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Tuesday, 25 November 2008

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.

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