Browsing the web in 2021 is a terrible experience

When I first started this post, its title was supposed to be Uninstalling apps, part 2, written as a follow-up to the post from last year:

Once or twice a year, I get this irresistible urge to uninstall apps from my devices. Apps that I don’t use very often, apps that can be replaced by websites easily, apps that I don’t need all the time, and so on.

Yesterday, I did just that on my iPhone and I now only have four third-party apps installed from the App Store.

On my Mac, the cleanup happened a few weeks ago, and I only have five apps outside of the default Mac apps.

Today, I have 3 third-party apps on the iPhone, and 2 on the Mac, but having a minimal amount of apps installed on my devices won’t be the theme of this post.

The only common app between my phone and Mac is Wipr, the content blocker. Last week, I tried to use my devices without a content blocker for a few days. I quickly learned that a content blocker, just like WhatsApp, Drafts, and Dropbox in my case, is an essential app that I need to keep around.

Content blockers: more like content enablers

My Mac had never crashed in its 16 months or so of use — not once — until I tried to visit an e-commerce website without a content blocker. The screen froze, the fans turned on, and the computer rebooted itself. Sure, I currently am on the latest Monterey public beta, but I don’t think this happening during the only three days I didn’t use a content blocker is a coincidence.

On mobile it is even worse: content blockers are actually enabling the users to access the content they try to reach. Without Wipr on my iPhone, I seriously don’t know how I could browse the web at all without getting mad and/or throwing my phone away. I tried to be a “normal” user for something like two days, and I quickly reconsidered the essential status of Wipr.

Like Carl Barenbrug nicely said on his post Web UX Design Is Broken:

Web pages have become possessed, and we need a fucking exorcist to come to our collective aid.

The ads, the cookie banners, the newsletter pop-ups, the “try our app” messages, the awful “suggested articles” from services like Outbrain, the animations, the auto-play floating video windows… All of it is not only distracting and occupying precious screen real estate at the expense of what you came to see on the website in the first place, but this is a terrible user experience. If by miracle you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can get a taste of this awful web UX via this very well-made website.

In many ways, browsing the web is a lot like driving a car, getting from point A to point B, following a path through a series of signs.

When you drive a car and you see ads on the side of the road, when you hear a commercial on the radio, you don’t feel distracted, you don’t feel in danger of crashing the car because of these ads. The driving experience is certainly not improved by these messages, but they don’t ruin driving, they don’t make it an unpleasant experience.

Browsing the web is like that, but instead of cruising on a nice highway in your comfortable car, you’re behind the wheel of a kart on Rainbow Road, and it’s the final lap.

What can be done?

This is a hard question to which I don’t have an answer. I don’t even know if anyone has a good answer. The most persuading answer to this question might very well be: nothing for now.

In my opinion, nothing can be done to improve the general web experience as long as business models stay broken, based on data nobody really wants to share, and tied to companies wanting to grow for the sake of growing.

Manuel Moreale summarises this quite well on his own post on the topic on UX:

​​Ads won’t go away, pop-ups won’t go away, fucking newsletters modals won’t go away. Why? Because unfortunately, they work. That’s just the reality.

​​Sure, removing all the annoyances would be the most sensible and respectful thing to do but marketing and business people are not paid to be respectful. They’re paid to achieve results. And there are many talented individuals that are lending their skills in order to improve those obnoxious things that are ads on the web. That’s just the reality of the world we live in.

So yeah, I ended up installing Wipr back, both on the phone and on the Mac, as it is just not possible for me to enjoy the web without a content blocker. It wasn’t always the case — I remember spending many years without one — but in 2021 I guess there is not much of an alternative, for now at least.