Christian Heilmann

Style Stage and old people of the web

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020 at 3:41 pm

On the 10th of July up and coming happy person of the web Stephanie Eckles released Style Stage, which she describes as “A modern CSS showcase styled by community contributions”. It is – in essence – a well written HTML document and she asks for contributors to show what they can do with CSS to style it. She specifically also points out that people should use “modern” CSS and go out of their comfort zone to play with it.

To many people who’ve been around for quite a while in this space, this seemed like a no-news item, as we got all bleary eyed and pointed out the Dave Shea’s CSS Zen Garden pulled exactly the same stunt in 2003.

I came across it from a retweet and retweeted it with a snarky Breaking News – CSS can style HTML comment as I was baffled that this is considered a new and cool thing to do.

That was a dick move and I want to apologise to Stephanie, as there is nothing wrong at all with what she did. On the contrary, I love the focus on newer CSS and that the HTML she provides is bare-bones without any aids that would allow for extra styling. To make something cool with Style Stage, you need to dig deeper into your CSS tricks box.I love that it uses version control to contribute, so people can even get familiar with that along the way without the pressure of contributing to a project with lots of rules and dependencies.

I especially like that it is bare-bones, that she credits CSS Zen Garden and that it is not an ad-ladden cash grab piggy-backing on an educational resource. There was no shortage of horrible sites in the past that scraped CSS Zen Garden and offered similar things. My very own CSS Table Gallery that I released in 2005 to show how to style data tables in CSS died in a heap of spam and security attacks about 4 years ago. I just couldn’t keep up with the people scraping and re-using my content without consent. I had a job to keep me busy.

There are a few things that ail me about my initial response and this is also reflected in a lot of the answers and the responses to Stephanie’s announcement of Style Stage.

  • That it can be a “wow” moment for people now that CSS is enough to style a static HTML document isn’t the fault of new people who are excited about it. It is the fault of the old guard of web developers banging on about the beauty of CSS without considering the needs of new audiences. We failed keeping the excitement of 2003/2004. Instead we sat on our laurels declaring that anyone professional would find our output from back then.
  • The choice of what technology to use has become much harder. We can stomp our little feet and shake our fist at JavaScript overload and people not understanding the power of CSS or not even taking it serious. Or we can listen to why they think it, where they get stuck and make CSS and the tooling around it better. Those who fought the good fight in 2003 probably are too old and busy now. That’s why it is great that people like Stephanie take it on.
  • I wasn’t a big fan of CSS Zen Garden when it came out. Gasp! Why, Chris, why? Well, back then I worked on CMS driven projects. Huge Enterprise web sites, B2B portals, government web sites. The HTML shown in CSS Zen Garden was something I could only dream of. I had to deal with table layouts created by Java or classic ASP. I did a lot with CSS and I managed to cut down immensely on the amount of templates needed by using it to its strengths. But the awesome experimental techniques shown in CSS Zen Garden were impossible to use for me and it felt contrived. That even went as far as me setting up CSS Tool Shed, a similar page to Zen Garden rendering out a full web site with content you couldn’t control – you know, the likes I had to work with. Nobody came and contributed. In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised as it felt more like spec work than contributing to a cool gallery. I also was disappointed by the contributions to CSS Zen Garden that got all the accolades. Most of them used image replacement creating gorgeous designs that were inaccessible and – back then – couldn’t even be zoomed by changing the font size. That, to me, was plain design, not web design.
  • CSS Zen Garden removed a lot of old examples lately and even – again, gasp! – changed the HTML some time ago. Last time I met with Dave he told me this was based on feedback he got from teachers who used CSS Zen Garden but complained that it lacked some HTML5 features they’d love to teach their students. So he changed it. Violating the main principle of the project. And – to me – for good reason. We need to move on and help educate people on the changes of the web.

Let’s not get too hung up about the past and how much great and good we did back then. And let’s fight that first urge to be snarky and feel a “oh god, not again” in our heads as that is our baggage and not the one of the web community. We’ve dropped the ball somewhere along the line talking exclusively to a receptive audience instead of moving on with our advocacy into academia, enterprise and education. When I see “web development” courses by the German government in 2020 that talk about “building a DHTML carousel” I see that there was a lot we missed out on.

So, thank you, Stephanie for doing this and I hope you get a lot of great contributions. I think a lot of people can learn from this and see CSS as a valuable skill to have.

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