There’s a bumper-sticker quote often misattributed to Gandhi that goes “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I like it well enough but find the focus on personal transformation limiting, particularly in our digital age. In light of some recent research, I’d like to amend it to say: “Make the browser extension for the change you wish to see in the world.”
In January, my friend and artist Ari Melenciano reached out to me about leading a workshop at a conference called Afrotectopia that she was planning at NYU. The conference aimed to recognize the contributions of, and to build a community among black artists, technologists, and activists. One of the themes for the conference was developing ideas for how we can use various forms of technology to dismantle oppressive systems and rebuild more equitable ones.
I spend a lot of time thinking about oppressive systems and behaviors and how to curtail them. But while preparing for the conference, I realized that I don’t spend nearly as much time imagining what an ideal future would look like. With this in mind, I decided that the topic of my workshop would be building a browser extension. The Internet can often be a mirror for real life: Day to day, we see the structural problems we face offline reflected in online publications, tweets, and Google searches. If web browsers are our window onto the Internet and thus, the world, browser extensions can be a way of saying This is what I want the world to look like and sharing that vision of the future with others.
In his famous 1962 talk, “The Artist’s Struggle For Integrity,” James Baldwin says, “What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using [whatever it is that hurt you] to connect you with everyone else alive.” What makes a browser extension “activist” in my opinion is when its creator starts with a problem they see in the world and makes the extension as a way to address it and share a new point of view. Many of the ones I found in my research were created by people who don’t even consider themselves to be developers. The idea that if something bothers you, you have the agency to go in and fix it aligns with my view of activism—that it is and has always been in the hands of everyday people. Browser extensions only change the interface of a website, not the code, and accordingly, the changes they make only address the surface of systemic problems. But they do allow us to envision alternate realities and depict for others the way this better future may look.
Rethinking Social Media
There have been a lot of valid criticisms levied against popular social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google related to issues of surveillance and privacy, harassment and abuse, mental health, fake news, and racist and sexist algorithms—just to name a few. A subset of “activist” browser extensions address these issues by presenting a reality where these issues are altered or are nonexistent.
Twitter Demetricator by Benjamin Grosser, for example, removes all metrics from twitter.
Writer David Zweig, who interviewed Grosser about the Demetricator for The New Yorker, describes a familiar sentiment when he writes, “I’ve evaluated people I don’t know on the basis of their follower counts, judged the merit of tweets according to how many likes and retweets they garnered, and felt the rush of being liked or retweeted by someone with a large following. These metrics, I know, are largely irrelevant; since when does popularity predict quality? Yet, almost against my will, they exert a pull on me.” Metrics can be a drug. They can also influence who we think deserves to be heard. By removing metrics entirely, Grosser’s extension allows us to focus on the content—to be free to write and post without worrying about what will get likes, and to decide for ourselves if someone is worth listening to. Additionally, it allows us to push back against a system designed not to cultivate a healthy relationship with social media but to prioritize user-engagement in order to sell ads.
Now, imagine a world where our data isn’t used to manipulate or covertly track us.
AdNauseum by Daniel C Howe, Helen Nissenbaum and Mushon Zer-Aviv “obfuscates browsing data and protects users from tracking by advertising networks by automatically and blindly clicking on all ads.” The data collected includes anything and everything and thus, reveals nothing.
Something I’d like to see as a chrome extension that hasn’t been made is one that identifies dark patterns on a website and scores them accordingly. Dark Patterns are “tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to.”
Call It By Its Name
Some browser extensions imagine a world where people don’t selectively apply terms based on race or gender but instead call things what they actually are.
Stop Normalizing, a site created by a New York-based advertising professional who uses the pseudonym George Zola, has a series of browser extensions it describes as “digital defiance.” So far, its work has been in combating the rebranding and normalization of white supremacy online. One browser extension, for example, replaces the phrase “alt-right” with “white-supremacist” and another replaces “lonewolf” with “terrorist.”
Dexter Thomas, meanwhile, has created a Chrome extension that changes “transcended race” to “was retroactively deemed safe by white people.” (For some context, this article explains the idea of transcending race and this article explains that, much like modern civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter, the movement in the 1960s and its proponents like Martin Luther King not only faced public disapproval, they were also seen as extremists and/or terrorists and surveilled by the government.)
Lastly, Tolulope Edionwe created an extension that replaces “racially charged” with “racist.”
Turning the Tables
There are a lot of issues on the internet that only [insert marginalized group] have to deal with. Women have to deal with rampant sexism and misogyny. Members of the queer community have to deal with being misgendered. People of size have to deal with unsolicited weight loss advice. Differently abled people are unable to use some sites because of accessibility issues. All of the above deal with harassment. This section is Freaky Friday on the web.
In one example, Jailbreak the Patriarchy by Danielle Sucherswaps the gender of every pronoun and explicitly gendered term in any piece of writing online, thus providing a space for interrogating the ways we talk about men and women. For me, it also imagines a future where language is neutral. David Strohecker and Jenny Davis, in an article they wrote for Cyborgology, proposed an extension of the project based on imagining a world where gender categories do not exist at all. They say, “What if, in addition to ‘jailbreaking the patriarchy,’ we could ‘jailbreak’ the sex/gender binary and replace all gendered nouns with gender neutral nouns.”
A Different Type of Erasure
At Afrotectopia I also led a think tank called “Boycotting in the Digital Age” that explored how technology can be used to aid boycotting. We can’t wish away unethical companies, but we can create a world where they don’t benefit from our purchases or activity. In these versions of alternate digital realities, companies that behave badly disappear altogether.
Three days after United Airlines dragged Doctor David Dao from a plane, Mo_Said created the extension DropUnited which completely removes United as an option when you’re searching for flights on Google Search, Google Flights, Kayak, and Expedia.
Grab Your Wallet, started by Shannon Coulter in the fall of 2016, after she heard Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comment, pulls from a list of websites associated with Trump and alerts you when you visit one, so you can leave.
Lastly, BuyBlack by Angie Coleman identifies black-owned alternatives to shopping sites entered into a browser’s search bar. For example, if you visit sephora.com it’ll show a list of black-owned beauty supply stores you can visit instead.
We’re confronted daily with all the ways our current realities are not the ones that we want. Browser extensions can be an exercise in speculating on alternate, and better, realities and futures. Building your own parallel universe can—like in the case of AdNauseum and Grab Your Wallet—be helpful in fighting the structures we abhor. Additionally, they can provide platforms for discussions about our complacency with existing structures. However, there are still dimensions of that alternate reality. As with platforms like Mastodon and Are.na, and even white-supremacist forums on sites like 8chan, what’s actually being created with these browser extensions are Internet enclaves that address but don’t curtail the realities we don’t like. We must continue to build these alternate realities and advocate for them, but also explore ways we can dismantle the systems of our current reality.
Some related channels to check out: