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June 28, 2021

The pros and cons of markdown (podcast, part 1)

In episode 97 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Sarah O’Keefe and Dr. Carlos Evia of Virginia Tech discuss the pros and cons of markdown.

“I think markdown has a huge user base because most people need to develop content for the web. But there’s a set of people that need to be working in something more structured for a variety of reasons, and those are the ones who use DITA.”

–Dr. Carlos Evia

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Sarah O’Keefe:                   Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way. My name is Sarah O’Keefe and I’m your host today. In this episode, we discuss the pros and cons of markdown with Dr. Carlos Evia. Dr. Evia is a professor and associate Dean at Virginia Tech and also the Chief Technology Officer in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Additionally, he’s an expert on DITA XML and has worked toward bringing structured authoring concepts into university curricula. This is part one of a two-part podcast.

SO:                   Carlos, welcome and welcome back to the podcast.

Dr. Carlos Evia:                   Yeah. Thank you for having me again on the podcast.

SO:                   Well, welcome back. And let me start with the basic question and the theme for this podcast, which is what is markdown?

CE:                   Ay yay yay. Well, that’s a tricky thing because if you go back to the 2004 definition from John Gruber, markdown was supposed to be a very simple text to HTML syntax that will kind of look like, I don’t want to use the word structure, but here I am using structure. Like a structured email message or the kind of structured text that we all people used in use nets. For all you youngsters out there, when the web was this new thing and the internet was pretty much text-based and using it was well, you could get all your entertainment, but it was text. To make the text readable, we used some hashtags and underlines and asterisks to emphasize and highlight components. Markdown came to life as part one, precisely that, kind of simple syntax that would make text easy to read, easy to digest, easy to understand. But then the second thing that markdown had was a little tool that will convert that syntax to actual HTML because people were running HTML and they would be like, oh, brackets, who needs that?

CE:                   Then you wouldn’t need to have brackets. You will just write following that syntax. And then there was a little tool that will attach to blog engines, like mobile type back in the early 2000s and that will automatically convert that text to HTML syntax to actual HTML or back in the day, XHTML, that would be presented to web browsers. And that’s it. That’s where markdown was. But I think the evolution of markdown has gone in very interesting ways, not because of the developers or the creators of markdown, but by the use cases that users have given to markdown.

CE:                   And now you can see people who think of markdown as a, I don’t want to say complete but a partial workflow for developing or storing or presenting or publishing content. And I think that’s kind of weird because if you were to see some of the flavors of markdown that are out there that add lots of squigglies and chain of semicolons and colons to make the content more structure or behave more like something that is not just plain text, that’s not markdown because it’s really breaking with the principle of making it easy to read and making it just plain text. That was a long, long answer to tell you what markdown, the original intention behind markdown was and where some flavors or versions of markdown are today.

SO:                   Okay. It started out as super simple and now it’s getting increasingly complicated. And I think for those of us that live in the XML and DITA world, there’s a good bit of, I don’t know, infighting or conflict between the markdown people and the DITA people. Not everybody falls on one side or the other of that fence, but there definitely seem to be two factions. Why? Why are those two groups fighting?

CE:                   Are they fighting? I don’t know about fighting. And let me tell you something. I think that markdown and DITA live in parallel. Not so much parallel because they have intersecting points, universes of content creation. And I think that the fight is something that is being represented by at least three types of individuals. Number one, publishers of self-authored, non-peer reviewed books that write something and say, “This is the way,” like the Mandalorian. “This is the way and you have to follow this way.” And because they self-publish, they are not peer reviewed, it’s my way and you’re going to think that what I propose is the way to do it. And if you don’t agree with me, don’t write my self-published non-peer reviewed book. But if you do it, you’re going to probably think that, okay, that is the way and I’m going to think about it. That’s one group of people that are like, yeah, there’s this fight.

CE:                   The second group will be people who let’s be honest, get paid to say that. We know some people on the Twitterverse who try to create this fight of DITA versus markdown, markdown versus DITA, depending on who you think should go first. And I don’t think there’s a real war. It’s just that people get paid to do that in order to sell a product. DITA versus markdown, DITA be bad. Markdown be good if you buy my content management system or my blogging platform or whatever it is that I’m selling and I get paid to tweet that there’s a war.

CE:                   And the number three in this type of individual that kind of supports this war or conflict, this friends of the DITA world who have tried to reach out to the markdown-based crowd and they went to one conference or they did one presentation about DITA and they weren’t a little sad or disappointed because not everybody in the audience immediately jumped and said, “I love you DITA.” Oh, kiss, kiss, hug, hug, I’m abandoning everything else. When they came back to the universe of DITA users, DITA developers, they were like oh, the markdown people, they don’t like us. But I don’t think there’s really a war. I think that the big population and it’s huge of people who use markdown as it was intended, as it was developed, as it was created, as a text-to-HTML tool, many of them don’t even know that DITA exists because they don’t have a use case for DITA. They have a use case for a simple shorthand approach to creating HTML and they use markdown. It’s not like they’re like, we hate DITA because they don’t even know what DITA is.

CE:                   And in the other hand, we have people who use DITA because they are in highly structured, highly regulated environments and they use DITA because that works for them. But on their everyday lives, say they want to build a website, if you want to put a comment on somebody’s blog, you use markdown. And that’s my case. I live in the DITAverse, but when I need to make a quick website or I need to tell my students how to do something super simple, that is going to be only posted on a website, we use markdown and we up here in my classes, I think we’ve been teaching markdown since 2005 or something like that. And at the same time we’ve been teaching DITA sometimes in the same class or in different courses since, I don’t know, 2002 or something like that. I don’t think there’s a war. I think it’s different use cases and I think that those funding the idea of a war fall into those three groups of individuals that I presented. But you can have them both and use them for different purposes and I think life can be good.

SO:                   Okay. It sounds as though you’re going to take the grownup perspective on this.

CE:                   Well, I can be mean.

SO:                   Which good for you.

CE:                   And tell you that.

SO:                   Okay. I’m still thinking about the Mandalorian analogy and what I want to know is in this scenario, who is the child?

CE:                   I think the child, I don’t know because people think that markdown is new, but it’s not a new thing. It’s been around formally as both of those components, as the syntax and the tool to transform that syntax to HTML or XHTML, since early 2004. And if you just take the syntax of writing, using the hashtags and asterisks and underline, well that’s existed since the early 2000s, if not earlier than that. And that’s about the time that DITA came out of IBM and became a standard. I don’t think there’s necessarily a component in this situation that is going to be the equivalent of that child who has these powers that are in development and can bring hope to the galaxy and what have you. I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s a case in here where somebody’s a David or a Goliath. I think that they are about as they’re the same age and it’s just a matter of the user base.

CE:                   And like I told you before, I think markdown has a huge user base because most people need to develop content for the web. If they’re not using a Facebook or Twitter, if you’re writing content and you’re publishing your own stuff that it’s going to be on a website, you need to do HTML and ain’t nobody got time to write HTML hand coded anymore so markdown is an approach to do that. But there’s a small set of people, very highly specialized content specialists that need to be working in something way more structured for a variety of reasons, such as you know and as the audience of your podcast know, and those are the ones who use DITA. But I think that they can be both good people and then it can be both powerful, Jedis in different environments.

SO:                   And with that, I think we will wrap up part one. We will be back to continue our discussion about markdown with Dr. Carlos Evia.

SO:                   Thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.