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Twitter, ye markup be non-standarrrrrd.

Filed in: design, vent, Web, Fri, Sep 19 2008 11:10 PT

Twitter unveiled a new redesign today. Very little of it is really noticeably different, until you look at the underlying code. Which, last I recall, used to be pretty good–they even used the fancy-pants XHTML 1.0 Strict doctype (though still using tables for layout, which the spec says it shouldn’t do).

But one thing about the latest version makes me wonder just what the hell they’re doing these days.


The <center> element. In September 2008. From the “it” Web 2.0 company. Seriously.

I know this will make me sound like the annoying standardista, but how could anyone who still uses <center> still be doing web design professionally in, of all places, San Francisco? This is an element which has been deprecated for eleven years. Do we really have people who haven’t changed their coding practices since before 1997?

Sadly, yes. And the worse news is, they’re writing books. I just saw a book whose first edition was published in July 2008, which teaches users to use <center>, to do layout tables, to use CSS primarily just for font selections, and loads of other outdated guidance. This is material from the bad old days of web design, and it simply gets regurgitated over and over again. To quote the late, great George Carlin, “it’s all bullshit, and it’s bad for ya.”

I don’t know what it is going to take to finally cull the proverbial herd of these kinds of authors and designers. But each time I see this, it makes me wonder when we can expect some kind of professionalism out of the average content producer. Many of us have been talking about this stuff for years. It’s de rigueur at many web conferences, to the point that people now roll their eyes at it. And yet, it continues. I also don’t know whether Twitter is doing this in-house or if they hired an external designer. But certainly, somebody there dropped the ball.

And I know that one <center> is not a big thing. It’s just a symptom of a larger disease: that of lazy, ignorant and/or incurious designers. When someone sticks to one way to do something without ever updating their own skill set, their designs get more and more inflexible. Which makes redesigns more and more difficult, and more expensive, all with less to show for it. Which brings us to the boxy gridlock we experienced in the 90s. Which is why standardistas get so angry about this stuff. We know that customers deserve better than this. We know that when customers find out how their designer painted them into a corner, it casts a shadow over all of us in those customers’ eyes.

The question that remains from all this is, how can the professionals in this field separate themselves from the amateurs? Really. I want suggestions. What concrete steps can we take to ensure that the good designers and developers, the ones who are always learning, who have a full and balanced skill set, don’t get lumped in (or worse, beaten out by) the ones who are locked in 1995? Who’s got an idea?

10 responses to “Twitter, ye markup be non-standarrrrrd.”

  1. Nathan says:

    If you can write a HTML/CSS best-practices rules validator that produces little to no noise (good sites getting bad raps, bad sites getting good raps), then you can have your own spider produce a best/worst of the internet. You collect core data, and then expose it in a fashion that people can play with weightings themselves (though you would obviously provide defaults)… weightings like which rule is worse, and how the ratio of number of pages in a site to the number of duplicated style informations, or amount of tag redundancy. Better yet, you could write a plugin (for Firefox) that mocks the bad websites and gives a medal to the good ones that someone is currently visiting — you might even go so far as to integrate it with Firebug, so you can have it jump to the categories of worst offenders of a website. Make it easy for people to fix their own problems.

    We do the same thing in the world of C++ (PreFIX, PreFAST) and .NET code (FxCop), though the kind of integration I mention for the above isn’t as good as I might like.

  2. Dave says:

    We need an industry-wide certification that includes developing with web standards.

    The problem is that the people hiring developers (full-time or freelance), by definition, don’t know about the ins and outs of the industry (otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be hiring someone else to do it). Over time, we can teach these people a little bit, but it’s impossible to teach them enough that they can really make great hiring decisions. If they could just say “must be American Web Developer Association certified” and trust that that meant something, they would definitely do that. It’s easy to teach them to ask for one requirement in the job description.

    CompTIA’s A+ certification is pretty close to what the web industry needs. My employer requires that tech support job applicants have A+ certification because the test is rigorous and the results are reliable. The HR department doesn’t know a whole lot about tech support, but they know that if they require A+ certification, they can trust that the applicants are at least somewhat knowledgeable and can probably do a good job of most basic tech support tasks.

    So how could a certification come about? Well, it would need to be nation-wide, so it would probably have to be through a partnership with an existing organization that has offices/locations/testing facilities in most major cities. (An online test would be too easy to cheat.) It would need to be somewhat strict and written carefully. A general web developer certification would need to be somewhat of a “jack of all trades” situation, including HTML/XHTML, CSS, Javascript, image preparation, and basic technical skills at a minimum, and possibly also XML, RSS, AJAX, SEO, and more.

    One of the key points would probably have to be a promise to develop with strong consideration towards W3C standards, usability, and accessibility. Doctors all pledge to do no harm…maybe we need a Hippocratic Oath for web developers?

  3. I think the issue will be accessibility or willingness to go get educated. that may mean, buying material or attending classes. Which ever, like always, a certain upper segment is going to take the time to educate themselves and the lower echelon won’t. Which is why you have design work being done today that looks like it can from the 90’s

  4. markup dude says:

    I agree. i have see so many other popular websites using such deprecated html elements in huge numbers.

    Where novices like me prefer to have valid xhtml in our pages, is it an excuse for bigger companies that their websites are so dynamic in nature and have huge functionality that such smaller things [proper/latest/valid html markup] does not matter?

  5. Peter Krantz says:

    Well, “center” is all over the place. A lot of responsibility falls on the tool makers that create CMS products. We had a discussion on that yesterday here at the e-inclusion conference in Vienna and many agreed that tool makers need to improve their products, both from an accessibility and standardization perspective. I have been looking at WYSIWYG editors (often a component in CMSs) and how they deal with markup. I am still amazed at the creative markup some of them create…

  6. Uncentered says:

    About the center tag: I realize I’m lax when it comes to that, but I’ve never been able to center with CSS. Whether by auto, equal margins, etc. Nothing. Please share an elegant, practical method.

  7. Jeff says:

    Google uses too (just verified this is still true). The rational that I heard is that, all things considered, makes their pages smaller and faster to load. Perhaps unintuitive, yet fully backed by half-baked rumor. I bet someone out there can cite a reference, but I had no luck Googling it (I blame the tag).

  8. Check out my app; every page validates with XHTML Strict, and it’s web accessible! (Well, it may not validate after I add in some ARIA, but that’s OK, right?!)

  9. David Millet says:

    I like the idea of having a certification available. It gives with the knowledge a leg up in the industry, and if the noobs out there are having a hard time getting work without the certification, it gives them a compelling reason to learn the material. Could the W3C run such a certification program?

    I have seen a few occasions where pages are built with deprecated elements or table layouts, and not because of developer ignorance, but because it came down from management that it must be done this way to satisfy some business “need”. I think those situations are becoming fewer and further between. It would be interesting to find out what Twitter’s motivation behind using a center tag.

  10. Eilenna says:

    I agree completely.
    I mean, even -I- , an 18 year old girl, who’s just been webcreating as a hobby for four years, seem to be better at this than many people who are so called “professionals”.
    And the tag was something I used maybe the first year of playing around with HTML. Altough… I agree that the CENTER tag is effective, and it can be hard to learn to use CSS and get the same result.

    I also think learning “webcreating” (as I call it…) from books should only be an option if you don’t have internet access. The best way to learn is reading w3schools, and then when you know what is good and what is bad code, look up the code on your favourite websites. Books get outdated so fast.

    But really what surprises me is that some “professionals” seem to lack in experience and knowledge that I take for granted.

    I don’t mean to bitch on amatours like myself, who have a small website. But people who get payed to handle big websites…

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