On Text Formatting…

I’ve been posting to LinkedIn quite a bit more lately, and it’s got me thinking about our relationship to raw text – meaning simple text with no visual formatting (bold, italics, indenting, etc). LinkedIn doesn’t even allow embedded links.

It’s odd, but there’s a peacefulness to it which I enjoy.

I’ve often wondered about how hyperlinks in particular affect our reading and comprehension. Every link is both (1) a tug away from the text (“should I click it?”), and (2) an excuse for the writer to not explain something (“here’s a link, just click it for more information…”).

The lack of bold and italics mean that if I want to emphasize something, my only option is really ALL CAPS. I could do “unprocessed Markdown” style and **surround it in asterisks**, but that seems crude and someone not used it might get confused.

(I know there are hacks to add this, and there are some creative uses of emojis, but they always feel a little spam-mish to me. Whenever I see them used, I tend to skip the post because I feel like they’re trying to sell me something.)

I have resorted to all caps on occasion, but more often the lack of these tools just forces me to (1) rewrite the thought to make it clearer, or (2) trust that the user gets it and I don’t need to artificially emphasize something. (A thought: is italics really just a symptom of insecurity in my own writing?)

The lack of blockquoting can usually be resolved with actual double-quotes (how quaint…), and occasionally setting it off with dashes (see below for an example).

This now has got me thinking about all the ways we’ve tried to embed formatting in plain text over the years. I have an entire class lecture about this. A lot of people think it started with Markdown, but it actually goes way back into the history of plain text emails.

My research goes back to 1991 when the TidBITs email newsletter invented something called “Setext,” or “Structure Enhanced Text.” HTML wasn’t invented until 1993 (yes, yes, I know about SGML…), so there was no conversion step like Markdown. Setext literally existed to be read as-is, in emails without formatting.

I’m a fan. I enjoy a simpler time when the focus was purely on the conveyance of information, and the data was protected from format changes and different rendering quirks. ASCII is ASCII, pretty much wherever it exists, so there’s an inherent futureproofing there.

I’ll leave you with the link (and quote) below, which I have as required reading for one of my courses.

"Text wins by a mile. Text is everything. […] text is the most powerful, useful, effective communication technology ever, period."

(Yes, yes, everything is contextual. Audio wins if you’re doing something else. Video wins for many other situations. But this is in pure generalities and overall usefulness.)

always bet on text

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