Elon’s Twitter finally does something right

I joined Twitter in 2009, and over the span of a decade amassed over 40,000 tweets (and just over 500 followers, most of whom I believe were real humans, as I actively culled the obvious bots during my Twitter heyday). But when, around 2015, the site became a platform for would-be fascist authoritarians, I began to lose interest. I pretty much left entirely in 2017, and after a brief re-emergence in 2019 (which only served to confirm that the place was a rage machine hellscape I was better off avoiding), I decided to delete my account entirely.

But for some reason, the Twitter of 2019 labeled my closed account as suspended — with their standard message about violating terms of use. Absolutely false. And while I was briefly outraged, I eventually saw it as a badge of honor. Twitter was an apocalyptic dumpster fire long before Elon Musk was forced to buy it, and I became almost proud to have people think I had been kicked out against my will.

Periodically over the past 3 1/2 years I’ve gone back and looked at my account page to see if it still said I had been suspended, which it did. Until now. I just checked it today, and at some point in the last month or two, since I last checked it, my account page has — finally? — been updated to the correct status:

A brief musing on Twitter FINALLY permanently suspending Donald Trump’s account after his attempted coup, when they might have saved untold damage to our country and the world by doing it in 2015, before he even formally announced his candidacy, but had already violated their terms of use to the extent that warranted a permanent ban

There are some interesting questions to explore now regarding what exactly Twitter does with the data from suspended accounts, as well as tweets users have deleted. As a user, when you delete something, you want to believe they’re really deleting it from their systems (which I doubt is the case), but I think definitely there can be legal ramifications if a tweet causes a crime to be committed and the user subsequently deletes it. The tweet may be essential evidence in the legal case against them.

Trump’s entire “body of work” on Twitter is, sadly, an important part of the public record and may need to be archived as part of presidential records (though he always used his personal account, not the official POTUS account). And they may be necessary as legal evidence against him in an impeachment trial or post-presidency legal cases.

Remember how when Obama was president, not only was he rarely allowed to post directly on social media, he wasn’t even allowed to have an iPhone? He had to have a specially secured BlackBerry. What the hell happened to that presidential accountability??!!

Originally posted to Facebook, but I want this to actually live somewhere semi-permanent for myself, not just in Mark Zuckerberg’s database.

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: 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.

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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

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.