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Commentary on the Separation of Style from Content (2000.11.20)

Separation Anxiety: The myth of the separation of style from content.” This week’s A List Apart issue by Bob Stein.

In this issue Bob Stein makes some very good points about the myth of the separation of style from content. Such as how, unless you’ve used your site in an audio browser for the blind, then you have no guarantee that merely separating the presentation from structure will make your site completely usable for the blind. And how “we can’t expect standards working groups and browser development teams to keep up with our need for powerful, stable cyber-scaffolding any more than we could expect a few hundred old white guys to draft all the legislation needed by a million times their number.” He also makes mention that he wrote a program to “tally tag and attribute use in thousands of Web sites” and it “made it clear that HTML is [used as] a presentation markup language” even though it was “conceived for structure markup, but it’s used almost exclusively to decorate 2D graphical browser presentation.”

I find this so true not because in the early days there was no useful way to code style other than to use FONT tags and the like, but because the Web is not pure information, structure, and e-commerce. “They” (standards committees and browser developers as he refers to them), plan the Web for informational purposes. The open transport and sharing of knowledge and information. They’ve begun to open themselves up to e-commerce as a valid use for the Web, but as usability “gurus” such as Jakob Nielsen still see it, Web sites have to be usable and accessible for every single person who might encounter them.

But the Web is not all information and e-commerce. Just as easily as anyone can get on the Web and share their ideas and thoughts, they can also share their art and music, their creativity and expressions. Because of this all of the Web cannot and will never be fully accessible to any person no matter what their handicap. Can a blind person enjoy and appreciate the Mona Lisa as much as a visual person? Can a deaf person enjoy and appreciate Mozart as much as a hearing person? And can a speaker of another language, who does not know English at all other than translating it into his or her own language, fully understand the joke “two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do” when it gets translated into their language as meaning “two incorrects don’t make a correct, but three turns to the left do”?

The Web is more than just information and e-commerce which needs to be accessible and usable to everyone. The Web can, is, and will be as diverse as all of human art, entertainment, culture, technology, and civilization. And the Web will not just be on the browsers on our desktop computers. It will also be in our phones and watches and appliances. But it does not have to be the same Web on all devices for every single person. The Web and humanity is too diverse to compact neatly into a structural document with some presentation code and small enough so that it will transmit over a 9600 baud modem and be understandable to blind and deaf person with a mental capacity of a five-year-old. If that is a site’s target audience, if a site needs to reach everybody, then that site should do everything it can to reach everybody; but if a site is entertainment or art or somebody’s creative expression, then it should not have to conform to some “guru’s” standards.

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