Feeds – a threat to design on the web

When CSS was first introduced it got bashed by a lot of sceptics. At least as many defended the language and in the end CSS was what got widespread use. Today we see the exact same battle fought again, with feeds. Let me explain:

In the beginning HTML was a language for content exchange, and the content was mainly scientific papers. One thing you note about those papers is that all of them look the same. Sure, some use two columns and some use three, but very few were (or are) "branded". The widely accepted rule was to let the users decide the layout; after all why should we need to download the same design over and over? Design was something the user decided, not the author.

But those content-only sites didn't live long. First tables, then CSS, enabled users to make sites more interesting and in many cases easier to read. No one would come up with the idea or releasing an unstyled site today (except CSS naked day :).

Not too long ago feeds were introduced. Feeds make it easier to subscribe to websites by separating content from all the "design stuff". This enables users to decide how your content should look. Proponents often talk about how much faster it is to read content from different sites when they all look the same. No time is lost trying to understand a new design.

When you read the paragraph above you'll notice that it's the exact same discussion and arguments as were used when CSS was introduced: "Users should decide" vs. "Webmasters should decide". The difference between feeds and websites right now is that no one has gotten the idea of "designed" feeds. At least not yet, I believe we're slowly approaching that point. I read about someone switching to spans instead of strong because bold "didn't look right in the feed". Expect more of that.

Now. Since more and more people are moving towards using feed readers to access their favourite websites it's quite obvious that the tide is turning. One clear indicator is when people complain that sites don't have their full articles in their feed (known as partial feeds). But this is not just me defending my use of partial feeds: I believe we should take it further than that. What kind of web do we want? What kind of web do you want? Should we go back to an unstyled web where content is the only thing that matters? Did the "content only"-proponents win after all? Is it a "feeds only" web what we want?

I believe content on the web should be allowed to have a style, brand, identity; whatever you want to call it. Style is an essential part of web content and a skilled designer can enhance my whole web experience with little tricks I barely notice.

Long live design!