Why JavaScript is Eating HTML


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Web development is always changing. One trend in particular has become very popular lately, and it fundamentally goes against the conventional wisdom about how a web page should be made. It is exciting for some but frustrating for others, and the reasons for both are difficult to explain.

A web page is traditionally made up of three separate parts with separate responsibilities: HTML code defines the structure and meaning of the content on a page, CSS code defines its appearance, and JavaScript code defines its behavior. On teams with dedicated designers, HTML/CSS developers and JavaScript developers, this separation of concerns aligns nicely with job roles: Designers determine the visuals and user interactions on a page, HTML and CSS developers reproduce those visuals in a web browser, and JavaScript developers add the user interaction to tie it all together and “make it work.” People can work on one piece without getting involved with all three.

In recent years, JavaScript developers have realized that by defining a page’s structure in JavaScript instead of in HTML (using frameworks such as React), they can simplify the development and maintenance of user interaction code that is otherwise much more complex to build. Of course, when you tell someone that the HTML they wrote needs to be chopped up and mixed in with JavaScript they don’t know anything about, they can (understandably) become frustrated and start asking what the heck we’re getting out of this.

As a JavaScript developer on a cross-functional team, I get this question occasionally and I often have trouble answering it. All of the materials I’ve found on this topic are written for an audience that is already familiar with JavaScript — which is not terribly useful to those who focus on HTML and CSS. But this HTML-in-JS pattern (or something else that provides the same benefits) will likely be around for a while, so I think it’s an important thing that everyone involved in web development should understand.

This article will include code examples for those interested, but my goal is to explain this concept in a way that can be understood without them.

Background: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript

To broaden the audience of this article as much as possible, I want to give a quick background on the types of code involved in creating a web page and their traditional roles. If you have experience with these, you can skip ahead.

HTML is for structure and semantic meaning

HTML (HyperText Markup Language) code defines the structure and meaning of the content on a page. For example, this article’s HTML contains the text you’re reading right now, the fact that it is in a paragraph, and the fact that it comes after a heading and before a CodePen.

Let’s say we want to build a simple shopping list app. We might start with some HTML like this:

We can save this code in a file, open it in a web browser, and the browser will display the rendered result. As you can see, the HTML code in this example represents a section of a page that contains a heading reading “Shopping List (2 items),” a text input box, a button reading “Add Item,” and a list with two items reading “Eggs” and “Butter.” In a traditional website, a user would navigate to an address in their web browser, then the browser would request this HTML from a server, load it and display it. If there are already items in the list, the server could deliver HTML with the items already in place, like they are in this example.

Try to type something in the input box and click the “Add Item” button. You’ll notice nothing happens. The button isn’t connected to any code that can change the HTML, and the HTML can’t change itself. We’ll get to that in a moment.

CSS is for appearance

CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) code defines the appearance of a page. For example, this article’s CSS contains the font, spacing, and color of the text you’re reading.

You may have noticed that our shopping list example looks very plain. There is no way for HTML to specify things like spacing, font sizes, and colors. This is where CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) comes in. On the same page as the HTML above, we could add CSS code to style things up a bit:

As you can see, this CSS changed the font sizes and weights and gave the section a nice background color (designers, please don’t @ me; I know this is still ugly). A developer can write style rules like these and they will be applied consistently to any HTML structure: if we add more

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