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The city that never sleeps

Whatever you call them — blocks, boxes, areas, regions — we’ve been dividing our Web pages into visible sections for well over a decade. The problem is, we’ve never had the right tools to do so. While our interfaces look all the world like grids, the underlying structure has been cobbled together from numbered headings and unsemantic helper elements; an unbridled stream of content at odds with its own box-like appearance.
S look but not behave like sections, the experience for assistive technology (AT) users and data-mining software is quite different from the experience enjoyed by those gifted with sight.

Now that HTML5 has finally made sectioning elements available, many of us greet them with great reluctance. Why? Partly, because we’re a community which is deceptively resistant to change, but also because of some perceived discrepancies regarding advice in the specification. In truth, the advice is sound and the algorithm for sectioning is actually easier to use than previous implementations. Some developers are just very married to their old workflow, and they think you should be too. There’s no good reason why.

Make no mistake: Sectioning elements help you improve document structure, and they’re in the spec’ to stay. Once and for all, I will be exploring the problems these elements solve, the opportunities they offer and their important but misunderstood contribution to the semantic Web. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the “semantic Web,” this video is a great introduction.My introduction to Web design was via a university course module called something like “2.1: Dreamweaver,” and I recall my first website well. I remember my deliberately garish choice of Web-safe colors. I remember it looking right only in Netscape Navigator. Most of all, I remember hours of frustration from tugging at the perimeter of a visual layout tool named “table.” I had no idea at the time that this layout tool represented a type of annotation called an HTML tag. Furthermore, no one told me that this annotation invited my patchwork of primary colors and compressed JPEGs to be computed as a sort of demented Excel spreadsheet. In other words, I had no idea I was doing it wrong.

Macromedia’s Dreamweaver didn’t make the creation of valid documents impossible, but it was one of a number of emerging GUI editors that pandered to our desire for visual expression more than it encouraged informational clarity. Dreamweaver, and other editors classified under the misnomer “WYSIWYG,” helped transform a standardized information system into a home for graphic design and enabled a legion of insufferable Nathan Barleys to flypost the World Wide Web with their vapid eye candy. I was one of many.

By the time I made my first website, the Web standards movement, promoting compliance, uniformity and inclusion, was burgeoning. I just wasn’t aware of it until much later. I didn’t have to be: Agency-based Web design was still mainly graphic design with a reluctant programming department clumsily bolted on. If you’re doubtful of the grip that this culture has had on the World Wide Web, look no further than the fact it took until 2010 (2010!) for us to concede that Web browsers are not really made of paper.
When I finally became familiar with Web standards and the practice of “doing things right,” it was as someone who still worked primarily as a visual designer. Inevitably, my first forays into standards-based design revolved around mastering “CSS layout,” the practice of visually arranging content without relying on the semantically incorrect.

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