From A to <A>: Keywords of Markup

Reviewed by Kevin Brock, North Carolina State University

Introduction & Overview

Front cover of From A to <A>

Dilger, B. & Rice, J. (Eds.). (2010). From A to <A>: Keywords of markup. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.

This collection of texts on the histories, technical capabilities, and broader cultural concerns of specific HTML tags/keywords, edited by Bradley Dilger and Jeff Rice, provides a set of much-needed and insightful inquiries into the impacts upon web communication that influence so much of our understanding of what hypertext is and what it can do. For scholars in composition and rhetoric who either already incorporate digital hypertext construction and analysis thereof into their research or their classrooms (if not both), From A to <A> serves as a compelling foundation from which could spring further discourse on the cultural, technical, and political structures and systems that affect web development.

I'll note up front that interested readers who may not feel either comfortable or familiar with HTML or well-versed in the history of web design and related technology may have a slightly more difficult time understanding the nuances of some of the obsolete or deprecated tags discussed in the book (very few, I imagine, will want to try out an extremely old browser to see how HTML could be expressed through it). However, I urge individuals identifying with such a position to explore the histories of these tags as provided by these contributors: this book offers us a chance to see just what sorts of impacts (relatively) recently- and currently-developed technologies made for dynamic presentations of content have had on our critical understanding both of those technologies and of the sorts of content we would create to present through them.

Thomas Rickert, Tarrying with the <head>: The Emergence of Control through Protocol

Given the focus of the book, it is fitting that the first chapter is dedicated to the <head>, the section of an HTML file that exists outside the bounds of the visible body content. Thomas Rickert examines the role of the <head> in relation with that of the <body> (for an analysis of the latter, see Bay), comparing the setup in HTML to the head/body binary proposed by Descartes and indicative of a perspective not fully reflective of the potential for distributed community possible through hypertext communication.

Rickert observes that recommendation-based protocol has the potential to replace rule-based control (and in fact is already a fundamental component of Internet communication); rather than building a rigidly hierarchical system in which top-down control is easy to maintain, Berners-Lee and the other developers of hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) set up a system for data transmission that works in an almost "anarchic" fashion (Galloway, as cited in Rickert, 2010, p. 11). To an extent, this is evidenced by the range of declared document rulesets at the beginning of any HTML file (although this is not explicitly discussed by Rickert, since they occur before the <head>)—one website might tell a browser to interpret its code as strict XHTML 1.0, while another might list its code as transitional HTML 4.01, while another still might use HTML 5.0 (declared simply as "html," in stark contrast to the more detailed declarations for other rulesets). In each of these cases, a web browser has the potential to interpret the code somewhat differently (although there is obviously an overwhelming number of overlapping rules) and display the page's content accordingly. But this is outside the scope of the <head>—so how does this example demonstrate Rickert's argument?

Because browser programs are capable of interpreting HTML files individually from one another with these distinct rule sets, they demonstrate protocol in action: the rules imposed upon the author of a given HTML file (in terms of what he or she can provide within and through the file) are not nearly as restrictive as the rules chosen by the author for the browser to apply to the file when it is viewed. The inclusion of metadata (data about data—in this case, data about the content within the <body>) within the <head> reflects the flexibility of protocol: while <style> rules listed in the <head> are applied to <body>, the metadata listed within the <head> do not necessarily have to describe what is provided in the <body> but nonetheless—until recently—that metadata served to organize and rank pages in various search engines. Rickert notes that "[Protocol] is a model of how control emerges precisely where it seems to have evacuated" (p. 16). As a result of this invisible relationship, while <body> appears to provide the "real" content of a given page, it is in the <head> where the protocols of style and metadata capitalize on the influence of possibility-through protocol.

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Sarah Arroyo, <b> </b>: Exploring Rhetorical Convergences in Transmedia Writing

Sarah Arroyo compares two HTML tags that conventionally demonstrate bolded text, <b> and <strong>, although the latter technically is meant to identify significant information rather than to distinguish visually some (bolded) text from other (non-bolded) text. Because of this distinction, Arroyo suggests that critical examination of the related semantic value of each tag might help us understand more clearly what design-related options are available to us. Essentially, she asks whether strength is preferable to boldness as a means of classifying and highlighting specific types of information.

"[I]mplicit meanings surface through the interactions of people and their collective understanding of the structural information provided by the sites or databases involved."—Arroyo, p. 30

Arroyo further questions whether or not boldness is even clearly indicated through <b>; if, by its very name and function, it is not "strong," then it can more easily be considered "weak." In turn, its very use may be called into question. What can <b> do that <strong> cannot? For one, the tags are recognized differently through accessibility-compatible software: content within <strong> tags will be explicitly noted as such by screen readers, but content in <b> tags will not be defined that same way. Is boldness or bravado only possessed by, or recognizable to, those who are "fully abled" to experience the web without constraint? Arroyo suggests that this ambiguity offers an opportunity for a converging of design practices and meaning: if we do not (and should not) view <b> and <strong> as an oppositional binary, we can construct new relationships between the two and associations for each extending beyond a visual/semantic divide.

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Colleen Reilly, alt: Accessible Web Design or Token Gesture?

Colleen Reilly raises an important question related to the use of alt as an exclusive Other-ing, rather than an inclusive, tool. Conventionally considered (through the "alt" attribute of an HTML tag, such as a text description of an image for visually-impaired visitors to a website) a means of making web content more accessible to a wider audience base, or (through the alt.* Usenet hierarchy, in which there are thousands of groups) a means of providing space to subversive or "alternative" subcultures, Reilly suggests that the explicit use of alternative space or structure in order to accommodate non-normative interests or abilities could be read as an effort to marginalize individuals or groups reflecting those qualities. In other words, the presence of alt content provides website designers the ability to pawn off all issues of accessibility to the limited potential implementations offered by "alt" rather than incorporate accessibility-friendly presentation, formatting, and content into a site's "default" design. In regards to Usenet groups, the presence of a given interest or community within the alt.* hierarchy suggests that the group's shared quality is abnormal—just as with the alt attribute for an image presented through a web page, it is considered literally an alternative to the conventional, standard, and accepted quality.

Reilly reminds us that, as a result, communication on the web remains far from universally accessible; while we may be aware of this in regards to various cultural, economic, and social privileges, we do not necessarily acknowledge it to the same extent in regards to the technologies we use (and the privileged cultural, economic, and social values reflected through those technologies). How inclusive can HTML be if it can only provide access through exclusive distinction? As Reilly observes, it could be much more socially beneficial to promote inherently inclusive design practices which privilege information over visual presentation.

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Jeff Rice, English <A>

"<A> does the opposite of destroying information: it builds a world of information within relationships because of how the hyperlink has itself formed a complicated relationship with connectivity."—Rice, p. 54

Jeff Rice explores the significances of hypertext linking through the <a> tag, tracing a cultural and historical path from the foundation of the English alphabet "a" and the early Harvard composition course (which went by the title "English A") to the defining characteristic of hypertext. Following the arguments made by Berners-Lee, Nelson, Bolter, and others, Rice points out that links made through <a> do not simply connect together data across documents but, more importantly, create social relationships between individuals and communities. The <a> tag no longer needs to refer in an abbreviated fashion to "anchor," its original referent, to suggest a singular purpose for one-way movement from one given HTML file to another file on the web (whether HTML, image, audio, video, or some other file type); instead, it is (among others) association, assemblage, arrangement, and action, connecting together meaning through the relations constructed by the act of linking.

The tag enables a radically distinct set of communicative potentials than that provided through the English A course and its successors. As Rice notes, the English A course stressed a model valuing an individual author of a static text distinct from (and implicitly on a less-important level than) disciplinary discourse, but these values do not adequately or accurately reflect the possibilities of writing and interaction in a globally networked environment in which meaning is collaboratively constructed by a widely-distributed set of authors and audiences. In effect, the transition from "a" to <a> signifies a transition towards a networked, potentially multimodal, multimedia mesh of associated information in a constant state of assemblage.

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Brendan Riley, A Style Guide to the Secrets of <style>

Brendan Riley examines <style> and its role within web design and authoring in order to hightlight a significant issue for rhetoricians: what is the consequence of demanding that form and content be split into separate entities clearly distinguished from one another and possessing just as distinct functions? Positioned usually either in the <head> of an HTML file (see Rickert) or linked through the <head> to a separate CSS file, <style> serves to define a set of rules prescribing the display of the HTML content—but that display (and thus style itself) is ultimately under the control of the viewer, who can override the author's style with his or her own stylistic preferences. If, as Brian Massumi (2002) notes, it is jarring to "see oneself as others see one" (p. 47), how jarring is it for a web designer to see his or her creation transformed through the preferences of another? In addition to exploring the question of ultimate "styling" authority, Riley points out that the history of <style> has been dynamic: from universal inline tags to browser-specific tags to the separation of content from form through the creation of <style> in the head (or linked through the head to a separate file), the role of style has remained subordinate to the information being "transmitted" or "deployed" through the web browser.

The effect this has on web-based rhetoric is astounding: engineers and designers who are focused on usability have downplayed the potential that style can have on delivery, that it could be anything more than ornamentation. Riley astutely suggests that this does not have to be the case but, given the continued separation of form and content by the W3C, it seems doubtful that rhetorical potential via a fuller consideration and implementation of <style> will soon be realized. However, as Riley notes: "With the rise of digital writing and the World Wide Web [...] style is something writers do, rather than something they have" (p. 78). Standards might be viewed as working against the flowing development of web writing, for which an increasing number of individuals see design less as a separate ornament and more an integral component of expression.

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Brian Willems, An Accidental Imperative: The Menacing Presence of &nbsp;

Brian Willems explores the dichotomous nature of &nbsp;—the nonbreaking space that allows (in a very different manner than that of rules in a style sheet) for spacing to occur between parts of a text. Building upon the "skipped space" provided by a semicolon by Werner Hamacher in a definition of the imperative ("the demand that understanding must take place; the imperative for understanding itself," qtd. in Willems, p. 81), Willems notes how the nonbreaking space both divides and unifies: while the content on either side of the space is displayed as further apart from one another, the content is literally "not broken" apart through web conventions. Even though the use of &nbsp; (and specifically the use of multiple instances of &nbsp; in a row) is considered a non-standard use, it is nevertheless used conventionally as a code for web communication to allow "designers to achieve intended effects" (p. 83)—in this case, the imitation of print medium typesetting and spatial arrangement.

"A way of reaching beyond what is is not to look away but instead to allow the misunderstandings inherent in all attempts at understanding to be brought forth; that which is, by incorporating that which it is not in a self-reflexive fashion, becomes understanding itself."—Willems, p. 93

&nbsp; is sometimes viewed not only as the tool of amateur designers, but as a code in its own right outside the bounds of markup when it is incorrectly processed by various software programs; some GUI web editors show it specifically as code, while some word processors translating content into HTML code may parse &nbsp; as content intended to be visible rather than invisible. Willems compares the complicated nature of &nbsp; with that of the SPIME, Bruce Sterling's proposed successor to the bar or QR code that encodes not only information about an object but the trajectory of its identity through space and time as it enacted various operations. In other words, Willems proposes that the meaning of &nbsp; could be radically changed if we could view its totality as perceived "space," encoded tool to facilitate arrangement, parsed and made-visible "noise" that changes the meaning of the content surrounding it, and the re-coding of its characters into yet another symbol through the act of reading. Rather than view &nbsp; as an error that bleeds through the interfaces of the screen, what new insights can be gained by recognizing this "incorrect" inscription and re-inscribing it in another context for another purpose?

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Bob Whipple, The Evil Tags, <blink> and <marquee>: Two Icons of Early HTML and Why Some People Love to Hate Them

Perhaps one of the most significant analyses provided in this text is Bob Whipple's critique of the <blink> and <marquee> tags as well as of the stigma surrounding each. <blink> was Netscape's contribution to web design and communication that emphasized the innovative potential and "creativity" of HTML: the flickering visibility of the text contained within such tags made that text impossible to ignore. <marquee>, in comparison, moved text dynamically across a page horizontally, not unlike a stock ticker or marquee. To use Richard Lanham's terms, <blink> and <marquee> epitomize the "bi-stable oscillation" of looking at vs. through text and gaining meaning from multiple types of reading (and in a very different way from the <b> / <strong> oscillation between semantics and appearance discussed by Arroyo).

However, as Whipple notes, it is perhaps precisely because of these qualities that both <blink> and <marquee> have been despised by web professionals from designers to usability experts. After all, the effects resemble (conventionally speaking) neon signs and advertisements more than they do "significant" content. Whipple points out that tradition doesn't have to limit the range of uses for emerging media—so then why have these tags not been maintained or standardized?

What is mentioned only in passing is the proprietary nature of these tags: <blink> was only available in Netscape, just as <marquee> was developed by Microsoft to promote the innovation of its own browser. The argument against the use of these tags could potentially be mitigated through the lens of standards. If the reading/viewing experience is different for users based on the browser through which they experience content, designers would either have to learn multiple "dialects" of HTML (specific to each browser) or provide a lopsided web experience for their audiences—we saw both of these occur in the late 1990s and early 2000s during the "browser wars" between Internet Explorer and Netscape/Mozilla. The Web Standards Project (WaSP) takes this position: "By releasing browsers that failed to uniformly support standards, manufacturers needlessly fragmented the Web, injuring designers, developers, users, and businesses alike" (WaSP, 2011).

It is possible that this secondary issue helped influence the downfall of <blink> and <marquee>, but Whipple's focus on the perceived reasons for using these tags is significant. Where most discussions focus on the above proprietary schism in HTML tags, Whipple notes the crucial public-side separation between top-down control on the part of designers who could more directly influence the development of W3C standards and creative experimentation on the part of amateur web authors looking to learn about the possibilities of rhetorical invention and style available through a web browser.

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Michelle Glaros, <frame>ing Representations of the Web

"When we want to find information, we prefer straightforward, locatable content that can easily be referenced and rereferenced. Yet we are simultaneously disappointed with a Web that mimics the phone book, road atlas, newspaper, and encyclopedia."—Glaros, p. 112

Michelle Glaros reframes the debate on <frame>-ing web content as a fight for traditional reading and writing (against the push to distinguish and innovate web "writing" as more than simply conventional literature viewed on a screen). With a reminder that a frame is a boundary and a limitation, she demonstrates how the use of <frame> often pushed against that boundary to present a view of web content as a shattered, modular set of data flows, the files linked to through different frames within a <frameset> tag. It may be surprising, then, that there has been such a movement against the use of <frame>; as Barbara Warnick (2007) notes in regards to intertextuality—the explicit use of which is visible through <frame>s—intertextuality "is modular and does not depend on sequenced text. It offers a wide repertoire of ways to engage attention as readers become complicit in constructing the meanings of the texts they encounter" (p. 92).

Glaros' most salient point concerns the relationship between new media criticism and practice: we celebrate the dynamic nature of web content, but at the same time, we want artifacts static enough to "bookmark" and look back on later (and in particular we might detest "link rot," the references to URLs that are no longer in existence). For Glaros, this set of sentiments—or frame—reflects a traditional literary preference for concerns of time over those of space: it has been historically more important that reading takes place at the reader's leisure than it is to play with spatial form. However, as Glaros points out, this is not necessarily true for the web. A similar idea is discussed at length in Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media, in which he suggests that a logic of film—and in particular that of the montage pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin) and Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera), the latter of whose works demonstrated some of the potential of a space-over-time preference—could supplant conventional approaches to web composition.

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Matthew K. Gold, Breaking All the Rules: <hr> and the Aesthetics of Online Space

Matthew K. Gold presents an argument regarding the value of <hr> very much in line with that of Whipple (on <blink> and <marquee>) or Glaros (on <frame>); the horizontal rule represents a relic of web design not used much in contemporary web communication but reflecting early web authors' awareness of arrangement as an important tool. Meant originally as a means of organizing information spatially (a purpose Gold connects together with that of early hieroglyphics), <hr> quickly became an explicitly visible part of many web pages whose authors (in the early days of the web) had limited space with which to construct multiple linking HTML files and opted instead for vertical utility. As a result, <hr> served as a meaningful symbol that did not simply mark the boundaries of certain blocks or types of content but communicated in a hypermediate fashion (to use the term coined by Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, 2000) the interests and values of an amateur population of web authors, often through the guise of an image, sometimes ornate and sometimes animated.

Where Whipple and Glaros point out the criticisms of web designers towards the qualities of hypertext that did or do not resemble print text (such as continually blinking text, or frames that defy easy bookmarking and archival stasis), Gold highlights the same group's complaints that <hr> resembles conventions of print too closely. In fact, it is rather fascinating that <hr> could make hypermediate once more on the screen the comparatively-immediate qualities of printed text. Gold, Glaros, and Whipple thus each provide an important insight into critical discussions of markup, as these cases all point to a pervasive ambivalence towards HTML and how it "should" work without, seemingly, any acknowledgment that amateur web authors may want it to work like text does and not like text does.

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Jennifer L. Bay, Body on <body>: Coding Subjectivity

Building upon the works of Deleuze & Guattari and of Wegenstein to compare perceptions of the human body with those of <body> as dynamic sites for inscription and mediation, Jennifer L. Bay evaluates the ways in which HTML serves to emulate as well as dictate individual identities on the web. In contrast with the conclusions drawn by Rickert earlier in the book, Bay points out that <body> serves to constitute the author, with its content distinguished from the even more dynamic "clothing" of CSS to change its appearance, although—as observed by Riley—this too can be merged with the body to blur the boundaries of what either is "supposed" to do or be. (The CSS Zen Garden is an excellent example of this concept in action.)

"Such facilitation [of Internet use by primarily American corporations] functions to constrain the types of bodies available for presentation online, as well as the types of rhetorical interactions."—Bay, p. 156

Bay's analysis grows even more significant when she turns to "Web 2.0" sites, especially social network sites which attempt to define the online identity via the physical body; this is commonly seen through content fields in which users distinguish whether they are male or female (or, in far rarer cases, if they identify outside that binary) and in the naming of identity spaces as "profiles" or "portraits." If <body> has the capability to allow us (as a population of potential web authors) to define and express ourselves as we see fit through HTML and CSS, the social networking or template-based Web 2.0 site limits the realization of that potential by demanding a connection between the physical and virtual bodies we inhabit. We can either participate or not, but we cannot (in these cases) break away from that limitation. Bay thus puts forward the integral question for critics interested in online communication and identity construction: how does such a system influence our understanding of, and perceived ability to involve ourselves in, the rhetorical performances of identity in and through code?

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Helen Burgess, <?php>: "Invisible" Code and the Mystique of Web Writing

Helen Burgess makes visible the generally invisible presence of PHP behind HTML: if we have the opportunity to view markup in our browser, we are unable to see PHP before it is expressed into HTML. In essence, PHP serves as another layer of interface and separator of code from user (often used to query databases to determine dynamic content on a given page). Burgess connects the use of PHP to that of pecia (bookmakers' markings to assist with assembly) several hundred years ago; she suggests that, like pecia, PHP and similar "unseen" code serve as forms of control over (re)production of text maintained outside the reach of the audience/user. While there may be comments within the code, provided by developers to help highlight or clarify certain procedures involved in the expression of PHP scripts, these are similarly not generally meant for readers as much as for other developers to facilitate further web production.

"[T]he current trend in focusing on 'visual literacy' tends to emphasize what's on the screen, rather than what lies beneath."—Burgess, p. 168

Such an observation is significant for critical discussion on web communication; one of the fundamental "givens" of HTML is that it is accessible—anyone can view the source of a page in his or her browser. PHP, however, complicates this in literally hiding the code that expresses the content on a rendered page, just as it obscures the code from the developer/author through database interfaces like phpMyAdmin. As Burgess notes: "We may think we are looking under the hood at the database, but at any single moment, we are looking at a visual and tabular representation of a much more abstract field of data. The design of the interface itself determines what we see of the data structures and information" (p. 181). Here Burgess is explicitly discussing phpMyAdmin and the developer's access to the database(s) used for a given website, but the sentiment is just as accurate for the end user's experience. I realize that a similar argument has been made at least as far back as Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen in which she notes that "we have become accustomed to opaque technology [... and] we have learned to take things at interface value" (1995, p. 23). However, Burgess' suggestion that we actually explore the engine(s) under the hood is an urging that many critics of digital media seem to have ignored in previous texts. Hopefully now it will not go unheeded.

The biggest difference between the reading of HTML code as a developer and as a user, as Burgess makes clear, is that the user is not offered any indication that there are more interfaces at work in the viewing of a web page than the browser itself rendering markup into "presentable" content. While we can make the effort to read and understand the code used to generate a page, such an effort loses its value if PHP and similar server-side scripting languages performing code outside the range of our potential reading experience.

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Rudy McDaniel and Sae Lynn Schatz, From Cyberspaces to Cyberplaces: <img>, Narrative, and the Psychology of Race

Rudy McDaniel and Sae Lynne Schatz discuss the complex relationship between image and text as displayed via HTML (and specifically the <img> tag), contrasting early ideas of a communal "cyberspace" with separate "cyberplaces" of distinct objects linked together and referring to one another. McDaniel and Schatz suggest that the use of images in general offer fragmented meaning (with some ideas and affective purposes communicated clearly, while others are obfuscated—see Reilly's discussion of alt for more), the pieces of which we construct into narratives in order to understand, and further make meaning out of, the collection and arrangement thereof. HTML allows us to enact this narrative construction through the ability to fuse image and text together from multiple sources and to arrange and display both in a variety of ways.

McDaniel and Schatz note the role of markup in web-based image-text combination: the potentially descriptive URL and name of a given image file, alongside an alt or longdesc textual description of the image being included in an HTML file, collapse some of the constitutive potential of reading and viewing a multimodal text. Scholars interested in the rhetorical implications of web-based composition would do well, the authors note, to consider how appeals are made through these means of persuasion, no matter how often they may be overlooked. How do they reflect the values of the author(s) and audience? How do they influence the act of reading that text? How do they contribute to a sense of place within this situation? McDaniel and Schatz conclude that images are a potent set of tools through which readers can generate and connect together meaning on the web, which includes gaining an understanding of cues for physical place-based character and boundary. They state, "[b]y conceptualizing the Internet as a place and virtual locations 'on' the Internet as places, it becomes easier to understand the cues important for the narrative construction of virtual experience" (p. 210).

As a brief aside, I have to note that I was a bit baffled as to the lack of any reference to the work done by Gunther Kress or Theo van Leeuwen given the focus of this chapter on image as a means of creating and communicating meaning symbolically. This is not to suggest that the ideas set out by Kress & van Leeuwen in texts such as their Multimodal Discourse (2001) or Reading Images (2006) have necessarily defined critical examinations of images, but they have certainly explored the topic to a substantial enough degree, and have done so actively over the last decade, that I was interested to see what McDaniel and Schatz thought about the New London Group's approaches to visual rhetoric and multimodality.

The analysis provided by McDaniel and Schatz on <img> as a way to understand the "place" of virtual text and location reflects the development of criticism on web communication beyond the scope of Gibsonian "cyberspace." The web is fundamentally fragmented and, while tags like <img> allow for an interwoven use of multimodal and multimedia presentations of meaningful symbols, cannot be reduced to a single "nexus" of activity and virtual being. Instead, we have the opportunity to learn about how we attempt to make sense of the fragmented chaos of the web by visiting and associating with a variety of individual places and entities.

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Bradley Dilger, <table>ing the Grid

Bradley Dilger explores the history of <table> and its significant influence on the development of a grid-based set of web standards, setting the stage for critical discourse on the realization of liberated communication as proclaimed by Ted Nelson. Just as the earlier discussions on <hr>, <blink>/<marquee>, and <frame> brought to light concerns of now-deprecated (or otherwise effectively obsolete) codes that either emphasized the conventional or entirely innovative capabilities of hypertext to create and express meaning, here Dilger focuses on the divide between usability and creativity that fueled the evolution of web standards into their present form.

The effort to maintain a balanced position between proscription and freely-styled expression raises several questions about the direction of web development: just how beneficial or restrictive is standards compliance, and how much should it be? How are rhetorical invention and style considered alongside or in contrast to universal access and readability? How wildly would our understanding of web communication change if we broke away from this traditional approach to the "page" as the unit of web-based publication? By laying out the <table>-dominated history of grid-based, box-model CSS development, Dilger suggests that considerations of corporate-oriented usability and design remain—and are likely to continue to remain—among the most powerful factors influencing the continued development of web standards and design principles (p. 224). For scholars interested in systems and structures of control and power over public and (perceived) democratic environments for communication, an understanding of this dynamic is crucial—not just to know how the current system works but, more importantly, to anticipate integral changes thereto by the broader user population.

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Cynthia Haynes, Afterword: <meta>: Casuistic Code

Cynthia Haynes provides a critique of markup development by questioning the reasons behind the rise and fall of <meta>. Formerly a means by which search engines could organize pages, the data provided in <meta> came to be viewed as an artificial (and manipulatable) reflection of a page's content. Haynes connects the casuistic mentality of the disuse of <meta> (and specifically its lists of metadata for search engine optimization purposes) with the logic of the Hollerith counting machine used to classify prisoners in Nazi labor camps. While it may initially seem a bizarre example of Godwin's Law in action, Haynes' discussion of the Hollerith counting machine and how it operates may very well be the most effective example upon which to build a critical analysis of the methods used to interpret and influence web practices and standards. Code, like any technology, may not be neutral but it should be considered in light of the range of possibilities it enables; it is up to us—authors, developers, critics, and designers working with HTML—to use it ethically. Haynes calls on involved parties to recall the political and cultural consequences of code through history and to build an ethics upon our continued application and education of its potential.

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Overall, the essays included in this collection offer a fascinating and significant set of insights into the technical and cultural implications of HTML past and present. Critics interested in rhetoric, technical communication, or composition could benefit from the contributors' analyses. As noted earlier, one particularly intriguing thread of inquiry focuses on the trajectory of web standards development and how accurately it reflects the practiced and potential use of markup by amateur web authors and designers. Another emphasizes a set of pedagogical and critical philosophies that explore the relationships between connectivity, accessibility, and invention. The discussions in which these authors have engaged themselves are also potentially valuable to non-academic practitioners, especially those interested in industry-wide web development trends and the extent to which they impact (seen and unseen alike) culture at multiple levels: regional, national, and global.

This text may feel less immediately accessible to individuals who are not already familiar with HTML at a technical level or who may not identify as "being able to code," but this is not a critique of the book as much as it is the disparity (discussed to some extent by Burgess) between authors who enter markup manually and designers who rely primarily on WYSIWYG software to interpret entered content into markup. Even those who write their own HTML may not be familiar at all with how PHP works, or they may have never seen a circa-1998 website using <frame> or <marquee>. How can critical discussions of dynamic technologies continue when older components or iterations of those technologies are no longer supported and subsequently difficult to recreate or experience?

Ultimately, the chapters provided by these contributors could be used as the foundation for a range of further critical inquiries into the development of web technologies, cultural critiques of markup style and content presentation, concerns of accessibility, and the balance between usability and authorial control over expression and display. From A to <A> is hardly definitive on any of the topics covered within it, but it hints at a tremendous amount of potential for continued discourse across multiple scholarly and professional disciplines. Like the dynamic, continually-evolving code examined by the contributors, this potential is not casuistic but remains open and virtual.

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Works Cited

  • Bolter, J.D. & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (2001). Multimodal discourse: The modes and media of contemporary communication. London and New York: Arnold.
  • Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading images: The grammar of visual design. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation. Durham, NC: Duke UP.
  • Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Warnick, B. (2007). Rhetoric online: Persuasion and politics on the World Wide Web. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Web Standards Project (WaSP). (2011). WaSP: Fighting for standards. Web Standards Project. Retrieved from

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