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The Long View

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 24 December 2012.
Planet PHP

We who work on the Web, as Noah Stokes wrote in an earlier article, have a privileged opportunity to create things that can change the world more easily than most; to make a difference. This concept is inherent to the essencea-athe very naturea-aof the Web. I believe this depends in part on us maintaining and supporting what's already been done. I'll illustrate.

How I started

I'll not pretend I was kicking around back when the Web was formed. I was too busy trying to work out where I fit in the high school oligarchy, and how to talk to girls. I spent every other lunch time in the school computer rooms, but I was mostly in IRC chatrooms (talking to girls might be easier if you can't see them), not mucking about with html. In 2001, five years after high school graduation, I made my first production site. It was the year Netscape, Opera, and Internet Explorer all released 6.x versions, and neither Safari nor Firefox existed. I was part of a small team developing a business around a content management system to help golf professionals run their own web sites. These days, we'd call it a Software-as-a-Service startup. I was the programmer (at first), and the only technical person, so I did everything.

The business owner, a golf pro himself, came to me with a feature request.

aoWe need pros to be able to change the layout themselves from the admin. Put the logo on the right instead of the left. Change the background and text colours. Switch the size of the columns. That sort of thing.a

aoUhhha Yeah, so that's going to be pretty difficult.a

aoWhat? I don't care. Can you do it or not?a

aoGive me two weeks, and I'll know.a

This was my first lesson in client-developer relations. He didn't know or care what tables were and how they worked. He just wanted the feature he wanted. So, I went looking for answers. That's when I discovered CSS-P.

CSS-P, yeah, you know me

The P stood for positioning. Until then, we'd only been using a style element in the head of each document to change the fonts and link colors. I thought I was clever for using a Server Side Include, so I only had one file to change. If you search for CSS-P these days, you'll find that most of the old articles and tutorials are gone, but for whatever reason, two remain, unchanged: MaKo 4 CSS and CSS-P 3box.

And I remember these. I've never known who MaKo is, but she or he is responsible for the basis of my entire career.

This almost perfectly valid page from 2001 looks and works exactly the same now (December 2012) as it did in when it was made. We probably no longer need to worry about the Netscape 4 hacks or the browsers that don't support CSS. (View Source for fascinating tidbits like that.) This is one of the things the Web gives us.

Longevity

Jeremy Keith has written far more, and far more eloquently, than I ever will on the importance of preserving digital artifacts and the horror that is linkrot. And, if you haven't read Anil Dash's retrospective The Web We Lost, I strongly recommend it.

Inherent in the nature of the Web is a sense of preservation. The possibility of archive. The Web is pure information, and we have the capacity to store it all. So many of us produce content for our friends, family, colleagues, and peers to share. Beautiful, interesting, informative, dull, hilarious, ugly, fascinating content. Like MaKo's article, or the others I've linked in this article, I'd love to know it will still be available in 10 years or 20. Perhaps not in quite the same format, but still readable, still findable. Still offering benefits and insights years later.

This is what the Web offers us. We need to find ways to hold up our end of the bargain.