John Gruber’s Markdown, a lightweight, plain-text formatting language, was released in 2004 as a simpler way to write for the web. Although its popularity has increased slowly compared to the explosion of online writing in the intervening decade, it seems to be catching on recently, especially among the developer-blogger community. Though its success is far from guaranteed, I asked Gruber why he thought it was becoming more popular:
That's a good question. It does seem to continue gaining in popularity slowly but steadily. My guess is that it's a slow process because users don't adopt it until software they use supports it. I also think a lot of people resist trying it in the first place because it sounds like something that just adds a layer of hassle between your writing and the HTML markup. You have to actually try it to see that it removes hassle.
There have been some recent developments to make it easier for software to adopt Markdown. Last October, Coding Horror's Jeff Atwood wrote an enthusiastic post pushing for standardization and standards compliant tests. I emailed Atwood to see how he thought things were coming. His response:
We have decisions from the "committee" but there is a bit of a bottleneck with the folks able to contribute the reference C implementation of what we're proposing. Working on it!
Here’s what Attwood proposed:
- A standardization of the existing core Markdown conventions, as documented by John Gruber, in a formal language specification.
- Saner defaults for the three most common real world usage "gotchas" in Markdown: intra-word emphasis (off), auto-hyperlinking (on), automatic return-based linebreaks (on).
- A formal set of tests anyone can use to validate a Markdown implementation.
- Some cleanup and tweaks for ambiguous edge cases that exist in Markdown due to the lack of a formal specification.
- A registry of known flavor variants, with some possible future lobbying to potentially add only the most widely and strongly supported variants (I am thinking of the GitHub style code blocks which are quite nice) to future versions of Markdown.
A big part of what makes Markdown usable is its plain-text formatting syntax, which means you can use it just about anywhere, online and off. The catch is that there are different variants and flavors of Markdown that make some implementations more desirable than others. As Atwood remarked, the devil is in the details, thus the need for standardization.
As you can see from this comprehensive list of 78 Markdown apps, it looks like Markdown is catching on. Even if consensus never forms around a specific implementation, the online world as a whole seems to be moving towards using simple mark up in mainstream writing to emphasize voice, rather than traditional formatting.
In that spirit, we want your feedback. Do you use Markdown? Do you like the idea of it, but find something is keeping you from marking things, er, down? Cast your vote either in the comments or, better yet, on Twitter.
Tag your tweet with #usemarkdown or #dontusemarkdown and share why.
(This post was, of course, originally written in Markdown)
[Image: Flickr user Sento]