Web Agency

Thoughts on giving people agency over their web browsing experience

By Sufyan DawoodjeePublished Edited

Reader mode is a fantastic browser feature because it standardizes how content is displayed across disparate websites, removing distractions and the need to learn each website's bespokoe interface. RSS readers take this concept to its extreme by automatically providing a standardized feed of content, removing the need to navigate custom UIs to find content. Which is great when you know before-hand what content you care about, but doesn't address the need for content-on-demand. If you're listening to a song and find yourself interested in the history behind it, then you'll need to search for it and navigate the web to find it. It's the year 2024, and you might be able to use an LLM to find the answer, skipping the whole web maze, but at least for now LLMs I use don't provide the context or level of trust I want.

So you go through this web maze and each page provides its own unique experience usually optimized for keeping you in the network or showing you ads. You've trained yourself to ignore the extraneous, intrusive information and manage to find the information you want. Or maybe you didn't. Perhaps you clicked on an ad interleaved with the content you actually care about (e.g. on Google Search or Reddit) or perhaps you saw a suggestion for a relation question or topic you might be interested in and followed it, or perhaps a video thumbnail caught your attention, and before you know it, you forget the original intent of your search.

Digressing from the negative effects of platform incentives, you might find yourself on a website that is optimized for conveying the information you want. But you still have to understand its UI and the presentation might slow you down; perhaps the text is too small, the font is illegible, the sidebars push in-network content, there's a like count at the top, there are low-value user comments, there's a waste-of-(mental)-space stock image at the top... you get the point. Reader mode is supposed to eliminate these details. But reader mode doesn't work everywhere, it removes features that help you navigate and interact in useful ways, its heuristic algorithm sometimes removes content you care about, and you have to manually enable (and disable) it.

What we really need is a way to standardize the experience of each website to our preference, with ways to remove specific UI elements we don't care about, standardize presentational details like fonts and page alignment, and configurable presets so we don't have to define everything ourselves. Basically, we need a user-agent that gives me agency over the web in a nice usable package. For example, I hate profile images because they steal focus use up valuable space, so I want them all gone across all websites. I want my browser to have a "turn off profile images across all websites" checkbox. This functionality doesn't exist because every website is different and there is no universal way to identify profile images. We actually need to hardcode this logic for every website, which appears infeasible. But is it really?

The 80/20 rule applies but in this case I think it's really a 99.9/0.01 rule. We don't need to hardcode logic for every website on the internet, we just need rules for the tiny minority of websites that account for the majority of use. I prefer not to see profile images at all, but if they're removed from the top 100 websites I visit, then I only risk seeing them rarely, which is practically equivalent to never. Great... so I only need to write rules for 100 websites. I'm lazy, so that's about 100 too many, and I'm unwilling to invest the time unless I'm on an OCD stint.

What I really want is for something or someone else to do the work of writing the rules so I can enjoy the fruits of their labor without lifting a finger myself. I can think of three realistic options:

  1. Outsource the work to a hard-working, altruistic benefactor who takes ownership of the rules. This is akin to filter lists used by ad blockers. Tens of someones do the hard, thankless work of writing and updating these lists to save hundreds of millions of people billions of hours annually. In big-tech world where quantifying impact is supposedly important, those numbers are crazy to think about. If you care about effective charity, then maybe these someones deserve something.
  2. Crowdsource the rules so that many less hard-working people can contribute a little. Wikipedia, SponsorBlock, and crowd-sources translation platforms are prominent examples. The challenge here is moderation, preventing abuse, and filtering low-quality contributions. SponsorBlock is interesting because there is a right answer: given a video timeline, there are specific objective time segments containing sponsored ads. This makes crowdsourcing a little easier. Wikipedia and crowd-translation platforms are a little tricker and require heavier moderation because there is no right answer. I think website content rules lean toward the objective, but there are still multiple ways to achieve the same result.
  3. Have machines devise the rules. What was unachievable just 2 years ago can suddenly be done with the power of AI, particularly gen-AI. Whereas in the past you might attempt to create heuristic algorithms that sort of worked half the time, today you can use gen-AI, and it works great most of the time. You just have to figure out how to get data into the system and pay for GPUs.

These options are not mutually exclusive and in my opinion are all worth exploring. Once you have some sort of system for defining rules, the next question is how do you make them accessible to users. A web extension is the obvious answer, but how should it be designed so that users can easily understand and customize rules to their preference? That will have to wait for my next blog post.