page. There it was, winking at me every
half a second. Hello world! Hello world! Hello world! Hello world!
I quickly closed the window.
And right there, right then, I knew the fruits of technological
-unless you love someone-
-nothing else makes any sense-
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:59:45 MDT