Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing


HTML and Markdown

Years ago, around 1999, when I was using the BeOS as my main operating system and didn’t have a word processor app, I wrote a chapter of my thesis (17–18,000 words) in LaTeX. The thesis was on English literature, so didn’t include any equations, multilevel tables of contents or difficult layouts—the kind of thing that LaTeX is particularly good for. In short, I didn’t actually need LaTeX but I found it very pleasant to use. It just flowed, particularly for footnotes, which can be a real distraction on a wysiwyg system. There were a lot of footnotes. Unfortunately, the limitations of the BeOS, particularly when it came to networking, made themselves felt and after a year or so I went back to Windows 98 and Word. I could have installed LaTeX in Windows but, for reasons I won’t go into here, that prospect didn’t appeal to me.

But once I was again using Windows and Word I missed being able to write formatted text in a text editor. I gave html a try for a while but it was a lot more obtrusive: I hated having to type all those “</“ closing tags, which seemed designed to interrupt my train of thought and divert the flow into some choppy waters. It was several years before I became aware of Markdown and similar “human readable” (and writable) markup languages. Even then, I was reluctant to try them, in part (I now think) because of the association with html, which I can’t help thinking of as unnecessarily cumbersome.

As a result, it’s only since I began to use Micro.blog a few months ago that I’ve started to get to know Markdown. Recently, after years of procrastination, I finally registered an .ie domain name and started to set up a small website using static pages. Having a budget of approximately zero, I was looking for free hosting and settled on Github Pages. And it turns out that I can use Markdown there too. If I don’t want to add keywords or change the CSS (I do, but not necessarily right away) I don’t need to edit html at all.

The upshot is that I’m really starting to enjoy writing in Markdown. It feels quick, clean and uncomplicated. But as soon as I recognize that, I can’t help asking myself why we need something as heavy and involved as html at all. Take the niggle I mentioned above — having to close tags by typing < followed by a slash, then the name of the tag, then > Since html tags must be nested — they can’t be staggered or leapfrogged (or whatever the correct expression is), the tag you’re closing must always be the last one that remains open. If I’ve typed “<cite>Miscellaneous Poems</” the next five characters I type have to be “cite>”. They’re not allowed to be anything else. Why, then, do I have to type them? It’s redundancies like this that made it possible for John Gruber to design Markdown as something simpler and more straightforward than html yet capable of doing a large part of the same work (at least so far as the writer is concerned).

Paradoxically, then, the more I use Markdown to avoid the clumsiness of html, the more I resent html for being so graceless and cumbersome. Markdown is an elegant workaround which shouldn’t have been necessary if html had been better designed in the first place. There’s something frustrating about the idea of a language that is text based, yet not easily readable or writeable.

It’s too late to do anything about html, I guess. It’s long been established as “the language of the web” and I can’t foresee that that’s going to change. I can’t help thinking of it as a missed opportunity, though.

Posted by Art on 22-Dec-2018