TiVo for the Web
Want to be able to strip the ads from the Web ads that CNN sends you? How about spoofing the New York Times server so that you don't have to log in? Or get rid of Flickr's Flash-based images and insert the real images instead?
Those fun folks at the Mozilla Development Group have come up with Greasemonkey -- a Firefox plug-in that allows you to do that and a lot more.
Call it TiVo for the Web.
Now, this is nothing new to the folks on the digital cutting edge, but it's time for the media industry to take note because this force is slowly gaining mainstream attention and it is likely to once again change the balance of power between content providers and consumers. And it's not limited to Firefox. One developer has come up with similar scripts for Internet Explorer.
It doesn't take very long browsing the page of user-created scripts for Greasemonkey to see where this is going. There's one, for instance, that removes any page at about.com from Google results. (What if a similar script were developed to remove your company's search results?) Another removes the context-sensitive ads from Google's G-mail.
If you are the New York Times, pay attention to this one, which allows you to spoof the referrer so that you can follow links to NYT articles without logging in. (It requires a general program called RefSpoof that also comes from the open-source community at Mozilla.) Or how about automatically getting a Salon day pass when reading Salon's premium articles. (There are a number of these remove ads and subvert barriers scripts, even against sites like Slashdot.)
There are dozens of others -- and thousands more waiting to be written, perhaps by someone intent on subverting whatever "feature" your site sports. It's the open-source developer community, folks, and like water, it will find its own level. (Check out the Greasemonkey blog.)
So pay attention. You're going to hear a lot more about this -- and a lot of hand-wringing I suspect, too. Will this touch off an arms race on the Web as each side escalates attempts to keep control (or, in the case of users, take it back)? Perhaps, and it would be stupid. You see, there are more of "them" (i.e., developers, programmers, just plain pissed-off technically savvy people who want to show they are in control) than there are of you. But I predict this one's just about to get started.
(Thanks to Stephen Downes for the tip-off on this via a post on Poynter's Online News forum.)
Adrian Holovaty, lead developer for The World's cutting-edge stuff in Lawrence, Kan., has a little different take on things:
-- Ad-blocking technology such as Ad Block from Mozilla has been around a lot longer, so don't fixate on that.
-- Developers should respect and welcome the feedback from Greasemonkey. Many of the scripts get to problems with pages or features people would like.
But while Ad Block might be better, it's Greasemonkey that's getting the attention. Tom Biro at AdJab notes that he already has seen "casual" users attracted to Greasemonkey:
From experience, I can state that I know some not-so-savvy web surfers who I was surprised to see had Greasemonkey running on their laptops in the last week. They casually mentioned that "it was something they heard about that would get rid of all the ads." Wow. If the casual Web user is trying to get rid of advertisements, what are the early adopters doing? Oh, that's right - they're removing the ads, too. What's a publisher to do in the interim?Mozillazine has an earlier story, with links to a Cnet piece and to Opera's move down the same path, though its implementation seems a little too techie right now for the casual user. The Mozillazine article has an interesting exchange of comments that once again highlights the differences in the way Web content ownership and usage is viewed.