‘Carthage must be destroyed’

I’ve had my tussles with Denton over the years (it has now been a period of years), but apparently because he is a British invert and also because he understands that disagreements need not get in the way of business, we still talk. Or rather I still ping him on AIM when something comes up. He agrees with me a lot of the time and tends to fix the errors I find (as does his deputy, the nonhomosexualist Lockhart Steele [no relation]).

In July he shitcanned a Gawker editor (Jesse Oxfeld, the homosexualist one) and later shitcanned an entire site, Sploid. The press coverage mentioned Gawker Media’s homegrown content-management system (CMS); its codename somewhat offends my sensibilities and would make this posting a magnet for disturbing search requests, hence I shall elide it.

Why write one’s own CMS? Because[t]he open-source publishing systems upon which most Weblogs depend cannot handle larger and more sophisticated sites.” That means you, WordPress, which I know for a fact was tested more than once on Gawker sites.

Fine. They’re writing their own, outsourcing a lot of the work to the ancien Communist Bloc. Fine. But if you’re gonna spend all that money, I want that fucker to be perfect. As I already told Denton and Steele:

  • Full ATAG compliance. That means Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines. I got up Anil Dash’s nose about it (since Six Apart has more money than God and could have been in compliance two major versions ago), to no avail. I wrote an analysis (Wiki version) of WordPress’s ATAG compliance – for free, I might add, though by mentioning that I expect one of my legion of detractors to issue the paradoxical accusation that I am shilling for money.

    I know the head of the ATAG Working Group personally and I can very much assure you that this is no WCAG we’re dealing with here; they are competent people. ATAG is a complex specification, but it is at least rational much of the time. It has also been completely ignored; not a single thing complies with it. Time for another Gawker first, I should think.

    This is not a hypothetical issue. A custom CMS is an authoring tool, and a lot of us are getting tired of putting the onus for accessibility on Web-content authors when the puzzle has had two other pieces – authoring tools and user agents (browsers) – all along. Time to step up to the plate.

    And since I’m using a baseball metaphor, here’s how I explained it to Denton: Someday you may want to start up a blog about baseball. It so happens that a notable baseball writer, Sarah Morris, has severe cerebral palsy and uses extensive computer adaptations to write. You cannot assume that your talent pool will always consist of New York Jews, homosexualists, and the few extant hipsterish straight guys. Accessibility is all about making things work for people who are not exactly like you or your heeb/homo/hipster posse.

    It is very difficult to retrofit a CMS for accessibility. It’s almost unimaginably difficult. Don’t screw this up. You’ve got more than enough people working on the project to fit this in.

  • Better Web standards. Listen, I’m all in favour of Patric(k) King and Su’s recent site architectures (plural), based as they are on recognized Web standards, but you have to improve on that. Fundamental concepts like document semantics seem unattainable on Gawker blogs, where every single thing is a paragraph, a heading at a fixed and invariant level, or a block quotation. Gawker is responsible for some seriously anti-hypertextual “innovations” like clustering links at the end of the post (a regression dutifully copied by that derivative vanity blog, Tropolism); if you really have to do that, which you don’t, then use an unordered list.

    When I gave Jonno perfect HTML for last year’s Consumer Guide to BigMuscle(Bears), the existing CMS choked on it – and all it used was a definition list. (Another such Consumer Guide is coming, by the way.)

    I also want better feeds (including valid Atom – mine are), with none of this advertising nonsense.

  • Better approximation of a real Web site. It boggles my mind that Gawker comment fields not only strip out all HTML, they convert things like smart quotes to dumb quotes and refuse to let you use anything that isn’t in a 1987-era ASCII character set. Should a comment field on a commercial blog act like an IBM Selectric typewriter?

  • Better accessibility. Why is there no such thing as a graphic inside a Gawker Media post with an alt text? At one point this summer, the soon-to-be-shitcanned Oxfeld’s postings were showing up on Gawker with images missing, allowing the world to see the filenames that acted as alternate text. How unclear on the concept do you have to be not to provide an alt text for a graphic?

    The new CMS should force authors to write an alt text, which they should be trained to do properly. (It isn’t hard. But if you want to go deep, I wrote the most extensive guide in existence, though there are shorter ones.)

  • Better blogging. Slugs on Gawker blogs have to be the worst thing ever, and there isn’t a single person I’ve dealt with at that empire who even knew what they were when I asked. A slug – it’s an old newspaper term – is the short filename for a post. Except they aren’t short; they’re every word in the title connected by dashes, to which are appended another dash, a control number, and .php.

    The most egregious example I could find? www.gawker.com/news/advertising/procter--gamble-ready-for-your-stinky-secret-187834.php. The ampersand in the original title disappeared, giving us two dashes in a row, and the whole thing’s a mile long. Blogger is notorious for doing the same thing. In fact, everything but a full install of WordPress falls prey to the same ailment, and even WordPress does it wrong by default unless you intervene.

    This is one area in which I have no compunctions at all in saying I lead the entire fucking blogosphere. I sit there and think about the slugs I’m going to use, which scarcely ever exceed three words and usually boil down to just one. Some of them are even clever (a kind of Easter egg), and all of them:

    • fit on a single line in an E-mail even without the need for surrounding < and > characters
    • fit on a line in a narrow chat window
    • are hackable (try backspacing out each component from right to left), readable, and manually typable
    • can be dictated over the phone

    Gawker slugs fail on all counts. The new CMS should force the author to write one- or two-word slugs.

The lesson here is simple. If you’re big enough to fire people, close down entire blogs, and reject the existing software platforms and write your own, then you have to do things right. Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of Failed Redesigns.

(UPDATE, 2006.09.05: Once the final software comes out, there may be some interesting clarifications necessary to what I have written above. Nonetheless, many of the lessons are immediately applicable.)

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.09.01 13:58. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
http://blog.fawny.org/2006/09/01/denton-advice/

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