Why Isn’t the Plain Text Project in Plain Text?

Back in December, 2019, The Plain Text Project hit the front page of Hacker News. That came as more than a bit of a surprise to me — I don’t often read that site, and it took a while to root out why I suddenly received more emails in the space of a couple of days than I did over the life of the site.

Much of that email was positive or contained some good constructive criticism. There were more than a couple of facetious and snarky comments in the mix, too — the kind that started with I don't want to be that guy, but ... and wound up with them being that guy. Those kinds of comments also appeared elsewhere online, according to a friend or two.

In creating this site, and building it the way I did at the time, I seem to have drawn the ire and scorn of a handful of plain text purists. A few of them took me to task for not publishing this site in plain text and plain text only. With no markup, no CSS. Just files with the extension .txt and nothing else.

I'm still not sure if they were just being overly pedantic, were virtue signalling, or just being annoying jerks. Maybe a mix of all three.

Before June, 2020 I used the Jekyll static site generator to create The Plain Text Project website. Jekyll did all the heavy lifting for me — creating the navigation and the structure, and turning my Markdown source files into the HTML that I published to the web. That saved me a lot of time and effort. Now, the site’s coded in HTML and CSS only. Yes, it’s all in plain text even with the HTML and CSS, regardless of what some people might say.

Back in 2007, I interviewed Adam Hyde who, at the time, was running the FLOSS Manuals project. Something Adam said during that interview sticks with me to this day:

Documentation has to have an aesthetic strategy. Documentation has to be consumable. It has to be friendly, not just in the way it’s written but in the way it presents itself. It should be easy to read. It should look attractive. It should look like something you want to engage with.

This applies to web, too. And it applies to this site.

I’m not talking about complex layouts or fancy design tricks. Rather, I'm talking about putting a site together in an attractive, appealing package that's easy on the eyes. While The Plain Text Project is nowhere near the apex of web design, I believe that its new look and feel makes the site easy to read and makes it engaging. And, I’ll argue, that was also the case for the previous version of the site.

How I do things in this space might not be to liking of some plain text purists. That’s OK. I can’t please everyone. And I’m not going to try.