Thoughts on CSS Naked Day

by Marty Alchin on April 9, 2009

Thanks to my subscription to the Django Snippets RSS feed, I was recently introduced to CSS Naked Day by way of a snippet to help automate participation. The snippet itself really just provides a way to know when CSS Naked Day is (it happens to be today), so you can prevent your templates from including stylesheets. It was a clever enough snippet, but it made me curious what CSS Naked Day is and whether I should participate.

The idea behind this event is to promote Web Standards. Plain and simple. This includes proper use of (x)html, semantic markup, a good hierarchy structure, and of course, a good ‘ol play on words. It’s time to show off your <body>.

That’s the basic premise, according to the site. Of course, I shouldn’t really call it the “basic” premise, because it’s not stripped down; that’s actually everything it says on the subject. There’s lots of info about when, how and even a healthy list of who else is participating, but very little on why I should participate. Promoting Web standards is a worthy goal, though, right? Why should I need any more reason than that? For starters, because I fail to see how it promotes standards at all.

This is a fun idea, fully in line with the reasons for creating CSS in the first place. While most designers are attracted by the extra presentational capabilities, saving HTML from becoming a presentational language was probably a more important motivation for most people who participated in the beginning.

As found on the CSS Naked Day site, that’s a quote from Håkon Wium Lie, no doubt recognized by my readers as the father of CSS itself. As an authority on the subject, I looked to Lie’s support to help me understand how CSS Naked Day supports standards. It seems to imply that the day is designed to reward those who use CSS to avoid HTML “becoming a presentation language.” So go forth, strip your CSS and show the world how … ugly your site is?

That’s where my first problem is. I’m still not sure how you would measure successful adoption of standards by this tactic. If the goal is to avoid using HTML for presentation, it seems that the ugliest sites should be most successful. If you remove CSS and your site is unintelligible, you’ve won! Of course, I know that’s not the case; if nothing else, there isn’t any “winner” anyway, just support of standards. But Lie’s test isn’t really about supporting standards, it’s about supporting the reason behind the standards. If you separate presentation into the CSS layer, you’ve done the right thing, regardless of what your HTML looks like.

So what about the HTML that’s left over? The <body> we’re supposed to show off to the world? How do we gauge its support for Web standards? If it’s not about being ugly, maybe it’s about being beautiful, in spite of not having CSS. Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and can be interpreted many different ones. The obvious interpretation—a site that looks good visually—should also be the most incorrect, since that would imply the use of HTML for presentation. So perhaps there’s another form of beauty we’re looking for.

One long-cited benefit of HTML is the ability to markup content using meaningful semantics, so perhaps CSS Naked Day is about showing off how well-structured your site is. It might not look like much, but if your headings look like headings, lists look like lists and everything’s organized in a useful way, chances are good that you’re doing the right thing. It’s more about being structurally beautiful than visually beautiful. But the site doesn’t say anything about that.

And that’s my biggest problem here, and with many forms of advocacy in general. People are often asked to do something daring, simply to attract attention, in hopes that the attention can then be directed toward a noble cause. We see it all the time in society at large, and it often suffers from one fundamental problem: not directing attention to the cause at hand. Getting attention is a good thing, but turning into something useful should always be the primary goal. There’s no value in running through your neighborhood naked, only to explain to a reporter, “I’m supporting the kids.” It just doesn’t make any sense.

Now, obviously today’s action is more related to its stated cause than that example, so maybe there’s a hope that people will bridge the gap easily. The problem is that the people you’re trying to reach are the exact same people who won’t realize what the connection is. You’ve made your site ugly, directed interested parties to an explanation, then failed to drive home a message with any substance. It’s like holding a fundraiser for a charity that doesn’t spend any money. Where’s the value?

As far as I can see, CSS Naked Day is only useful for standards-aware people to show off that they practice what they preach, but that does nothing to support Web standards at all. I appreciate the intent, and I think stripping CSS (and still having a useful site) is a great way to get attention and helps prime people for a thorough explanation Web standards. But that explanation needs to be there. The CSS Naked Day site doesn’t even link to a single relevant standard, much less any help in understanding why they’re useful and why you too should join in the Standards Day Parade.

Advocacy requires follow-through, and CSS Naked Day just doesn’t have it.