Why do content blockers still suck?

by Denise_Melchin3 min read15th Jan 20216 comments

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Effective altruism lifestyle
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[This topic is not directly relevant to doing lots of good, but I suspect many readers on this forum are interested in the question.]

I am very confused about this. Content blockers are popular and widely heralded as an important step to curb the addictiveness of internet technology, enabling users to focus more on what matters to them.

What I am confused about is why they are still so primitive compared to what I actually want, and many others seem to want.

The troubles are endless: many do not offer operating on a schedule or a limit on visits on websites. Some only work on websites, but not apps. Many only block specific websites, but not the whole internet. They usually do not synchronize across devices. Most do not have a whitelist function. From a security perspective, they often seem really sketchy. Some of my content blockers just stop working occasionally for seemingly no reason. Often they have loopholes.

I could go on, but you get the idea. But even this list is only about their obvious failures, and does not even discuss the huge potential good content blockers would have.

Just imagine the possibilities: a system in which content is blocked by default. You actually have to specify what you want to be working on which unblocks specific content required for this set of tasks for a set period of time. If you want to, the system can force you to specify this a day in advance. But there could be jokers, in case you actually have forgotten about this one paper you still need. The jokers could even be source specific: you get to look up three papers, but just one wikipedia article. Or a softer approach - you would get a popup if you are visiting websites which do not seem related to the task you set yourself in your calendar.

What might be particularly great if the blocker would actually block content you do not want to see, not specific websites or apps. You would not be able to look at specific content which upsets you, unless you specify you actually want this a set amount of time in advance. I will admit this options carries some risks.

I am sure others can come up with many more options which might be better suited to their needs, these are just the features I would fancy the most.

The current state of affairs also makes me worried that we will not be able to deal with worse impacts from technological change in the future in a timely fashion.

Maybe making good content blockers is technologically much, much harder than I think it is. But then I do not understand why some seemingly simple features are not implemented, a content blocker which can do all the things a patchwork of blockers is already able to do would already be a big improvement. Possibly getting your blockers to interact with every system is just really tricky. But I would gladly buy a new laptop and a new phone with a new OS just for this purpose. Or maybe there is actually an arms race between big tech companies and content blockers that I do not see. But I have never heard of that as an issue. Maybe there is actually much less demand than I think there is for something better. But Freedom has a million users. Maybe this is just a dramatic market failure.

I have been reading Paul Graham’s essays recently. Something he writes about is how Google actually had lots of competition when it entered the market of search engines. How search engines were considered ‘solved’ by many companies. This was despite being awful at searching compared to what Google later did. I wonder whether we are in the same situation with content blockers now. They are a thing, yes. But they seem terrible.

I am confused.

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6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:57 PM
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This is not what you asked for, but I wanted to share some general skepticism of content blocking tools. Over time, I've come to the conclusion that they do more harm than good for me personally:

  • Content blockers have an adversarial vibe to them, like the different agents in my brain are fighting each other, and one blocked the other from doing what it likes. I prefer something that feels more like I'm being nice to myself.
  • I've had more success with setting up good nudges and more 'peaceful' negotiation between the different agents in my head. Not in the sense of compromise à la "just 15 minutes of YouTube, then back to work", but more in the sense "Ok, what does the YouTube-craving part of my brain really want, and can I make it happy in some other way?" For me, the answer is often "take a break from work, get away from the screen, and spend some time with friends."
  • In general, it seems to me that content blockers shift the focus from "why do I do X and how can I do Y instead?" to "how can I prevent myself from doing X?", which doesn't seem fruitful.
  • Content blockers lead me to replace bad behavior X by bad behavior Y (e.g., watching YouTube videos → watching videos on some other site that isn't blocked).
  • As you said, there's often  some scenario where I need to make an exception (e.g., access facebook because a work-related conversation took place there).

Overall, I've found these tools useful to occasionally break particularly bad (addiction-like) habits, but not for being more focused in general. I've tried many of them but haven't used any for a while.

I think freedom.to just does most of these things? 

I highly recommend cold turkey blocker, link here. It offers many of the features you listed above,  including scheduled blocking, blocking the whole internet, blocking specific URL or search phrases (Moreover, this can be done with regex, so you can make the search terms very general),  password-protected blocks, no current loopholes (if there are ones please don't post them, I don't want to know!) and the loopholes that used to exist (proxies) got fixed. 

Pricing seems better than freedom as it's $40 for lifetime usage. My only complaint is that there is no phone version. 

Most content blockers are free, right? Maybe what's going on is: there aren't incentives to make a free offering really good, but the existence of free offerings will discourage people from creating paid offerings.

https://freedom.to is a paid offering that looks like it might address some of your complaints.

Thanks for the response! Freedom unfortunately just stopped working for me many times. After I uninstalled and reinstalled it for the fifth time (which makes it work again for a while) and the customer service had no idea what was going on, I gave up. I still use it for my phone however.

I don't think there is anything on the market which blocks things by default, which is the primary feature I am looking for, plus much more fine grained blocking (e.g. inability to access or google content containing specific phrases).

Sorry to hear about that.

I don't think there is anything on the market which blocks things by default

Not sure if this is helpful, but I turn my internet blocker on every night before bed, and only turn it on the next day after a self-imposed mandatory waiting period.