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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 7.58.15 AM

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: facebook.com www.facebook.com twitter.com 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 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 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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 8.09.15 AM

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!

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 8.11.22 AM

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

On products, services, and the trouble with Twitter

Much of the buzz this week among online geek types has been the latest step in the gradually unfolding revelation of exactly where Twitter (the business) intends to take Twitter (the service), and just how stark the difference is between that place and where these same geeks — who have been largely responsible for the establishment of Twitter as a successful platform — would like to see it go.

The latter place can most easily be summed up as, “where it started out,” but the details of where it started out, and how far it is from where the company now wants to take it, reveal a lot about the nature of the Internet as a place for commercial business, vs. the way most users see it, as a medium for communication.

Most people who use the Internet have little knowledge of, or interest in, how it actually works. Even those of us who make our living building it don’t always have a firm grasp of the technologies that make it all possible. But understanding those details, and understanding the differences between a service and a product, for lack of a more effective yet equally succinct description, can shed light on the current trouble with Twitter.

The crux of geek anger towards Twitter of late has to do with Twitter’s ongoing efforts to shut down a number of its APIs that allow third-party apps like Tweetbot (my personal favorite iPhone Twitter client) to interact with data from Twitter’s servers. Without these APIs, these third-party apps can’t function. The specifics of the situation are a lot more complicated than this, but I’ll leave the reader to investigate further; Dalton Caldwell’s post from yesterday, Twitter is pivoting, is a great place to start.

All of this may seem supremely geeky and esoteric to most Twitter users, though I suspect anyone who’s been using the Internet for more than two years would take pause at the fact that Peter Chernin, who was deeply involved in the downfall of MySpace, has just joined Twitter’s board of directors. (Especially since he chose to tweet it in a way that reveals a profound lack of understanding of how Twitter works.)

Which brings me to the topic of products and services. As I am using the terms here, a “service” is what we on the geek side of the Internet refer to as a protocol. On the Internet, a protocol is a technology, built upon a publicly documented specification, which allows particular types of interactions between devices over the Internet. A protocol is inherently public, open, and decentralized. That’s the only way they can work. Each protocol tends to have a strange acronym associated with it, some of which the creakier, older parts of the Internet may have failed to shield you from: things like HTTP (the web) or IMAP (email). All of these protocols are built upon a more fundamental, lower-level protocol: TCP/IP.

Protocols are what make the Internet work. And they’ve existed since well before anyone saw (or at least fully exploited) the Internet’s potential for profit. Protocols as services are so ubiquitous and inherent to the experience of using the Internet, we don’t even realize they exist, or what they are, or how exactly they work. And we tend to assume that anything we interact with on the Internet is kind of all the same. We might have a vague sense that something like Facebook or Twitter is a commercial enterprise, but even the geekiest among us who actively use these services products don’t often think about just how different they are at the core than things like email.

In contrast to these protocols/services, we have commercial products like Facebook or Twitter. These are not protocols. While we are all by now painfully aware of how open and public the information we share on them can be, there is nothing whatsoever that is “open” or “public” about how they actually work, and their functionality is entirely centralized within the competitive, secretive, for-profit businesses that own them.

Facebook has taken a lot of flak in recent years for its aggressive commercialization of the user experience. The information you share is not only overly public, it is parsed by their ingenious algorithms to allow them to put highly-targeted advertising in front of your eyeballs. (At least, that’s the theory; in practice it doesn’t always work so well.) As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer… you’re the product being sold.

While it’s been easy to see how Facebook is monetizing our online interactions, the gradual creep of Twitter’s monetization has been quieter, and more insidious. It’s been easy enough to ignore promoted tweets and trending topics, and they’ve even backpedaled on occasion in response to negative user reaction. (Remember the Dickbar?) But eventually, true to the cliché, there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back. And the latest API deprecations may represent that last straw.

You see, you can only change a product so much before eventually it ceases to resemble in any meaningful way the thing that it once was, the thing that appealed to its users in the first place. And for Twitter, the business, it is entirely their prerogative to make those changes, to “pivot,” into something completely different. But in so doing, they reveal the true nature of their product, and the fact that it was never really the service its loyal users took it to be.

Ayn Rand’s (in)famous novel Atlas Shrugged ends with capitalist Übermensch John Galt tracing the sign of the dollar with his finger. But when the dollar sign becomes the ultimate symbol of human achievement, money is the only thing in life that has value. This may be a rather heavy-handed reference (she is the most heavy-handed writer of the 20th century, after all), but profit as the primary motive of a business can easily corrupt or destroy any other values the company has.

Twitter seems to be following the standard arc of a startup, especially in the Internet age: a group of inspired geeks build something cool, it becomes a hit, venture capital comes pouring in, the founders sell out and “management” moves in, the focus of the company shifts from building something cool into turning that cool thing into a way to make money, the thing ceases to be cool (or even very useful), people move on to the next big thing, the company dies a slow death.

We’ve seen it plenty of times before (again, MySpace), but with Twitter something seems different. Twitter has become a deeply ingrained part of the Internet experience for its loyal users in a way that no other product from a for-profit business has before. It’s as essential to how many of us experience the Internet on a daily basis as email or the web itself. But while it’s just as essential, its essence is entirely different. And now the foolishness of investing so heavily and personally — in time and passion, not money — in this kind of product is becoming painfully obvious.

So, what are our alternatives? This summer, Adam Curry (yes, that Adam Curry) wrote about the value of RSS as a Twitter alternative. I think for one way Twitter is used (as a means of disseminating links to interesting news/blog posts), RSS is great, and I am a die-hard RSS user along with Twitter. But RSS can’t replace Twitter’s role as a microblogging platform.

Enter Dalton Caldwell’s (remember him?) App.net. What is App.net? It’s basically an effort to do Twitter right. For a small annual subscription fee, you get access to an ad-free social network that functions almost identically to Twitter. (The main distinction: each post is limited to 256 characters, rather than 140. Those of us who do a lot of work with databases are probably thrilled with the implications of that particular number.) Many of the geeks who were early Twitter adopters are now prominent members of the App.net community. Many of the developers of third-party Twitter clients have gotten on board with App.net sibling apps (like Netbot).

Personally, I was one of those App.net early adopters (member #5,644). But I will admit I’ve found it hard to break my old habits of working mainly with Twitter. Partly that’s because I’ve relied on Twitter’s functionality as the glue between my various social networks. I can post photos on Instagram and, via my existing Twitter-to-Facebook link, easily share my photos to both social networks with a tap. I used to have LinkedIn in the mix too, before I more-or-less abandoned it. The point is, up to now Twitter has been a geek’s paradise of a social network, with a wealth of APIs that could be used in innovative ways to do all sorts of cool things.

But Twitter doesn’t want us to do all sorts of cool things. They want us to do the things that put our eyeballs on their sponsors’ messages, because that’s the only way they’ve been able to think of (or willing to try) to make money. I would gladly pay a subscription fee for Twitter, to cut out the ads and retain access to those awesome APIs they’re so aggressively shutting down. But since they’re not interested in taking the business in that direction, a door has been opened for App.net to do all kinds of things Twitter could have done, but, it now appears, never will.

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.

Social media case study #001: @Mike_FTW and Twitter jackassery

I don’t know Mike Monteiro personally. Apparently I do know someone else who does, but that’s irrelevant here. This post is not about Mike Monteiro, the flesh-and-blood human being, owner of Mule Design Studio and author of Design Is a Job. This post is about @Mike_FTW (NSFW, depending on where you W), Mike Monteiro’s Twitter persona.

In case you’re curious but afraid to click that last link, allow me to explain, as the imagery is critical to my understanding of what @Mike_FTW is all about. The background image on Mike’s Twitter page is a topless photo of Bea Arthur, circa early 1970s. It is a rather plain-looking photo, neither sexualized nor grotesque. It’s almost like a school portrait, actually, except for the fact that she’s not wearing anything.

It may seem a little odd that I should fixate so much on this photo in trying to understand what @Mike_FTW is all about, but I think it’s key. It’s like a surgeon general’s warning for his Twitter feed. It’s provocative, confusing to some, but ultimately benign. But what is it really saying? If Mike were simply trying to (pardon my word choice) titillate, he certainly would have chosen a sexier photo. If he were trying to scare people off, he’d have gone with one more extreme.

I think there’s something much more deliberate, more considered, about this choice of photo. Because while it may ultimately be benign, it’s not without meaning. Bea Arthur, especially in the early 1970s, was a major public face for feminism with her TV show Maude. She chose to have this photo taken and made public. I don’t know all of the circumstances surrounding it, but what it says to me is, “Get over it. They’re just boobs.” It’s a challenge to both ends of the morality spectrum to lighten up, loosen up, toughen up, and wise up. And I think that’s really what Mike Monteiro’s mission is with @Mike_FTW.

@Mike_FTW is almost always abrasive, coarse, and rude, but with an underlying ethos that isn’t too hard to pick up on if you’re paying attention. A couple of recent stunts have cast this in a clear light.

Mike Monteiro: Splenda yoga mom

On May 21-22, @Mike_FTW temporarily changed tone, posting a series of tweets with a cloyingly banal new persona he dubbed “Splenda yoga mom”. It confused and outraged some of his followers, not unlike the “straight” episode of Sealab 2021. Eventually he came clean, explaining in a succinct set of tweets how this stuff works:

@Mike_FTW comes clean

A few tweets from May 22, 2012 wherein Mike Monteiro talks about what he does on Twitter.

Storified by Scott Anderson · Thu, May 31 2012 10:16:45

So here’s the problem, now that I know you guys want me to be a jerk, I kinda don’t wanna be one.Mike Monteiro
‘Cause let’s face it, I’m not really a jerk. Nor am I the Splenda yoga mom I was pretending to be the last few days.Mike Monteiro
We’re all complex beings. And our online personas are just another layer of complexity added to our identity.Mike Monteiro
Jerks can pretend to be nice. Nice people can pretend to be jerks. The truth is that we’re all constantly ebbing and flowing in between.Mike Monteiro
And in the end, all we’re left with are the impressions we leave across one another. You’re the sum of others’ smiles and tears.Mike Monteiro

But it’s more than that. Because he didn’t just pull a stunt to piss off his followers by confounding their unjustified expectations of how he should behave on Twitter. He wrapped the stunt in a successful effort to make a real, positive difference in the world by drumming up thousands of dollars in donations to SmallCanBeBig.org.

What is the value of a tweet?

Yesterday, this happened: Atlanta-based web developer John Graham wrote a blog post, never intended for a wide audience (as most blogs, this one included, rightly should not be) about why he stopped listening to John Gruber’s The Talk Show podcast, and why he unfollowed @Mike_FTW. The post did not offer any great insight, nor was it particularly interesting to anyone beyond the author himself. But there’s no indication that he ever intended it to be, except for one thing: he included “@Mike_FTW” in his tweet about the post. Monteiro picked up the ball Graham had gently placed at his feet, and ran with it.

This time the stunt was to get @johnegraham2 1000 Twitter followers in a day, and get them all to unfollow him en masse a day later. Again the stunt worked… and again it raised over $1000 for SmallCanBeBig.org. In his blog post, John Graham said “The problem for me is that I don’t find him funny and therefore there doesn’t seem to be any value in his tweets.” Humor is subjective, of course, but raising over $1000 to help a family in need in a matter of hours isn’t. A lot of people may not agree with Mike Monteiro’s tactics (if they even understand them), but it’s hard to argue they’re ineffective.

So what’s your point?

What can we really learn from @Mike_FTW, the Twitter alter-ego of Mike Monteiro? How much of it is Mike, and how much is an act? Unless you know Mike personally, that question is impossible to answer. Likewise his motivations to do what he does, the way that he does, are a bit of a mystery. Still, there are some lessons here for how to use social media effectively, something that isn’t lost on @Mike_FTW. After the first stunt, he tweeted in his typically humble fashion:

And, yesterday:

Meanwhile, John Graham, the butt of the joke, responded on his blog and SmallCanBeBig.org showed their appreciation:

What do I learn about social media strategy from Mike Monteiro? First off, don’t think about “social media strategy”. If that’s your focus, you’re doomed to failure. Engagement on social media may be superficial, but it’s real. If you’re doing it to “build your brand” or “extend your reach” or some such nonsense, give up. You have to do it because you want to. You have to mean it. Even if you’re taking on an obnoxious persona that will enrage as many people as it delights, make it meaningful.

Second, be interesting. That doesn’t mean being a “great guy” who’s boring to follow. Don’t play it safe. Take chances. Be distinctive. Be funny, weird, rude, unpredictable. Social media is entertainment as much as anything else, and if you don’t entertain people, they won’t stick around.

Third, or maybe second-and-a-half, have a distinct voice. Remember, the people who only know you through social media only know you through social media. The persona you create doesn’t have to be you, but it has to be someone.

And finally, have fun. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Mike Monteiro has fun with @Mike_FTW. And he certainly has fun poking people who take themselves too seriously.

Update: Mike Monteiro has clarified that the background image on his Twitter page is a painting, not a photo, which is why it hasn’t been banned by Twitter. This fact may alter the veracity and implications of my statement that Bea Arthur posed for and approved the image, but I think the larger message is still relevant. They’re still just boobs.

Also, contrary to all obvious indications, I did not deliberately craft this post in a way to fish for a response, retweet, or acknowledgment from Mike Monteiro. But, perhaps, @Mike_FTW is another story.

Update #2: I neglected to mention this in the original post above, but I think it’s worth at least noting: the situation that seems to have pushed Mike Monteiro over the edge in the case of both of these “stunts” (my word) is the vitriolic reaction many people have had to John Gruber taking The Talk Show to Mike’s Mule Radio Syndicate. It’s not directly relevant to the point I was trying to make here, but it’s probably helpful to provide some context. Mike may be acting like a jerk on Twitter, but it’s nothing compared to some of the reactions he gets.

Here’s the deal (sort of)…

OK, so here’s the deal (sort of) with those last couple of ambiguous posts. I’m trying to take advantage of some of the newest features of WordPress (which seem largely intended to keep WordPress relevant in a post-Tumblr world), especially the ability to create different post formats, which, in addition to the “standard” format, include asides, links, galleries, status(es), quotes, and images.

In order to get access to these new features, I’ve switched from my old, built-from-scratch custom theme to the current stock theme, Twenty Eleven, which I am currently modifying for my own nefarious purposes. (If you consider hot pink text in a whimsical retro font nefarious, which you should.) My goal is to get things fairly close to how they looked before the switch, while still gaining access of all of that new WordPress mojo.

Cool. But what I really want to do is to take all of this even a step further, and let this WordPress-based blog become my single hub for posting anything online, except I guess for photos, which I still plan to post through Instagram, because I like how the app works. (Although having those show up in the main blog content stream instead of, or in addition to, in a sidebar widget would also be nice.)

The biggest stumbling block for this grand vision, so far, is that Twitter Tools, the WordPress plugin I use for all of the Twitter integration (a.k.a. “twittergration” in my compulsive Twitter portmanteau, or “twortmanteau”, parlance) on the site, isn’t smart enough to handle these special formats in the way I’d like. It should recognize asides, and especially status(es), as such and just run them as the entirety of the tweet, without the usual “UoP:” prefix and permalink consuming precious characters.

Or, perhaps more rationally, the ability of Twitter Tools to turn tweets into posts should allow you to define the format of those tweet posts (“twosts”), so I could tell it to make all of my twosts into status(es) instead of “standard” posts. Yes, this is definitely a more rational approach, and one that makes me slightly embarrassed to have written the previous paragraph (but not enough to make me delete it). I’m very accustomed to tweeting on-the-go from my iPhone, and I’d prefer to keep using Tweetbot for that, instead of somehow trying to turn the WordPress app into my go-to tool for depositing random brain cruft onto the interwebs.

While I’m wishing for alternative methods of funneling content into WordPress, as I mentioned above it would also be super neato if I could get Instagram photos to automatically show up on the blog as image posts… which might be possible, if I were to take the time to investigate it, but one thing at a time.

The end result of all of this angsting is that my blog is currently not in a state that I intend for it to remain in for very long. It’s a work in progress (as is everything in the world that isn’t just being allowed to decay), and I suppose I can live with it for now. I have more important things to worry about at the moment, unless you’d care to make a generous donation for the ongoing care and feeding of my blog. (4 figures minimum, and that’s U.S. dollars… not pennies, wooden nickels or, um… “Star Bucks”)

Then again, maybe I’ll be able to think about all of this a little more rationally come Monday, when the Minneapolis Public Schools’ winter break is finally over.