Footnotes Are As Real As The Writer

I hap­pened across this short post on Dar­ing Fire­ball today and quick­ly got swept down the ‘Jon Gru­ber’s Foot­notes’ rab­bit hole. I think seman­tic web pages are a note­wor­thy goal, just as I appre­ci­ate prop­er typog­ra­phy. How­ev­er, I don’t get all hung up about it like these guys1 seem to. I use the Word­Press plu­g­in writ­ten by Simon Elvery with some tiny mod­i­fi­ca­tions. It works very well and, appar­ent­ly like Gru­ber, was essen­tial­ly the look and behav­ior I was after. It had been on my site to-do list for a long time and I was thrilled when I had found that Elvery had done 99% of the work for me (I love you, lazy web). Read­ing all this, I think it’s pret­ty clear that Elvery copied a lot of what Gru­ber had done, but I don’t know that.

Here is a short post I had writ­ten back in April but nev­er got around to hit­ting pub­lish on (appar­ent­ly l care about this less than even I real­ized):

I have just been look­ing over the work­ing draft of the HTML 5 stan­dards and I’m real­ly glad to see a lot of seman­tic tags for mak­ing sense of writ­ing on the web. How­ev­er, it real­ly is appar­ent that this was writ­ten by design-ori­ent­ed authors, not tech­ni­cal authors. No <footnote> or <reference> tags which would be so handy to peo­ple who write tech­ni­cal or research pub­li­ca­tions online (go open sci­ence, go!). Just a cou­ple of things you could cob­ble togeth­er (like <aside> with the pre­de­fined note class). How­ev­er, what’s the point of seman­tic mean­ings if you aren’t real­ly using them for their mean­ings? What’s the dif­fer­ence between using a table for design lay­out ver­sus using an aside as a foot­note ref­er­ence? They’re both incor­rect as far as I can tell, and for the same rea­sons. I’ll con­tin­ue to use my hacked togeth­er <footnote>‘s here at super-struc­ture, although it’s not real­ly a big deal for me. For peo­ple who real­ly do want to pub­lish researched jour­nal arti­cles online for review, it should be and they’re going to have to con­tin­ue to hack togeth­er a ‘look’ just to get what they need.

Now, any­one is wel­come to come and rip me on my lack of under­stand­ing of seman­tic web design. Here’s the big­ger point: if lots of writ­ers want to use foot­notes, but the argu­ment against them seems to be that they aren’t part of HTML, then why not add them? Do we want HTML and XHTML to be so gen­er­al as to not include some­thing as spe­cif­ic as “foot­note?” That seems a bit odd to me, per­son­al­ly. More to the point, it seems like lim­i­ta­tion of the cod­ing lan­guage dri­ving the way we write, which is a bad thing. As I under­stand seman­tic cod­ing, it should be struc­tured around what peo­ple write, not the oth­er way around. Like oth­ers, I’m glad to see that foot­notes are some­thing that oth­er peo­ple think about (and had the ini­tia­tive to push “Pub­lish” in the blog soft­ware). How­ev­er, I think the notion of ‘how can we hack togeth­er cur­rent HTML to do this’ is the wrong approach2.

As for Gru­ber’s use of the down-and-back-the-left glyph, I use it, too. Main­ly because it reminds me of the “return key” sym­bol on many old­er key­boards. That makes about as much sense as “straight up” the page does as far as I can tell, as there’s lit­tle rea­son a foot­note has to be some­where direct­ly below the text it is a ref­er­ence for. Gru­ber hard­ly invent­ed foot­notes, nor do I gath­er he makes remote­ly that claim. The link-back-to-where-you-were is kind of enshrined in the whole HTML idea, but it was a tidy imple­men­ta­tion. My under­stand­ing of the his­to­ry of blog foot­notes indi­cates that Gru­ber deserves the cred­it for a good, if not earth-shat­ter­ing idea.

  1. “These guys” being the web design com­mu­ni­ty. Is it pos­si­ble to be too pas­sion­ate for your work, espe­cial­ly when said work isn’t life-crit­i­cal? []
  2. Such as using the <small> tag, which speaks to appear­ance but not the seman­tic mean­ing of a foot­note, in my opin­ion. How (or where) it is dis­played is not as impor­tant as the intrin­sic nature of a foot­note: this infor­ma­tion is ref­er­enced or tan­gen­tial to some oth­er infor­ma­tion. The <cite> ele­ment could be used to address the nature of ref­er­ences, but not tan­gen­tial infor­ma­tion or extend­ed par­en­thet­i­cal thoughts, which is a com­mon usage out­side of the sci­en­tif­ic or legal realm or writ­ing. []