What if I told you that reading online could once again be a pleasant, focused experience? What if you could stop mindlessly clicking on Buzzfeed and Gawker articles with enticing titles? And what if it were really easy?
My friends: I’m not talking about adblocking. Adblocking is Browsing 101 — an essential foundation to internet browsing, but only the start of your journey, not the end.
No, I’m talking about hiding specific webpage elements. Those sidebars full of ‘Trending Articles’ and ‘Most Emailed’? You can remove them. Those random galleries and newspaper signup boxes that interrupt your article? Removeable — just like all those distracting ‘share on Twitter’ and tag lists.
Wait, isn’t this what Reader View/Instapaper/Pocket is for?
Sure, I use Instapaper and Safari Reader View, especially for long articles. They’re great for detaching the text of a webpage from its design.
The problem is, I actually like the design of the websites I read. The style and layout of a well-designed site really contributes towards its content, just as it does with well-designed books and magazines. Plus it’s easier to remember where you read an article if you see it in the context of its design.
So what does it look like?
The left shows Safari running standard adblock filters from uBlock; the right is after I’ve applied my own blocking filters.
How do I perform this magic?!
Browser extensions like Adblock and uBlock allow you to right-click on any element in a webpage to add it to your filter list.
Here, I’ve right-clicked on the sidebar and found that the ###aside-content1 element holds all of its content. Clicking the pale yellow ‘Create’ button will make uBlock hide the sidebar from all pages on http://www.smh.com.au.
Some websites make it difficult to hide certain elements and ads by placing them inside unique parent tags. In these cases, you can use bypass them using wildcards by placing ##. at the start of the element name you want to hide, e.g. ##.email-signpost
Here’s a couple of filters I set up recently:
! 9 July 2016 at 12:31:59 BST http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-government-rejects-eu-referendum-petition-latest-a7128306.html
The first line tells me when and where I set up the filter — it doesn’t do anything because it has an ! at the start, meaning the extension ignores it.
The real business happens on the next line, i.e. www.buzzfeed.com###next_on and www.independent.co.uk##.email-signpost. These are saying, “On pages within www.buzzfeed.com, hide all elements that are called next_on.”
Filter lists are just text files, making them easy to copy between browsers and even different adblocker extensions, providing they use Adblock Plus filter syntax. I have 600 filters created over a few years, and these days it only takes a minute or two to tidy up an entirely new website — I find it calming, like playing a clicker game.
To save everyone time, someone (not me) could set up a Github repo where filters could be shared and improved. There might even be a business in this, especially if you give people tools to selectively remove different types of elements, e.g. “I want to see ‘Trending Posts’ on every site, but I don’t want to see any share tools.”
These filters should also work on mobile browser adblockers, but I’ve never bothered setting them up since the mobile browsing experience tends to be much less cluttered than on desktops.
Tell me of the filters of your browser, Usul
Some guidelines I follow when I discover a new website to tidy up:
- Always preserve the byline. Journalists don’t get paid much, so the least you can do as a reader is know who’s writing the articles you value, and occasionally tell them you like them. If you’re a regular reader, please pay for a subscription.
- Remove the sidebars. Usually they’re just full of junk like ‘Related Stories’ and ‘Trending Topics’ that’ll take you down a time-wasting rabbithole.
- Remove elements that interrupt the article, including ‘Related Story’, ‘You might like this’, related galleries, and so on. I understand that websites are trying to be helpful but I’d rather get my reading suggestions from the homepage, or from my friends, or news aggregators and bloggers like Metafilter, The Browser, etc., who have incentives other than just getting me to click on lots of things.
- Remove newsletter nags, of course.
- Remove sticky bars, because they are the worst.
- Remove social share tools, including social scores and image share tools. If I want to share an article, I’ll do it my own way.
- Remove category indicators and tag lists. Who uses these? Editors?
- Remove left and right navigation arrows. This ‘linear navigation’ concept is cute but too slow compared with the split-second time it takes to scan the stories on a printed broadsheet. They bring me no joy and so I discard them, as Kondo commands.
- Remove all footer elements. Controversial, since the footer can contain useful stuff, but removing it means that the page scroll indicator can accurately tell me how far I’m through the content.
- I usually keep comments, but I usually don’t read them. YMMV.
How did we get to this point?
On the web, we can publish content that can be read on thousands of devices without custom software, and we can design it any way we wish.
That wonderful versatility has changed the world, and also given us the utter shitshow that newspapers and blogs have become for desktop browsers. It’s like we deliberately designed the most irritating reading experience we could think of, in a desperate bid to hold onto readers who arrive from Facebook rather than homepages, readers who’ve been taught that journalism is literally worthless.
Thankfully, that same versatility has given readers the ability to use adblockers to remove the most annoying, unsafe, and privacy-violating elements of websites. And now readers can use adblockers to go a step further.
The web giveth, and the web taketh away.
Does this hurt writers and publishers?
If anything, I’m more likely to read, comprehend, and finish articles if I’m not getting distracted or interrupted. I can see that removing ‘Trending Posts’ sidebars might lose websites a few hundredths of a cent in ad revenue per user who mindlessly clicks on them, though.
Regardless, the best way you can support writers and publishers is by paying them money. So please subscribe to the newspapers and websites you like, or buy their books, or throw a buck into their tip jars.
If you really don’t have any money, then share the articles you like on social media. It never hurts to mention the author’s name as well.
We’re all wearing Google Leap augmented reality contact lenses. When we’re not playing Pokémon Go on our basic minimum incomes, we’re viewing the world through lenses that selectively add and block different elements. You get into an argument with your boyfriend because he won’t share his filters with you. Doesn’t he trust you? Maybe he’s a serial killer, or something.
It turns out that your boyfriend is imaginary and you ran out of credit to keep him running. The End (of Black Mirror, Season 11 Ep 3).