Test your site in Lynx

When was the last time you tested your website in a text-only browser like Lynx (or ELinks, or one of several others)? Perhaps you should.

I’m a big fan of CSS Naked Day. I love the idea of JS Naked Day, although I missed it earlier this month (I was busy abroad, plus my aggressive caching, including in service workers, makes it hard to reliably make sweeping changes for short periods). I’m a big fan of the idea that, for the vast majority of websites, if it isn’t at least usable without any CSS or JavaScript, it should probably be considered broken.

This year, I thought I’d celebrate the events by testing DanQ.me in the most-limited browser I had to-hand: Lynx. Lynx has zero CSS or JavaScript support, along with limited-to-no support for heading levels, tables, images, etc. That may seem extreme, but it’s a reasonable analogue for the level of functionality you might routinely expect to see in the toughest environments in which your site is accessed: slow 2G connections from old mobile hardware, people on the other side of highly-restrictive firewalls or overenthusiastic privacy and security software, and of course users of accessibility technologies.

Here’s what broke (and some other observations):

<link rel="alternate">s at the top

I see the thinking that Lynx (and in an even more-extreme fashion, ELinks) have with showing “alternate versions” of a page at the top, but it’s not terribly helpful: most of mine are designed to help robots, not humans!

Screenshot showing four alternate links at the top of DanQ.me as viewed in Lynx.
Four alternates is pretty common for a WordPress site: post feed, comments feed, and two formats of oEmbed.

I wonder if switching from <link rel="alternate"> elements to Link: HTTP headers would indicate to Lynx that it shouldn’t be putting these URLs in humans’ faces, while still making them accessible to all the services that expect to find them? Doing so would require some changes to my caching logic, but might result in a cleaner, more human-readable HTML file as a side-effect. Possibly something worth investigating.

Fortunately, I ensure that my <link rel="alternate">s have a title attribute, which is respected by Lynx and ELinks and makes these scroll-past links slightly less-confusing.

Lynx screenshot from IKEA.com, showing no fewer than 113 anonymous "alternate" links at the top of the page.
Not all sites title their alternate links. IKEA.com requires you to scroll through 113 anonymous links for their alternate language versions, because Lynx doesn’t understand the hreflang attribute.

Post list indentation

Posts on the homepage are structured a little like this:

  <a href="...">
    <h2>Post Title</h2>
    <p>...post metadata, image, and things...</p>

Strictly-speaking, that’s not valid. Heading elements are only permitted within flow elements. I chose to implement it that way because it seemed to be the most semantically-correct way to describe the literal “list of posts”. But probably my use of <h2> is not the best solution. Let’s see how Lynx handles it:

Screenshot from Lynx showing headings "outdented" from the list items they're children of.
Lynx “outdents” headings so they stand out, and “indents” lists so they look like lists. This causes a quirky clash where a heading is inside a list.

It’s not intolerable, but it’s a little ugly.

CSS lightboxes add a step to images

I use a zero-JavaScript approach to image lightboxes: you can see it by clicking on any of the images in this post! It works by creating a (closed) <dialog> at the bottom of the page, for each image. Each <dialog> has a unique id, and the inline image links to that anchor.

Originally, I used a CSS :target selector to detect when the link had been clicked and show the <dialog>. I’ve since changed this to a :has(:target) and directed the link to an element within the dialog, because it works better on browsers without CSS support.

It’s not perfect: in Lynx navigating on an inline image scrolls down to a list of images at the bottom of the page and selects the current one: hitting the link again now offers to download the image. I wonder if I might be better to use a JavaScript-powered lightbox after all!

gopher: and finger: links work perfectly!

I was pleased to discover that gopher: and finger: links to alternate copies of a post… worked perfectly! That shouldn’t be a surprise – Lynx natively supports these protocols.

Lynx screenshot showing DanQ.me via the Finger protocol.
I can’t conceive that many people access DanQ.me via the Finger protocol, but the option’s there.

In a fun quirk and unusually for a standard of its age, the Finger specification did not state the character encoding that ought to be used. I guess the authors just assumed everybody reading it would use ASCII. But both my WordPress-to-Finger bridge and Lynx instead assume that UTF-8 is acceptable (being a superset of ASCII, that seems fair!) which means that emoji work (as shown in the screenshot above). That’s nuts, isn’t it?

You can’t react to anything

Back in November I added the ability to “react” to a post by clicking an emoji, rather than typing out a full comment. Because I was feeling lazy, the feature was (and remains) experimental, and I didn’t consider it essential functionality, I implemented it mostly in JavaScript. Without JavaScript, all you can do is see what others have clicked.

Emoji reactions screenshot showing thumbs up, star eyes, surprise, muscle flex, nausea, and a dinosaur.
The available emoji vary from post to post; I sometimes like to throw a weird/fun one in there, knowing that it’ll invariably be Ruth that clicks it first.

In a browser with no JavaScript but with functional CSS, the buttons correctly appear disabled.

But with neither technology available, as in Lynx, they look like they should work, but just… don’t. Oops.

Screenshot from Lynx showing a "Bad HTML!! No form action defined." error when clicking an emoji reaction button.
Lynx is correct; this is sloppy code. Without CSS support, it even shows the instruction that implies the buttons will work, but they don’t.

If I decide to keep the reaction buttons long-term, I’ll probably reimplement them so that they function using plain-old HTML and HTTP, using a <form>, and refactor my JavaScript to properly progressively-enhance the buttons for those that support it. For now, this’ll do.

Comment form honeypot

The comment form on my blog posts works… but there’s a quirk:

At the end of the comments form, an additional <textarea> appears!

That’s an annoyance. It turns out it’s a honeypot added by Akismet: a fake comments field, normally hidden, that tries to trick spam bots into filling it (and thus giving themselves away): sort-of a “reverse CAPTCHA” where the robots do something extra, unintentionally, to prove their inhumanity. Lynx doesn’t understand the code that Akismet uses to hide the form, and so it’s visible to humans, which is suboptimal both because it’s confusing but also because a human who puts details into it is more-likely to be branded a spambot!

I might look into suppressing Akismet adding its honeypot field in the first place, or else consider one of the alternative anti-spam plugins for WordPress. I’ve heard good things about Antispam Bee; I ought to try it at some point.

Overall, it’s pretty good

On the whole, DanQ.me works reasonably well in browsers without any JavaScript or CSS capability, with only a few optional features failing to function fully. There’s always room for improvement, of course, and I’ve got a few things now to add to my “one day” to-do list for my little digital garden.

Obviously, this isn’t really about supporting people using text-mode browsers, who probably represent an incredible minority. It’s about making a real commitment to the semantic web, to accessibility, and to progressive enhancement! That making your site resilient, performant, and accessible also helps make it function in even the most-uncommon of browsers is just a bonus.

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CapsulePress – Gemini / Spartan / Gopher to WordPress bridge

For a while now, this site has been partially mirrored via the Gemini1 and Gopher protocols.2 Earlier this year I presented hacky versions of the tools I’d used to acieve this (and made people feel nostalgic).

Now I’ve added support for Spartan3 too and, seeing as the implementations shared functionality, I’ve combined all three – Gemini, Spartan, and Gopher – into a single package: CapsulePress.

Diagram illustrating the behaviour of CapsulePress: a WordPress installation provides content, and CapsulePress makes that content available via gemini://, spartan://, and gopher:// URLs.

CapsulePress is a Gemini/Spartan/Gopher to WordPress bridge. It lets you use WordPress as a CMS for any or all of those three non-Web protocols in addition to the Web.

For example, that means that this post is available on all of:

Composite screenshot showing this blog post in, from top-left to bottom-right: (1) Firefox, via HTTPS, (2) Lagrange, via Gemini, (3) Lagrange, via Spartan, and (4) Lynx, via Gopher.

It’s also possible to write posts that selectively appear via different media: if I want to put something exclusively on my gemlog, I can, by assigning metadata that tells WordPress to suppress a post but still expose it to CapsulePress. Neat!

90s-style web banners in the style of Netscape ads, saying "Gemini now!", "Spartan now!", and "Gopher now!". Beneath then a wider banner ad promotes CapsulePress v0.1.
Using Gemini and friends in the 2020s make me feel like the dream of the Internet of the nineties and early-naughties is still alive. But with fewer banner ads.

I’ve open-sourced the whole thing under a super-permissive license, so if you want your own WordPress blog to “feed” your Gemlog… now you can. With a few caveats:

  • It’s hard to use. While not as hacky as the disparate piles of code it replaced, it’s still not the cleanest. To modify it you’ll need a basic comprehension of all three protocols, plus Ruby, SQL, and sysadmin skills.
  • It’s super opinionated. It’s very much geared towards my use case. It’s improved by the use of templates. but it’s still probably only suitable for this site for the time being, until you make changes.
  • It’s very-much unfinished. I’ve got a growing to-do list, which should be a good clue that it’s Not Finished. Maybe it never will but. But there’ll be changes yet to come.

Whether or not your WordPress blog makes the jump to Geminispace4, I hope you’ll came take a look at mine at one of the URLs linked above, and then continue to explore.

If you’re nostalgic for the interpersonal Internet – or just the idea of it, if you’re too young to remember it… you’ll find it there. (That Internet never actually went away, but it’s harder to find on today’s big Web than it is on lighter protocols.)


1 Also available via Gemini.

2 Also via Finger (but that’s another story).

3 Also available via Spartan.

4 Need a browser? I suggest Lagrange.

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Yesterday’s Internet Today! (Woo DM 2023)

The week before last I had the opportunity to deliver a “flash talk” of up to 4 minutes duration at a work meetup in Vienna, Austria. I opted to present a summary of what I’ve learned while adding support for Finger and Gopher protocols to the WordPress installation that powers DanQ.me (I also hinted at the fact that I already added Gemini and Spring ’83 support, and I’m looking at other protocols). If you’d like to see how it went, you can watch my flash talk here or on YouTube.

If you love the idea of working from wherever-you-are but ocassionally meeting your colleagues in person for fabulous in-person events with (now optional) flash talks like this, you might like to look at Automattic’s recruitment pages

The presentation is a shortened, Automattic-centric version of a talk I’ll be delivering tomorrow at Oxford Geek Nights #53; so if you’d like to see it in-person and talk protocols with me over a beer, you should come along! There’ll probably be blog posts to follow with a more-detailed look at the how-and-why of using WordPress as a CMS not only for the Web but for a variety of zany, clever, retro, and retro-inspired protocols down the line, so perhaps consider the video above a “teaser”, I guess?