Bad Blocking Will Be The New Ad Blocking

Louis Barclay
4 min readFeb 27, 2020
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash (thank you!)

Ad blocking has been a slow and steady revolution in the way the internet is consumed.

47% of all internet users now use ad blockers to improve their browsing experience.

But there’s an elephant in the ad blocking room:

Built-in ads.

Ad blockers hide external ads, but they don’t hide things like feeds, related content, and notifications of the site itself. These are built-in ads.

They are put there by a site’s own product designers, because they increase the time users spend on the site, which leads to more advertising revenue.

Built-in ads are part of the fabric of many tech products. They make big tech tick.

A few examples: the Facebook News Feed, YouTube’s recommended videos, Twitter’s trending bar, and Buzzfeed’s carousels and sidebars.

They are a crucial part of our attention being stolen and sold. They are why we spend hours more browsing than we intend to.

To give built-in ads a shorter name, let’s call them bads.

How to block bads

The name is deceptive. Bads are not all bad, by any means.

Sometimes you want to see YouTube recommended videos. Other times you need to view related content on Stack Overflow.

That’s why an important distinction needs to be made between bads appearing by default and bads being opt in.

Currently bads appear by default.

That’s actually what makes them bad. They are always there, ready to take you down that rabbit hole.

If they were instead opt in, available whenever the user actively wanted them, they would be a whole lot less bad.

So bad blockers need to work differently to ad blockers. They need to hide bads, but they also need to let users show some bads when they want to.

For instance, replace a Trending Sidebar with a button saying ‘Show Trending Sidebar’.

Let users choose their bads

To avoid getting on users’ nerves, bad blockers would let users decide:

  • Which bads they always want completely hidden, e.g. the Facebook News Feed.
  • Which bads they want to be opt in, e.g. the Trending Sidebar.
  • Which bads they don’t consider bads, which they always want shown, e.g. Stack Overflow related content.

To save users having to figure all this out, bad blockers would come loaded with smart profiles for different kinds of people who want different kinds of bads blocked.

So bad blockers need to be customisable to a degree that ad blockers don’t need to be.

A bad database

To hide bads, bad blockers will need a database of bads.

This database will include information like: description; id of the bad’s HTML element; URLs the bad appears on; tags to categorise the bad; perhaps some kind of rating of the bad according to how bad it is.

This information will need to be created by analysing thousands of websites.

And some of it — for instance the HTML element’s id — will need to be frequently constantly updated.

For that reason, it makes sense for there to be one open-source bad database, maintained by bad blockers and other volunteers.

I am going to launch this database as part of my work on Nudge, so subscribe to the Nudge mailing list here if you’d like to stay tuned.

Bad blockers are out there

There are already tools that do some bad blocking.

News Feed Eradicator was a trailblazer in the space. It hides a single (massive) bad: the Facebook News Feed.

Motion, a new Chrome extension that launched on Product Hunt last week, has some bad blocking capabilities.

But if you’d like to try a fully-fledged bad blocker, check out Nudge, the anti-distraction Chrome extension that I develop.

Nudge’s Hider feature is similar to the implementation of a bad blocker described above.

Bads are hidden by default, but you can always show them when you need to.

I’m soon going to be adding many more bads to the list of what Nudge currently hides. Email me on louis [at] nudgeware [dot] io to suggest more.

Bad times

People born today will spend most of their life looking at pixels.

We’re going through a fundamental change in how humans experience reality.

So it’s critical for us to figure out who gets to decide the pixels that we will spend so much time looking at.

Will it be us, or will it be big tech?

Bad blockers, and other forms of nudgeware, will tilt the balance back to us.

So we should probably hurry up and make them.

And not just for the desktop browser. Crucially, we need bad blockers on people’s phones.

As things stand, that’s virtually impossible because of the way phone operating systems stop developers from having full control.

But if enough people start using bad blockers in their desktop browsers, pressure will grow for phones to support them too.

Billions of hours of human attention lie in the balance.

Let’s make the best out of a bad situation.