I like XKCD. Everyone that I know who’s heard of XKCD likes it as well. But there’s one little annoying thing its author, Randall Munroe, does that I wish he would stop: putting additional commentary about the strip into HTML meta attributes on the image of the comic. Specifically, I’m referring to the title attribute, which is often incorrectly said to be the alt attribute (the name of the strip is actually what goes into the alt attribute). The contents of the title attribute is displayed when you hover your mouse above the image. The worst annoyance with the title attribute, that it wouldn’t be displayed in full in Firefox 2 unless you right-clicked on the image and opened up the Image Properties dialog, has been fixed in Firefox 3, but there are still many other problems with the customary use of the image’s title attribute for displaying additional text commentary.
The main problem with the use of the image title attribute to inject additional humor is that it is not obvious from a user interface standpoint. I read the entire backlog of 200 or so XKCD strips when I first found out about the comic, only to then discover that I had completely missed out on the “hidden” joke on each one. And since it was such a big backlog, I never even bothered going back to check out the jokes. Simply placing them as text beneath the comics, as a sort of caption postscript, would have worked much better.
More recently, when I found out about the excellent web comic Daisy Owl, I again read the entire backlog without realizing there was additional content on each comic in the form of a title attribute. The use of the image title attribute is spreading like a malevolent virus! Now, it’s gotten to the point that I hover my mouse cursor over every web comic image for fear of missing anything, even though the vast majority thankfully don’t use this feature. Now that’s just a waste of my time.
Also, using the image title attribute for these purposes simply isn’t good according to web accessibility standards. The title attribute is specifically intended to label the link that the image points to, while the alt attribute is used to describe the image itself. The title attribute is thus meaningless in the context of web comic images, which typically don’t link to anything, and relies on a browser quirk to display the contents of the title attribute even in the absence of a link. It doesn’t make sense to use the image attribute against its intended purposes simply because most web browsers happen to display it in a pop-up text box on an image mouse-over event. Needless to say, the use of image attributes in “creative” ways confuses screen reader programs used by the blind, which rely on the image attributes actually being what they say they are.
So Randall, I love your strip, but please just put the additional commentary as plain text somewhere on the page below the image. The trick with the title attribute was cute at first, but is now just annoying, and I’m afraid it’s spreading across the blagosphere, with new web comics authors feeling compelled to put something in their image title attributes as well.