Hack your hosts file to prevent distracting yourself at work

I suppose it’s a significant statement on the increasing marginalization of the computer as a work-only device. I hardly ever touch my Mac at home anymore. I really only use it for work. The problem is, I am permanently logged into Facebook and Twitter on my computer, and I am prone to distraction.

So I made the decision today to further that marginalization, by making it impossible for me to access Facebook and Twitter on my Mac. How? It’s easy! Assuming you have administrator access, at least. But why wouldn’t you? (If your Mac is a company computer and they have things so locked down, I’d say don’t worry about blocking social media sites… spend that time working on your résumé.)

These instructions are for Mac OS X. I’m not really sure how to do this in Windows. (And, honestly, I don’t care.) Instructions for Linux would be fairly similar, but you’d do it in a Terminal window and there’d be some sudo involved. (Actually, you can do that on a Mac too. I’ll give those instructions at the end.)

Now then. Open a Finder window and press Command-Shift-G. In the box, type /etc/hosts and click Go.

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This will take you to the “hidden” /etc directory (part of the Unix subsystem) and highlight the hosts file, which is what you need to edit.

But, you can’t do it here.

Files in the /etc folder are write-protected, but if you copy it to your desktop, you can edit it. So, drag it to the desktop. (Note that since it’s a protected system file, just dragging it to the desktop will make a copy, rather than moving it.)

Double-click the hosts file on your desktop. It should open in TextEdit. (If you’re asked to pick a program, pick TextEdit.)

Place the cursor at the bottom of the file and add these lines:

127.0.0.1 facebook.com
127.0.0.1 www.facebook.com
127.0.0.1 twitter.com
127.0.0.1 www.twitter.com

So what’s happening here? Well, the numbers are IP addresses, which are the true addresses of every device connected to the Internet. Domain names (like twitter.com) are essentially “aliases” for IP addresses. Normally your computer connects to a DNS server on the Internet to look up these associations. But before it does that, it checks this hosts file. If a domain is in there, it doesn’t bother checking any further. And 127.0.0.1 is a special IP address associated with the fake domain name localhost — basically, it’s the computer’s self identification on the Internet. “Me” in other words.

There’s probably no web server running on your computer, so loading http://127.0.0.1 in a web browser will return… nothing. But even if you do have a web server running on your computer, it’s not Facebook or Twitter, so mission accomplished.

All right. Now that we have the hosts file updated, save it, and then drag it back into the /etc folder. You’ll get a stern warning from the system.

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Click Authenticate. That gives you another annoying, but smaller, alert.

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Click Replace. Now you have to enter your administrator username/password. Do that then click OK.

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You’re done. (And note this time it moved the file from the desktop back into /etc. It doesn’t copy it like it did when you moved it to the desktop.) Now try loading Facebook or Twitter in your web browser!

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Want to do all of this at the command line instead? It’s actually a lot easier, now that I think about it. These instructions should work for either Mac or Linux. Open a Terminal window. Type sudo nano /etc/hosts and hit Enter. Move the cursor to the bottom of the file and enter the lines I gave earlier. Press Ctrl-X then Y to save your changes. That’s all! Seriously!

Note: If you’re on IPv6 (if you even know what that is), you may want or need to use ::1 instead of 127.0.0.1.

Dr. Heckyll is his own little guinea pig…

Much like “Dr. Heckyll” in the Men at Work song, I am my own little guinea pig.

This week Facebook released an official WordPress plugin that promises deep integration. Vaguely lewd as that may sound, it’s something I need to pursue. I keep Facebook at arm’s length, but as a web developer I cannot deny that it is by far the most popular — nay, ubiquitous — social network out there. Social network integration is a big part of what my clients want with new websites, and the more we can take advantage of these kinds of tools, the more we can achieve those goals.

And so, here I am, finding myself trying out just about everything the Facebook WordPress plugin can do, right on my very own blog. Eventually I’ll probably turn off most or all of these features, but before I do that I need to find out what they do, so I know which of them are right for my clients.

Update, about 3 seconds later… I’ve already turned off the first of the “features” of the Facebook plugin: comment integration. I have already been happily using Disqus for my comments, and Facebook (unsurprisingly) doesn’t play nicely with it.

Oversharing and paranoia

Oversharing is an inherent part of social media. Just ask anyone who’s made the mistake of clicking a Socialcam link on Facebook.

But oversharing takes different forms, and the most potentially dangerous type is one many people don’t even realize exists: the copious logging of your online activities by the social networking sites you’re logged into. Thanks to their “deep integration” with other websites, you may be “sharing” your browsing habits with Facebook, Twitter and Google even when you’re not on their sites.

Have you ever been on a site and noticed a little corner of the site looks like it’s been invaded by Facebook? That sickly blue, the font, the little profile pictures of your friends who’ve liked or commented on the page you’re currently viewing?

How did that get there? It’s because the site is integrating with Facebook, and through the magic of cookies, Facebook’s servers can tell that it’s you looking at the page and deliver content customized to your profile. Maybe you like that, but I find it a little creepy. Twitter and Google do it too, even if it’s not as obvious.

Google may be the most insidious, with so many of its tools now consolidated under a single login. If you use Gmail, and you keep your account logged in, every Google search you do is logged. Ostensibly this is to help deliver “personalized” results. More crassly, it is used to put “targeted” ads in front of your eyeballs. But that data is being collected, and regardless of what Google says their privacy policy is now, the data is there, and could stay there for a long time. Someday Google might change their policies or sell that data or the government might subpoena it or just come in and take it.

What’s worse, Google Analytics is everywhere. Heck, even paranoid old me uses it. Google says Analytics isn’t tied in with your Google account, and maybe it’s not… yet. But why assume it will always be that way?

Fortunately, there’s something very simple you can do to combat all of this data collection. It’s the online equivalent of a tinfoil hat, except it actually works. Log out. And just to be safe, clear your cookies.

I’m trying something out right now that takes all of this even a step further. It all hinges on the fact that in all three of these cases — Facebook, Twitter and Gmail — the web interface is probably the least usable, least satisfying way to experience these services. I’ve never really been a user of Gmail’s web interface; I’ve always preferred using the Mac’s built in Mail application. But now I’m also strictly using the Twitter app on my Mac. (I already use Tweetbot on my iPhone.) And I have made the decision not to use Facebook on my computer at all. I already hated the Facebook web experience anyway, so why bother with it? Now I am only going to check it using the Facebook iPhone app.

140 characters

Picking up where the last post left off, this morning SLP and I were discussing the frustrations some people have with Twitter, and their frequent inclination to dismiss it wholesale as a result. One of the biggest complaints always seems to be that you “can’t say anything” in 140 characters. That the brevity of a tweet naturally leads to flippant, ill-considered, 2 short & hvly abbrvtd, or just plain pointless missives fired into the vast, chaotic fray of similar voices, loudly saying nothing.

As I usually do at this point (although maybe she beat me to it this time), I brought up haiku. Most haiku poems could easily fit within the 140-character confines of a tweet, but few people dismiss the haiku form as too brief to convey meaning. In fact, I was inspired to compose a haiku on the topic of Twitter itself, which I subsequently tweeted, of course:

Twitter, like haiku,
Is brief, but you can still say
Something meaningful.

Of course Twitter, like all forms of communication, has limitations. And of course some of what ends up on Twitter is pointless babble. Just because someone gives you the tools doesn’t mean you know how to use them. But to dismiss the entire platform simply because it has constraints or because you don’t like the way certain other people are using it is as silly as dismissing haiku because you can’t write a dissertation in 17 syllables.

But sometimes that’s all you need. Is this 262-word blog post really more effective at communicating the merits of Twitter than my (as SLP called it) twaiku?