Style Sheet, Who’s speaking?

Spoiler: Well beyond simple graphic choices, the style of our web pages actively contributes to their personality. It’s important as an author and even more as a reader because if everything looks the same, how can we assert our individuality?

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Luck or curse? I’m old enough to remember the beginnings of the web. When formatting was allowed to be incorporated into web content… It started in 1996 and believe me, everything possible has been tried somewhere; colors, shapes, layout… We never knew what we were going to find when following a link, it was so chaotic.

Since then, natural selection has allowed the best ideas to breed and relegated the worst to museums. We can surf quietly without risking eye haemorrhage by following a link that seems trivial at first sight.

It’s a good thing, but I can’t help but think that what we’ve gained in readability, we’ve lost in personality.

CSS is our voice

At the root of this story there is this eternal dichotomy between substance and form of a message, encountered in two pillars of the web:

  1. HTML documents, which contain and describe the content of web pages. Pieces of text framed by tags to give them meaning (paragraphs, titles, hyperlinks, etc.) as well as references to additional content (images, sounds, videos).
  2. CSS style sheets, which describes the graphical formatting of these elements. Rules for defining fonts, colors, shapes and layout.

The role of browsers is to retrieve the document and the associated style sheets and then apply the rules to print the content on the screen (or on paper). It is obvious that by changing the content we change the result but we can also change the style and get completely different impressions (e.g. CSS Zen Garden) .

So, if the HTML is the equivalent of the text of a speech, the CSS is the voice of the speaker. Vocal cords, mouth, nose, lungs, articulation technique, choice of pronunciation or intonation,… All these parameters make the sound produced by one speaker is not that of another and that changing the speaker gives us a different impression of the same speech.

In both situations there are ergonomics rules which make the content more easily received and decoded by the public (we do not speak with our mouths full and we do not write in yellow on a blue background) and, above all, there are all these typical variations from one speaker to another and which form his style and his personality. What sales call branding.

And unfortunately for the authors of the text, apart from the exceptions who have made a name for themselves, they are forgotten in favor of their interpreters. For example, we (almost) all know that Johny Depp played Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean but who remembers that Ted Elliot wrote his lines?

So, since CSS is the voice of our articles, and that it is this voice that will leave an imprint on our readers, let us now ask ourselves the following question:

Whose voice is reading the article?

Author on a platform

As an author, it is very tempting to publish our ideas on the big platforms. It’s so much easier and it let us reach out a such large and engaged community! Well, those are two myths that platforms enforces but let’s assume they are right and see where that lead us.

The work we created, our text, is now hosted on one of these platforms and, to make our life easier, it will handle the implementation details that we did not want to take care of:

  1. The HTML: our work is no longer autonomous but reformatted by their algorithms, accompanied by more or less useful gadgets (i.e. for tracking) and integrated into a framework of their own.
  2. The CSS: is provided by the platform and comes in all colors; substack, wattpad, patreon, mastodon, linkedin, medium, ….

By publishing on one of these platforms, the platforms lends us its voice and its style. We no longer express ourselves, the plateform speak with our words. Besides, if it likes what we have to say, it will do everything to shout it loud and clear, otherwise we will have to settle for a whisper (at tiktok they talk about “heat”).

And since these platforms don’t like to share, it will take a conscious effort for our readers to notice us. A bit like in the cinema where the names of actors and directors are much more visible than that of screenwriters or dialogue writers, the plateform’s logo and style are much more visible than our little person.

After all, it’s fair game; we asked an interpreter to lend us his voice without being paid, obviously he was going to take advantage of it…

Reader on a platform

The problem is that on these platforms we are not only author or reader. We are both at the same time. And that poses a new problem.

All the content being pronounced with the same voice, and the identification of the authors being reduced to the minimum. All content are alike and this introduces a blur between what we say and what we read, everything is mixed up.

Since our words have the same impression as those of others, our brain ends up not really distinguishing between what we think and what others write. Our brain reads these publications as if it was in conversation with himself. These foreign ideas are considered our own ideas.

Most of the time when we look for information we come across ideas that agree with our own. Either they confirm our beliefs or they fill in a void and that was the purpose of the research.

But it also happens that we encounter ideas that are different from our own. During certain searches or more likely during “recommended content”. And there is the drama: our brain ends up with contradictory ideas inside itself. This is called cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is itchy and we don’t like it. To relieve the itch we have two solutions:

  1. Integrate the idea by modifying our previous beliefs and thus regain internal consistency. Reading after reading we can then find ourselves far from home. If it is to arrive here at the arsouyes it is rather good news but there are other less recommendable places on the web,
  2. Justify the idea with an argument that wants to be irrefutable and then publish it on the platform (since that’s where the thought sprang up, that’s where the conclusion must be). With a little luck it will touch a discordant soul who will answer us for the same reason (to eliminate its own dissonance) and we end up feeding a troll for a while.

And after those easy dissonances, there are all those dissonant thoughts that our brain can neither integrate nor refute. They are so far from our thought system, our culture and our experience of life that our brain has no point to build something up.

We can think of pedophilia, necrophilia, murder or torture (yes, we find everything on the net) but pornography can have the same effect on children.

Usually, faced with someone who tells us this kind of absurd idea, our brain knows that it is the other who has a problem in his head and he can move on continuing to feel healthy.

But on a platform that blurs the boundary and makes us believe that these thoughts are our own, our brain jams itself, it’s locked. With luck he will choose denial; but it is only a postponement because this content or another similar one will resurface one day. Otherwise he will seek to confront himself voluntarily hoping that this time he manages to resolve the conflict (spoiler: he will not succeed) and we end up with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In short, it’s not good.

The Gemini case

Gemini is a protocol and a document format that is similar to the web but much simpler and healthier (that’s the myth).

Its authors started from the (consensual) observation that the platforms have abused web technologies (HTML and JavaScript) to trace and manipulate us and that the vast majority of the content therein end up being of very poor quality; the only goal being to attract us with catchy titles and then sell our attention to advertisers.

The idea of Gemini is therefore to go back to the blessed era when these drifts did not yet exist and to propose another way. A reboot of the web in 1996 of some sort.

In particular, Gemini does not allow authors to provide content formatting instructions. We can write paragraphs, headings, lists, quotes and links but that’s all; no bold, no code,… We can’t specify the font, the color, the shape, or the arrangement either… the most graphic thing possible is a zone without format where to put ASCII Art (they recommendation for making tables… pay your accessibility).

As a corollary, it is therefore the browsers that take care of the formatting. Each client software therefore has its own way of displaying these elements, which is a trademark and often brandished as an argument for their use. Some even offer us to modify these preferences to suit our own tastes.

On Gemini, it is the readers who impose their style, and therefore lend their voice to all the content. Each reader can very well create an original and unique style but the reading is subjective and it is therefore as if all the contents were pronounced with the same unique voice, that of the reader.

You see what I mean ? The boundaries between authors are blurred and the risk of confusion increases accordingly. Most readers being also authors, the confusion is the same as on the platforms. Except that this time, it is the protocol itself that induces it.

For those who are thinking “what if we add some CSS”, know that the Gemini standard is immutable; it specifies that no modification or extension is authorized. It was written by a guru who knows what is good for us, let’s not contradict the divine plan.

Fortunately, Gemini is not intended to replace the web and should rather be seen as a socio-artistic experience; a group of enthusiasts who said to themselves “what if we did it differently” and produced a prototype to play with to see where it lead us.

And now?

The devil is in the details and often in the best intentions. By taking care of the details of implementations, or by simplifying a protocol to the extreme, the platforms and Gemini produce a standardized world devoid of personality where the boundaries between individuals are blurred at the risk of confusion in our minds.

The slope is slippery and easy to climb. Take RSS feeds for example, they make it easy to notify our subscribers that new content is available on our site. That’s great. And we could include the content to avoid subscribers having to come to us by reading it directly in the aggregator… with therefore its unique voice… Impression of deja vu?

So what to do?

As authors, let’s make sure we are identifiable! Let’s publish on our own site with your own CSS (it’s easier than it’s said) and let’s not be afraid to be original because that’s the point. If not, let’s at least make sure that our readers will recognize us easily (e.g. on Gemini: let’s do as in latex, always add our name somewhere at the beginning of the article).

As a reader, let’s favor tools and habits that preserve the author’s style and boundaries. Let’s read the articles on their site rather than in our aggregators and other platforms, let’s only activate the reading modes by being aware of the operation.

And for all those times we encounter content that inspires us to take action, breathe, and take a step back: this idea is not ours, it is the tool that makes us believe otherwise.