Context is Everything

It matters not just how we do a thing, but what we do it for and what

In the uptick of automated scans, we come to the place where we realize it’s not just the quality of content that matters in our success, but the context.

Context in Content

When you write content, the body of your work depends on the literary context of the words. Writing about technology on a non-tech site requires you to step back and explain the tech in a little more detail than you normally might. For example, if I were to post about shortcodes here, I would not bother to give you the history of what they were or why they’re used. I would trust you to know those things, or be ready and able to research them.

By contrast, when writing about code used on a journalism site, and explaining we had a nifty new shortcode to do a thing, I absolutely would take time to explain. I would not expect my readers there, who care about the goings on of television, to understand about the weirdness of a shortcode. At the same time, I may not need to delve into details quite so much. I could just say “We have a new, faster way to add whatever, which will make it easier for us to report on X.”

In short, I consider the audience when I write the content. I write contextually.

Context in Code

When it comes to writing code, there is a similar mindset. The code should make sense contextually and be consistent. If you’re using underscores for filenames, always use underscores, just to give one example. But this goes further than having a same prefix or formatting (tabs or spaces, eh?). It also means that when data is processed, it should be done so contextually.

If you have a form, and you allow people to enter data to send to you, and that data is saved to a database, you have to sanitize the data. That’s a no-brainer for every developer worth the time of day. Never save unsanitized data, and sanitize as early as possible to minimize the possible damage. But deciding how best to sanitize can be tricky. PHP comes with stripslashes() for example, however consider that PHP says this:

An example use of stripslashes() is when the PHP directive magic_quotes_gpc is on (it was on by default before PHP 5.4), and you aren’t inserting this data into a place (such as a database) that requires escaping. For example, if you’re simply outputting data straight from an HTML form.

In other words, you shouldn’t use that to save data. Thankfully in WordPress (and Drupal and everything else) there are many ways to sanitize your inputted data based on … you guessed it, context. You don’t sanitize a URL as a plain text field, and you don’t sanitize an HTML form as a filename.

When you write your code, sanitize, validate, and escape it contextually based on what it is.

The Bottom Line: Context Matters

This is the thing that automated checkers can’t quite do. They don’t know what the input is supposed to be unless you tell them, so they can’t verify your sanitization as well as a human can. Even grammar checkers can’t tell you when it’s okay to use slang and when it’s not, when you’re trying to explain a new concept.

In the end? We need humans.

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