By Deane Barker on March 23, 2005

Firefox add-on lets surfers tweak sites, but is it safe?: This Greasemonkey extension is getting a lot of coverage these days. Essentially, it lets you write JavaScript that’s applied to individual pages automatically. So if there’s this one page that shows too many ads, you can write some JavaScript to suppress them all (“ = ‘none’;”).

That capability has gained the extension an avid following of Web surfers who want to customize the sites they visit, removing design glitches and stripping sites of ads. But the extension comes with substantial security risks, and could stir trouble among site owners who object to individual, custom redesigns of their pages.

What this has done has shed light on the concept of individual users messing with Web pages. Previously, you could have user-supplied stylesheets, which would do sort of the same thing, but Greasemonkey has really catapulted the capability forward.

Scoble and Doctorow have been going back and forth about the concept of custom page re-writes — Doctorow in favor, and Scoble against (more against the basic concept of auto-rewrites built into the Google toolbar, although he approved of them if they followed his manifesto on the subject).

I wonder if this will cause certain sites to jockey their layout and tag IDs around? For instance, I was reading some people complaining the other day that Lockergnome has way, way too many ads. Why couldn’t you use Greasemonkey to suppress them? And, if he thought a lot of people were doing this, why couldn’t Chris Pirillo just randomize his DIV IDs and placement to prevent you from getting at them through JavaScript?

(Since I have written the phrase “Chris Pirillo” in this post, I fully expect him to comment here in the next 24 hours. I’d be interested to hear what he thinks about the above scenario.)



  1. The happy phantom has no right to bitch.

    Indeed, you were wise to use my name. ;)

    First, I think it’s rude to serve up something that’s invasive to content. e.g., popup windows. Some of Lockergnome’s co-brands do serve popups ( ) – but that’s under my TOS with the service programmer. It’s how he underwrites the time it took to put the co-brand together. Should people block popup windows? Remember, they’re typically invasive and lack relevance.

    Second, Google AdSense is NOT invasive – it’s supportive, text-based, and contextual. As such, I don’t see it as a content detractor. Blocking AdSense is equivalent to blocking content – in which case, why bother reading anything at all? If an advertisement actually helps both the publisher and the reader, then… what’s the problem?

    Third, the people who incessantly whine about how things should be free according to their terms (without a fair reason), should never ask for a dime when they do any kind of work. I say that WiFi should be complementary when I pay for $4 for a cup of “good” coffee. I say that WiFi should be complementary when I pay $300 for a plane ticket. I say that WiFi should be complementary when I pay $50 a night for a hotel room. I say that they should tack on the charge “invisibly” so that I don’t have to worry about paying for something once, and then having to pay for something else that I should have already paid for. “Superman III” the frickin’ thing. NOTICE: I’m complaining about services I’m paying for – not the freebies.

    Rewriting (admonishing, etc.) free services is rude, period. Will we (as anybody who provides a free service) have to take “drastic measures” to force people into our TOS? Depends on how much our hand is forced. I can’t offer refunds for something that didn’t cost you anything. Or, TANSTAAFL!

    Criticizing a product / service that you’re already paying for is a completely different issue, and should be taken seriously. I listened to objections for last year’s Gnomedex, and have been taking steps to correct them in this year’s conference. People wanted more gadgetry – so I’m looking to incorporate more gadget-type folks and functions. People wanted power strips – so I’m giving ’em power strips. People didn’t want to walk away from the conference when they were hungry, or pay $5 for bottled water – so I’m throwing it all into the price of admission for the entire weekend. They’re telling me what they want as PAYING supporters. More importantly, I’m LISTENING to them.

    FWIW, I do more things for “free” than not. If that makes me a prick, so be it. I don’t DRM my eBooks, for heaven’s sake. If that makes me a prick, so be it. I share tips, tricks, and general knowledge every day of my life without directly asking for anything in return. If that makes me a prick, so be it. I don’t want to live my life the way you think I should – and if THAT makes me a prick, so be it.

  2. Chris, you didn’t answer the question —

    Would you take steps with your HTML and CSS to prevent people from messing with a Lockergnome page in their own browser?

  3. If someone’s going out of their way to remix something I haven’t given them permission to remix, why wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) I interrupt the interruption?

  4. I’m with you Chris, I spent a lot of time (if you ask my girlfriend, way too much time) working on the way my website, and the websites of clients, looks, feels, and acts. To have someone change that on a whim for no reason than because they can is insulting. They have no right to change what I created, worked on, or in Chris’ situation, make a living on.

    However, like all things, this is not a clear cut issue. Many would say that a site is ok to hack to pieces because it has too many ads or because the colors are too harsh, or any number of other reasons. I see their point of course, I too have gone to a website and wondered what the hell they were thinking and how they thought anyone could read this, but I don’t hack the site up, I just don’t go there anymore. Like everything else in life if you don’t like it, noone is making you use it. Noone needs to go to my site, Chris’ site or any site for that matter. Just like you can’t hack up a TV show because it isn’t funny or has too many ads, (If that was the case I would watch MTV more.) you instead just change the channel.

    Simply: If I knew that people were hacking up my site I would do what I could to make it more difficult for them the next time.

  5. Sounds like Chris and Mike are advocating DRM for the web. While I may agree to a certain extent I don’t think you’ll have much luck. Networks are still trying to figure out how to not allow Tivo users to skip commercials. Sounds like the same principle. You need to keep in mind the cost to benefit of trying to stop someone from getting around ads on your site. The small percentage of people who would use a tool like Greasemonkey wouldn’t click on an ad anyway so why take the extra time to alter your code to force them to view it?

  6. I’ve made a deal with myself: I only block annoying ads.

    If your ads are animated, they get blocked. If your ads blink, they get blocked. If your ads are served by a notorious privacy violator, they get blocked. If your ads are for products I’d never buy, they get blocked. If your ads contain pictures of half-naked women selling obnoxious products, they get blocked. If your ads cover half your site, they get blocked.

    AdSense is completely safe. A few discreet, relevent banners are completely safe. Ads for cool products are completely safe.

    Yes, I might help one or two free content sites go out of business. Or I might just encourage them to dump DoubleClick sign up for AdSense. I don’t particularly care which happens; I don’t read many sites with ads, and the ones I do read, I can live without.

    (The Register used to have a pretty cool setup: if you blocked all their graphical ads, they gave your relevant text ads the next time you loaded their site.)

  7. Mike,

    I can’t understand your position at all. I, too, am a web professional. I, too, spend way too much time making things perfect.

    But I’d never be mad at somebody for hacking my work with greasemonkey. If they are doing it, it means that they want to use your site, but something about it is annoying them.

    Here’s an example. I’m from the old school of web dev (eg, I started in the mid 90s). For the longest time, the common and accepted practice was to open links to off-site domains in new windows. This is what I had done on my personal website until quite recently.

    Greasemonkey was written because this behavior drove one of my friends absolutely crazy. He insisted that I change the links to open in the same window. But then I (and other people from the old school) would have been equally frustrated that the links did not open in a new window.

    Simply put: you can’t please all the people all the time. Greasemonkey fills this need. People that would otherwise find your site extremely frustrating to use are now happy users. Best, they did it with no work on your part.

    What could be bad about this?

  8. I agree with Rob. If someone hacks my site with Greasemonkey, they weren’t going to buy anything anyway. More power to them. Let them read what they want and I’ll benefit from the word of mouth or their blogroll. Have at it.

  9. I see all of your points…however….

    For one, I wasn’t really referring to simply the changing of the target of your links from a seperate window to the current one, or any other simple non-cosmetic changes. I was referring to more physical and overall design changes. Two, I understand that people don’t like formating of the site and don’t plan on buying anything so they don’t wish to view the site as I had intended. But if you just want to read content and not see any ads or formatting, that is what my RSS feed is for.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crazy about my “art” or something like a certain Metallica dummer, and I realize that I work in a media that is very easy for someone to change on a whim, but if the question is “In a perfect wor;d would you like for people to change my sites that I created around?” the answer would be no. Thats all I’m saying.

  10. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crazy about my “art” or something like a certain Metallica dummer, and I realize that I work in a media that is very easy for someone to change on a whim, but if the question is “In a perfect wor;d would you like for people to change my sites that I created around?” the answer would be no. Thats all I’m saying.”

    I think my answer to that question would be “Yes, in a perfect world, I would like anyone to be able to use my work in any way they wished, and I would never have to worry about compensation for it.” If money wasn’t a factor, you’d just want your work to be as valuable as possible to as many people as possible, right? And if they had to modify it to fit their needs, go for it. DRM (or anti other sort of anti-modification measure) actually devalues the content for the users by making it less usable, so why have it at all?

    Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, so content creators have to strike a balance between providing value and getting paid. I think that’s really at the heart of the DRM debate. Lots of businesses are trying to find the right balance, and trying to figure out how to get paid for their work while still deriving value.

  11. (Last time I’ll chime in on this article I swear)

    I think you are all trying to apply my specific views on my website designs to my thoughts on all digital media what so ever. I was not talking on the subject of all DRM issues, I was giving a specific answer to a specific question. My answer was not an attempt to spread views on all DRM, as most of the replies seemed to suggest. My views on DRM are far more diverse that my statement on how I feel about someone changing my website designs.

    The fact of the matter is: Change it all you want..thats the way the web works. But if you asked me first I would rather you not. Thats all I was saying…I was not making grand statements about DRM, and I’m not sure where anyone got the idea that I was.

  12. Advertising is a funny issue. People are all for it when it’s either making them money or directing them to a service they want. But they’re pretty tyrannical about what is and is not acceptable, about what they will and will not tolerate.

    Me, I barely watch TV these days if I haven’t recorded the show in advance. Nothing worse than having to sit through all those commercials with no fast-forward button. I don’t skip EVERY ad , but I do skip most of them. You could argue that since I’m paying for cable, I shouldn’t have to watch them. Or you could argue that since the ads help the people making the shows, make the shows I actually like enough to watch, I should watch their ads as well.

    It’s not any different on the web, now is it? Web designers put together a “program” complete with “commercials.” So then some user uses his Greasemonkey tool to “fast forward” through the ads. Fine. Once the content hits the user’s machine, it’s really his to do with as he pleases, short of re-publishing it.

    All you’re going to do by trying to circumvent your user’s ability to do what he pleases with your content is create situations in which people who have more “legitimate” accessibility reasons for tampering with the display from being able to use your site at all.

    If you don’t like what people are doing with your content within the privacy of their homes/computers, then you have a few choices. 1. stop serving it. 2. start charging up front for serving it. or 3. figure out what it is that people hate enough to go to all that effort and change it so that they won’t bother.

    How many designer with ads on their pages can honestly claim they don’t some times use a VCR or a Tivo to skip advertising. How many fewer can say they don’t get up and leave the room when the ads come on?

    Insisting that your website is different than those shows that cost a LOT more to create than your beloved webpage seems pretty hypocritical to me.

  13. Greasemonkey is a great innovation. If I put up a website, and you don’t like how it looks, change it in your browser. It’s not as if you are changing anything other people will see. I design my site to be pleasing to me. I think it looks good. If there is somehting you don’t like, use greasemonkey and make it look good to you. If you already like the content, but object to the format, reformat it. I lose nothing, you gain content in a format you approve of. CSS was the beginning of this realization- that people have different tastes. Greasemonkey merely takes it a step further. Respect the work, but take it to the next level on your own. That is sharing, and I approve.

  14. But isn’t this what the web is all about, providing mass information to a mass market on an individually desired and controlled basis?

    I’d like to know how many people here are still running their dekstop enviroments in the same way the came out of the box.

    If people are changing the way they want to view information and it only affects them then I say “so be it”. Otherwise you would never be able to alter the display of content to support alternative and individual requirements (eg: larger text to support eyesight impaired, removal of culturally offensive imaging, braille box support and so on).

    If your “artwork”/design/layout is so important then choose another gallery rather than the Internet. It’s about content and I should be able to choose how the content is presented in my house.

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