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Form and Content

Separating form and content is like separating language and meaning – possible, but artful. It is artful because it cannot be neutral. It cannot be neutral because content can neither be represented without any form at all, nor presented without some influence on how it is read.

In web design plain text is often treated as a non-format, but it is a format too – it raises the questions of character sets, markup versus markdown, hard wraps versus soft wraps – it is haunted by carriage returns and line feeds – and displaying it raises the question of monospace or proportional fonts, wrapping or truncating, and syntax highlighting. Non-programming designers can think of it as a non-format only because they do not have to deal with it directly, just as printers could think of handwriting as a non-format, because it was the stage in the process they had no responsibility for. But questions of form in plain text are serious and important for those who have to deal with it directly. (If you think web designers are over-earnest about grids, you have yet to ask an programmer about whitespace.)

Plain text permanently enacted what typewriters had already established in practice – the idea of punctuation and capitalization as part of content, not form. In manuscripts punctuation was so often indistinct, and its use so inconsistent between writers, that printers were free to omit, add, or exchange points as they pleased. Yet even though writers bred to the age of WYSIWYG use boldface and italics significantly – and underlining, which was once just how writers and typists denoted italics to printers – still, because bold and italic characters are not part of ASCII (the plain text standard set by typists) they are so often unavailable, inconsistently displayed, or subject to sudden disappearance between programs, that they cannot quite gain the status of content.

Of course the phrase – separation of form and content – usually frames as a goal what might be more blatantly put by web designers as a command: programmers shall not meddle with design – or put by programmers as a judgment: just get it working, you can figure out the design later.

The phrase is also misleadingly abstract. As used it is meaningful only within a certain scheme: a database contains plain text which is then filled into a template and served to a browser. This is not the only way it could be done. Quite different architectures are possible. Consider RSS, for example, where there is no browser and no design.

RSS is much closer to the intentions of the web than the web itself is. The fact that the web has any place for designers at all is the result of its abuse. In current terms, the web was meant to be like Facebook – you put information in and let presentation be handled upstream – but it turned out like Myspace. To call this system separation of form and content is a little disingenuous.

Superficially it may appear that the Ruricolist is a blog by accident. The content seems separable from the form. That is true in practice: I have printed some of these essays in books. Yet the content of the Ruricolist exists because of its form. Only because there exists a form so familiar and flexible as the blog did I feel free to try something unusual.