Ideas for an anti-browser

Originally written for the Embassy of Internet.

1990 marks an important historical moment for the development of contemporary means of communication: WorldWideWeb (1) is finally alive, the first browser to access the information network created at CERN by Sir Tim Berners-Lee the year before.

Everything was grayscale, since it ran on NExT machines, it displayed pictures only in a separate window, it had a reduced set of instructions for the hierarchy of texts (defined as "html") but was not very different from what we now call a browser: an access point to the web.

The interesting fact is that the historical moment is not the creation of the web itself (on the contrary, Internet protocols had already existed for over a decade) but of its "viewer", because unlike other media, WorldWideWeb was able not only to receive the information, but most importantly to change its appearance, to let the user interact with it and even create new information.

The television (intended as the receiving device) isn’t able to change the appearance or flow of a program. A browser can do that. If we had browsers that change every blue color to red, the Internet would not have blue, and the user wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. He would actually be sure that every site never contains blue.

From that we can understand that the entire perception and use of the network depend directly on its access point. The browser is a kind of border, and the way in which you visit its country changes depending on the visa.

Today however, we are used to the fact that a browser is a window with a top bar where you can find the URL address of the page displayed, with navigation buttons that lets you go forward or backward and a series of tabs stacked horizontally just below or above the address bar.

Some elements of the visited page change our cursor into a white hand, left clicking on one of them can change the content of the page itself. More than the original concept of hypertext we’re now used to interactive areas. At the user’s discretion, this new content can be displayed in a new tab to keep the last one open.

The information is presented to us exclusively as the website owner wanted. A code is decided a priori and the browser is responsible for following it as precisely as possible.

Even so, information is often ephemeral, because websites are temporary experiences. The content may disappear or be altered without prior notice, because in any case the user is always only a guest, a visitor. The user is not the owner of anything, not even its own data.

Also, our access points are extremely limited: usually a search engine or a social network. Due to the self-referential nature of most websites, it is very rare that further navigation can occur from the first page visited.

Thanks to the technologies available to browsers, websites have evolved more and more to forcefully seek our attention. There is no space left on the page, wherever you look there’s a new element designed to keep us hooked. Websites are built around the concept of ”bounce rate" (2).

Despite all these technologies made available over the last 20 years, the experiences are not so different from one site to another, and unfortunately they are not at all positive. Especially by phone, most websites welcome you with a wall of popups that force you into consider subscribing to the newsletter and accept cookies even before you read a sentence.

It seems that all the technologies not related to pure html have been used for nothing else, especially considering that all the pages end up always having a header, big blocks of images, hamburger menus, "contacts" pages and "about" pages.

"Excuse me, sir, but where’s the content?" (3) Many animations and parallaxes, but the actual information is now harder than ever to find. How is it possible that instead a 1987 file (4) is still perfectly legible and full of useful content?

The diluvial nature of modern media leaves us little time to pause. The challenge, then, is to cultivate the patience and the discipline necessary to engage more deeply than the modern world allows. Just because we are flooded doesn’t mean we have to drown.

The comment is by James Jackson Toth (5), and actually describes a wider problem than the original discourse concerning music.

An interesting step towards a less chaotic use of the web has already been taken about 5 years ago by Microsoft with the introduction of the “reading view” on IE11 (6). It was followed Apple the following year on Safari (7). Allegedly a "distill" function will be soon available on Chrome as well (8).

Activating the reading view you enter a neutral zone, where only the relevant content exists (which maintains its original hierarchy). Any style or script of the website is ignored. In addition, the user has complete freedom to adapt font, color and text size to help legibility, almost like on the first Netscape (9).

If the reading mode effectively cancels the browser, the most logic idea would be to create a browser without the whole browser part.

Turning the current situation upside down to understand if anything still work. No buttons, no address bar, no horizontally ordered tabs, no favorites icons and no bookmark column, nothing between the user and the information.

All interactions with the browser take place through keyboard shortcuts and gestures we are already used to. Cmd+N starts a new session, swipe left with two fingers to navigate back, cmd+click on a link to open it in a new window. Having to use an entire horizontal strip 60 to 100 pixels high to display the current URL and navigation keys is a considerable waste of space that could be left instead to the only reason the browser has been opened: exploring the Internet.

More precise controls and commands are in any case available in the system menu bar. They are a click further away than before, but their presence is much less distracting.

At the center of this neutral zone, a significantly improved "reading view”. Starting from technologies already available in text browsers such as Lynx (10) or Browsh (11), the goal is to give a pleasant appearance to the reading, respecting the hierarchy of the page, leaving the useful elements of the websites as intact as possible. Menus are transformed into discrete link lists, unnecessarily complex layouts are reduced to a central column of text and images, disproportionate or difficult to read contents are rendered typographically more pleasing.

The browser respects the light or dark mode set by the system (12), above all to avoid blinding visitors with very white pages at night. To avoid adding more distraction, images and videos are given less importance than text, but it’s possible to enlarge them individually when resolution allows. It is also possible to highlight and comment the content of the page: the notes will be kept in local memory unless the page changes.

In addition, since it is the reader who decides how to browse the content and not the owner of the content, full freedom is left for the customization of fonts, font colors and background, text and column dimensions.

When using a browser that doesn’t encourage navigation from search engines or social networks, it’s necessary to strengthen the hypertext links, the original concept on which the web was born.

The encouragement for website authors is to create more links with other pages, write interesting content so that other pages can link back to their website and generate personal indexes. Although the Google algorithm is very good at giving generic results, it won’t be as good as a list of contents edited by a human.

Numerous semantic elements are available to site owners to better define the hierarchy of pages, the type of interactions and the information they contain.

Not only specific syntax for link indexes, but also for bibliographies, captions, notes and references. Attributes to indicate the type of media file (a technical drawing will be treated differently than the photo of a dress, the window for a video will be different from that of an image), metadata to contact the author of the page, to let users know about the belonging to a web ring, etc.

All these tools live in compliance with the W3C standards in order to guarantee the compatibility of these specific sites with all other browsers. The semantic web, the web 3.0, had to be the great goal of the 2000s, but it was never realized (13). All available metadata are inspired by that idea but in no way constitute a traffic advantage over other sites.

Finally, the last link to the original vision of the World Wide Web: active participation. The first browser was at the same time a reader, an editor of content and a server, a function that for convenience over the years has been transferred to special “hosting solutions“, thus centralizing the ownership of information in the hands of a few distributors.

Today the Internet user is rarely an author as well: he must rely on designers, developers and distributors or third-party platforms. Projects like Beaker (14) are trying to rebuild this possibility, even basing the technology on decentralized protocols to avoid a single ownership of data and foster sharing.

An anti-browser, precisely because it is not only a way to “browse” must also be able to modify and share simple html pages.

The anti-browser is a visa for the same Internet that we can already access, but from an alternative entry.

(1) Tim Berners-Lee's original World Wide Web browser.

(2) Bounce rate

(3) Peter Molnar, "Do websites want to force us to use reader mode?" []

(4) The LOD/H Technical Journal: File #1 of 12. Volume 1, Issue 1 Released: Jan. 1, 1987

(5) James Jackson Toth, "Too Much Music: A Failed Experiment In Dedicated Listening", The Record, NPR []

(6) Michael Archrambault, "Give your eyes a break with Internet Explorer Reading Mode for Windows 8.1", Windows Central

(7) Roman Loyola, "macOS High Sierra: How to use Reader mode in Safari 11", Macworld

(8) Cameron Summerson, "How to Use Google Chrome’s Hidden Reader Mode", How-to Geek []

(9) Changing fonts in Netscape, My web My way, BBC []

(10) Lynx browser

(11) Browsh browser []

(12) More website should start supporting dark mode via @media prefers-color-scheme

(13) Semantic Web []

(14) Beaker browser