The Web's Syntax Problem

This is an pretty old post from my blog, which has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. You might want to go back to the homepage to see some more recent stuff.

As @aefaradien notes, the web has a syntax problem. It’s this: A user wishes to post something complicated - text with links, formatting, even inline graphics. They go to a website and are faced with a text box and a flashing cursor. What do they type? What syntax will help them achieve their goal?

It depends entirely on which website they’re on and what powers it. With any luck the text box itself might have an area below explaining how to use it, but chances are, the user won’t read it. The knowledgable user has a whole bunch of questions:

To my mind, there’s no simple solution to this problem. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and developers of each web platform, blog or forum app have their own preferences. BBcode has some traction, but it’s so close to HTML – why not just use HTML? Wiki markup’s great for linking to internal wiki pages, not so great for anything else. And Markdown and its cohort of technically superior solutions just don’t have any traction in the real (non-geek) world.

I think if this problem were to ever be solved – and I must say I don’t think it’s likely – we have no option but to pick the lowest common denominator, because nothing else will ever have enough traction.

And here’s where I make myself unpopular: the common denominator is HTML. But HTML used with some intelligence:

And that’s that. By auto-linking URLs and gracefully dealing with triangular brackets, we’re giving users that don’t know the syntax what they expect. For users that know HTML, we’re not making them learn some other new syntax that offers a slight improvement. And for users that want to learn the syntax so that they can do more complex things, they’ll be learning HTML, and that opens up far more of the internet to them than knowing BBcode or Markdown syntax.

Thoughts, as always, appreciated!

Add a Comment