On HTML

What we gained, what we lost, and what still remains

I think I'm good enough in my career to say that my very first time I "coded" was on Neopets. On Neopets your virtual pets have profile pages and you could drastically alter your profile's appearance by pasting in HTML – a precursor to the much more infamous practice on MySpace, a security nightmare by all means, and something I ultimately didn't do that much of because I didn't really understand how I could just paste in something and make the website look different.

But Neopets had another feature: The ability to host an entire HTML page on its own, one you made from scratch. Starting from that blank canvas, changing the code a bit, reloading, seeing the results, and doing it over and over again. I could copy code from other places and see how it worked in my little sandbox. And while I never got cool new things like "JavaScript" to work (who really can, am I right?) and while I couldn't get a "dot com" (I learned domain names cost money, and so did hosting) it was endlessly satisfying. My little sandbox I could call my own. And I could also do it entirely from the web.

This is not, however a blog post about how good the Old Days of the web were. That is very well- explored ground. I could write about how HTML wasn't even the first hypertext medium, and that it ended up merely being the most adopted out of the various tools we had. I could write about how we then went very far and tried to turn HTML into a subset of XML, one universal transparent standard for all communication on the web. (I think we all knew how that turned out.) Or that HTML-like markup called "BBCode", developed seemingly independently by a large ecosystem of online forum software programs. But there are others more qualified to write about those.

No, I'd just like to thank HTML for everything. It is my belief that the rise of an open standard and its proliferation on the web is not at all a guarantee. Perhaps HTML's status is just an accident of its circumstances, the Internet at large being developed not for commerce or by commercial interests at all. It's possible it was pure coincidence that HTML was adopted and not some proprietary protocol developed for commerce. But there are many times throughout the Web's history there have been proprietary standards developed, platforms carved out, gates put up to enclose the Web from HTML; some have been more successful than others. In terms of a platform to replace HTML outright, the last attempt was probably Adobe Flash. Some of these platforms have managed to carve out a bit of the HTML-based web for their own but seem to yield eventually: Instagram stories, a few months ago, introduced hyperlinks, effectively an end to the era of "link in bio."

Maybe HTML's rise wasn't so coincidental after all. Maybe it was inevitable because above all other things HTML is very, very useful, which explains why HTML rendering can be found in some capacity in anything contemporary that has a screen, and used to describe user interfaces instead of merely being a language that marks-up hypertext. (But maybe a "user interface" is just fundamentally a form of hypertext too...) And here we are full-circle. Just like so many decades ago, I'm using something built with HTML (Visual Studio Code hosted on GitHub) to edit HTML (this blog post). It's a little roundabout and solutions like this have existed in some form across the past two decades but that's because it's the only thing about the web that has always worked: Uploading and displaying HTML files. My discipline of software engineering is often critiqued, rightly so, for constant change but it's also astonishing how little things have changed at all.

Of course the state of HTML wasn't some inevitable wave of market forces either: A web of organizations, many created outside the institutions of commerce, saw HTML as vital infrastructure and, in an era where one company was seemingly unstoppable to enclose the HTML-based web for their own, we somehow stopped them from doing it through the development of standards. Now in 2021 two corporations essentially comprise a hegemony of web browsers and that seems enough to keep HTML for being somewhat interoperable. But even if Microsoft had won the browser wars, I would still be writing HTML and not, say, some Word document.

And nothing seems to be replacing HTML. Even the latest developments in the web can't run away from HTML entirely. HTML brings as much structure as the Web needed to support itself, as much utility it needed to survive against all odds, and as much complexity required for the Web to proliferate – and for institutions to develop around it, for people to want to replace it, for people to keep writing it no matter what. Very few things are like that in life, more so less than in software. And in spite of the gatekeeping of information, it's still pretty easy to throw up whatever info you want.

That's not something I'll take for granted. So once again, thank you, HTML.