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Behind an internet meme

Several months ago, a friend and I built a site based around a very nerdy inside joke we had at work. A code issue that web designers often face is making a layout work in all browsers using only CSS (Cascading Style Sheets). Using CSS is the standard, proper, acceptable way to create a website’s layout. An out-dated method of creating websites’ layouts involves a bit of HTML called a table. Tables, for all their clumsiness, tend to work more consistently across browsers than CSS. Tables also do things like vertically align content to the bottom of a cell while CSS will only do this in conjunction with JavaScript.

Of course, there’s a huge logical problem with using tables for layout: the layout of a site is not actually tabular data. And we coders don’t like that bit of bad logic. Also, while tables solve the initial layout problem, they are significantly harder to update.

That said, there often comes a time while coding a site when a designer might entertain the wish to give up and use tables. So we made a site based around that frustration we felt when browsers wouldn’t obey our CSS. Brian created a flash widget that gives a designer 47 minutes to wrestle with CSS. After that time, the widget buzzes and provides the table code for the designer to use.

The whole thing was a joke that we just got bored enough to execute. But here’s where the story gets interesting… After sitting dormant for 9 months, suddenly someone found the site. And not just someone but a very popular code blog called Ajaxian. In one day the site’s visitors leapt from 0 to 400. The next day the site was picked up by a reddit user. At the end of the day, we had about 35,000 visitors.

The Google Analytics graph tells the story:

Impressive, huh?

More impressive is that within one day my Google Page Rank shot up to a 5. And while the instant popularity of the site caused envy in my friends who wished their sites could get 35,000 visitors in one day, I knew it wouldn’t last. Friends encouraged me to put Google Ads on the site, make t-shirts, anything. “This could be another dramatic hamster, Todd!”

But I declined. Give Up and Use Tables is a pretty pure form of internet meme. It’s a site that does one thing — execute a really nerdy joke. We had our day — literally one day — and that was it.

Or to put it another way:

The long graph shows the decline and fall:

It was a fun 24 hours. Golden State even received several referrals from the wave of traffic that hit the site. There are some lessons to draw from this on internet trends, viral marketing, and link-sharing. But I’m still basking in the fun of our joke entertaining so many people (and even inciting real argument). And while Brian and I might have let the domain lapse and the site disappear, Golden State has taken over hosting and will keep it as a geeky museum piece.

So if you’ve ever felt cross-browser frustration with CSS, feel free to succumb to your urge and Give Up and Use Tables.



49 Comments

  1. Mic says:

    Nice Todd :) Good idea. I love one shot websites that do nothing but prove how the internet community works :P

    I’ve set similar site wyslijserce.pl (send a heart) on valentines day where people could generate valentines message to their loved ones/ friends/ etc..

    Page brought around 10k visits in 1 day. Then its over. Funny thing is that after we launched our website, big portal company did the same, but brought millions of visits. They’ve sent a spam mail on their free mail system with over 4milion registered users.

    Conclusions: Find out what people need, give them for free, and they will live with the ads :P

  2. Sanat says:

    let us see what the slashdot crowd does to your stats on December 7, 2008

    Sanat

  3. Simon Bettison says:

    Well this slashdotter just visited :) I really can’t be the first?

  4. Me says:

    I came from /. as well ;)

  5. eolh says:

    But no! Never give up CSS! NEVER! … visiting also from /.

  6. Remedy says:

    This MEME was spot on. After having my share of frustration with css, ive settled on using a mix of tables and css.

  7. JD says:

    Absolutely awesome. Hard to argue against your logic.

    BTW, I didn’t see it on /. Word of mouth.

  8. bob says:

    separating content from format is the way to go. Yes we hate CSS, but sometimes you just gotta do the right thing. Once you start designing for mobile access, tables still suck. :-D

  9. Timaaaa says:

    I really liked this post. Can I copy it to my site?
    Thank in advance.

    Sincerely, Timur.

  10. bleh says:

    You guys rock!

  11. Julian says:

    You guys have just been linked by Gruber. Check your Analytics graph tomorrow morning.

    Love the joke by the way. Nicely executed. :)

  12. Sam Stigler says:

    I can’t wait for CSS3 Grid Positioning….

  13. Terry says:

    I struggle with this every day

  14. Zing says:

    Give up and use *CSS* tables. :-D

  15. Foo says:

    Your argument would be so much more persuasive if your website didn’t look like crap in Safari.

  16. Justin D says:

    Guys, brilliant. Though I do think 47 minutes is too long… mine tends to be 20 minutes tops. Hell, more often than not, for smaller sites I just go right to tables. They Just Work. =)

    Kudos!

  17. hammarlund says:

    things should pick up again. this has been mentioned on Daring Fireball.

  18. taylor says:

    How much do I wish I’d stumbled upon this site a week ago?! I have a site that was originally laid out in tables a while back. Being a newbie, I thought it was time for me to learn CSS and update it so I rebuilt from scratch. Here I am a week later and I’ve got 3/4 of it done but have wasted 2 days on that last 1/4, to no avail. Looks like it’s time to throw in the towel and plop a table in there. Grrrrrr…

  19. dan says:

    got here from daringfireball.net, i imagine there will be a few of those too.

  20. alastair says:

    It isn’t just about philosophical notions of beauty though. Properly done, CSS layouts are better for users who rely on accessibility software like screen readers or braille displays. Why? Because it means that you’re free to write structural HTML that reflects your meaning and then use CSS to mutate it into the attractive layout for the majority of users.

    As for the assertion that tables work the same way in all browsers, well, it only takes a few moments to disabuse oneself of that notion. Especially if we include browsers that don’t do a passable job of getting CSS right.

  21. elksie says:

    Still learning CSS, although I can already understand why you might want to give up.

  22. matt says:

    I’m curious what your GA stats are for today…

  23. Incidentally, I think this site is making the rounds again. I didn’t see it the first time – very nicely done.

  24. uwe says:

    If you can not be bothered with CSS hire a front end developer

  25. MattT says:

    Would be interesting to see an update after the spike you’ll probably get from Gruber’s mention today.

  26. Todd says:

    Crikey! People, it’s a JOKE! We don’t use tables.

    Except when we use them.

  27. andrew says:

    Yes! Show us the Reddit vs Slashdot vs Daringfireball effect.

    I’m rooting for Gruber.

  28. woah says:

    no! NEVER! DIE!

  29. [...] even have a timer that you can use when you are creating a CSS based layout. I did find out that the site was created out of boredom and as an inside joke between several developers that work together. When I read that, I smiled and thought “good [...]

  30. Zack says:

    I could not agree with you more!

  31. Hatim says:

    Oh I feel your pain with CSS. I still think that neither css nor tables are the perfect way to layout content on a web page and that we should have a somewhat more flexible and easier way to do it.

  32. Kelly says:

    I have been working on a client project in which I am converting his TABLE-Based layout to a CSS/XHTML div based layout, and I took a break just to find this article!! At first I did not realize it was a joke (I was a little concerned!), but wow, I love the story!! And I’ve been there with the Frustration. Especially early on. Now, I find CSS to be downright addicting and a lot of fun. I would never dream of using tables because they are just too hard in the long run and not nearly as search engine friendly as a site made with s and XHTML. I never stopped at 47 minutes!! Hell, I spent months trying to figure it all out!!! Now I can make a layout in under 10min.!!
    So never give up! At least not permanently. Thanks for sharing!
    Kelly

  33. Richard says:

    Great story! I have been designing web sites off and on since 1995, so tables have been my main stay for a long time. Now I use CSS XHTML and DIV etc, but still use the occasional table. I think we should try to follow best practice, but hell! we don’t have to make life difficult for ourselves.
    I got here from this article:
    http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/04/08/from-table-hell-to-div-hell/
    which is full of good ideas.
    Thanks
    Richard

  34. andy says:

    I’ve been working for hours frustrated with the inconsistencies between semi-compliant firefox and non-compliant ie. You know what, I don’t care if I’m part of some snooty community whose code doesn’t work worth crap on any major browser. I thought about nixing IE but the market share is too much to pass up. Then I found the display: table and thought that was gold. But that doesn’t work in IE 6 or 7. Which still have 30.3% market share. Can’t look like crap to 3/10.
    You know what? I don’t care if table’s weren’t designed for layout, guess what, THEY WORK 100% of the time. And the only person who would notice that I used *gasp* tables for layout will be another designer, and he could just suck it or redesign it to try to make it compliant.
    I could give a crap about the search engine’s either. They can suck it too. This isn’t a website to make money, just for our church. I LOVE TABLES AGAIN!

  35. CSS is the magical unicorn the web. You can spend forever toiling for the dream and still never see it in action. Wasn’t CSS supposed to solve all my layout issues? Then why does it seem to create more problems than it solves? How good can it be if it requires so many damn hacks and inelegant solutions?

    /rant

  36. Budgeteer says:

    What is best practice? As far as I’m concerned it’s what I can do to get a site up without going insane trying to adhere to “standards”. Too much attention is being paid to W3C…I ignore most everything the purists and elitists talk about…in my web life and personal life and I find I’m a lot happier than the person who lives to adjust to “standards”. Tables work…pure and simple…and unless Dreamweaver eliminates them I’ll use them. My sites are all table-based, Google ranked, indexed, blah blah…only designers who look at the source code complain about my sites…my clients who pop up first in a Google search have no issues. CSS is fine for style sheets…for layout I can’t be bothered.

  37. I’m here from StackOverflow.com.

    TRiG.

  38. foureyes says:

    Got here from FAcebook, love it. CSS is a real pain for layout, great fro styles. The real issue is that browser writess should adhere to ‘the standards’ then all who write web pages can get on with the job.

    iiii

  39. FrancisT says:

    BTW this site – http://constructyourcss.com/ – is a great help to beat your deadline :)

  40. Amandeep says:

    I just checked the source code for this page. It uses CSS.

    I guess that probably means that Golden State has an intimate understanding of CSS woes?

  41. reason a bubble says:

    Empty vessels make the most noise when it comes to raving about CSSP. So many people get absorbed by standards that are half baked instead of taking the lateral approach and researching the issues. ”Look mommy I learn’t some new code, it’s shinny, hmmmmmm. I gunna use it coz it’s shinny.”

  42. James says:

    Give up and use IE(7/8/9).js :) That eliminates about 95% of problems so you can use CSS mostly the way it should be. Then when your 47 minutes are up, you only need one or two simple tables for the trouble spots, which is NOT the same as “table-based layout”. Besides, most of the problems with table-based layouts didn’t come from the tables. They were from nested-nested-nested tables, plus all of the attributes, font tags, center tags, etc. CSS made table layouts manageable long before the noobs came on the scene and proclaimed that thou shalt use tables only for thy tabular data.

  43. Dave Doolin says:

    No, this isn’t going to die. It’s just going to spread naturally.

    I bet the traffic grows slowly and consistently over time.

  44. ben says:

    Ah, over 2 years has past, and I’ve only just found it.
    Love the 47 minutes thing. Will it really write my code ? Just another 43 minutes to find out. Here’s hoping. Now where are those designer monkeys ?

  45. Tilda Culp says:

    Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is fantastic blog. A fantastic read. I’ll certainly be back.

  46. If possible, while you gain knowledge, are you able to mind updating your website with an increase of information? It is rather well suited for me.

  47. Todd says:

    OMG! Am I the last guy in America to have stumbled onto ‘giveupandusetables’? Still hilarious though, Todd……(r u still there?)

    Even four years later……

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