Dan Phiffer Dan Phiffer builds websites, makes art, and teaches in NYC

I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!

On September 5, 2016 I won the Listserve lottery. In case you haven’t heard of it, the Listserve is a one-message-per-day email newsletter. Each day a single person from the 21,000+ subscriber list gets to send a message out to the entire list. Here’s what that invitation looks like:

Hey there, you’ve been chosen to write to the rest of The Listserve. You have 48 hours to respond with the following:

Current Location:
Subject Line:
Email body:

*this can be blank, but you will not receive responses

We’re excited to read what you have to say!

—Your friends at The Listserve


What can I send?
– Text — letters, numbers, symbols
– No links, images, HTML, Javascript, etc.
– 600 words max

What can I write?
– Anything! Well, almost anything… We reserve the right not to send your message if it threatens the spirit of the list — hate speech, etc.
– If you send something overtly controversial, or (self-) promotional, you must provide your name and email information and why you believe in what you are endorsing — you cannot be anonymous. Spam is unappreciated.

The following are random suggestions for you from the Listserve community:

  1. Motivational/life tips should be kept to a minimum. Those are a dime a dozen. Instead, tell me a story, give me a reason to want to know more about you.

  2. Your subject line is everything. I choose which listserve emails to ready solely based on the subject line. No pressure, though :)

  3. Tell me a story. Write a poem. Did you meet somebody interesting? Do something outrageous? Experience something spooky?

By submitting an email to The Listserve, you are agreeing to license it under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, and you agree that you have sufficient rights to be able to grant such a license.

Oh, by the way, sometimes there is a queue of emails, so don’t worry if you don’t see your email go out right after you submit it. We’ve got it, and unless we contact you, it’ll be going out soon! Thanks!

I thought about what I would do, how I would spend my 600 words. I emailed friends and collaborators to bounce ideas off them. I thought about what it meant to get so many people thinking the same thing at approximately the same time.

Around this time I was also working hard on a side project, an SMS-based group chat server that resembles what the very first Twitter service looked like. This software was still very much a work in progress (it still is!). I decided I would announce my new social software and effectively launch it via the Listserve.

Here is my Listserve message, sent September 15, 2016:

(TL;DR—this one is kind of an experiment, scroll to the bottom for the punchline.) There’s a scene from the movie Network (1976), where TV news anchor Howard Beale has a series of epic on-air rants about the uncertain state of the world. He urges his viewers: “I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell…”

Then he says the line maybe you’ve heard—“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” He stands up, repeating the line with increasing intensity. The movie cuts to a shot of an apartment complex, and people start opening up their windows. It’s hard not to feel a sense of excitement when they start hollering out their windows, it almost feels like it’s really happening.

But I’m not so interested in Howard Beale, or the “mad as hell” speech itself—some of which is uncomfortably similar to the populism of a certain American political candidate. What’s really striking to me is how our use of broadcast technology has changed since the ’70s. All those people hearing the same message from their TVs, all at once. And with the ethical weight of Watergate-era news journalism. It kinda feels like we’ve lost that capability with DVRs, social media, and Internet streaming.

I mean, we also have all this new stuff—so many new (relatively) inexpensive capabilities that let more of us reach many more people. Today’s Internet mega-viewerships surely outnumber 1970s TV, but it’s also interesting how many smaller in-between scales we have now. The Listserve is on that spectrum, somewhere between a receiving a postcard and browsing through trending hashtags.

I’m curious: what’s the present-day equivalent of sharing a common acoustic space, like those apartment-dwellers in Network? Who are we all? Where do we live? What could we achieve if we acted in concert somehow?

Instead of yelling a slogan out of our windows (basically a 1970s retweet), I have a couple other ideas.

  • Let’s meet up IRL! We could select a handful of central locations and convene at a common time to build stuff/get weird/stare at each other awkwardly/make art/plan to overthrow the government/etc.
  • What about a backchannel? I’ve been working on a new project that I’m eager to try out. It’s a group chat, kind of a pared-down, SMS-based Twitter.

(Insert here: the part where I pitch my project, Small Data. It’s a data cooperative I’m starting up with some friends, a collectively run alternative to cloud-based-advertising-ware.)

Just reply to this email and I’ll let you know when I figure out how this meetup(s) thing will go. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try out the backchannel—that part is already working! Send an SMS message to (646) 846-4777 and you’ll be able to pseudonymously chat with other people who sign up.

And for my money, Ned Beatty’s boardroom speech in Network deserves to be every bit as famous as the “mad as hell” rant. Look it up if you haven’t seen it!

Dan Phiffer

If you were reading closely, you may have noticed the span of time between when I won (September 5) and when my email actually got sent out (September 15). This was a very stressful time for me. Each day I hoped against hope that they would delay my message a little longer, so I could work more on my SMS software, and get it ready for an influx of new users.

The email went out. I thought well, here we go!. People started replying, and they were into the idea. I got messages from old friends I hadn’t been in touch with. I got a very kind message from Josh Begley, one of the co-creators of the Listserve.

This one was amazing to receive:

Hello Dan
I’m Asare from the republic of Ghana.
I’m really inspired by you listserv today. Thank you ver much.

Hope to establish a friendship between.

I loved getting all these replies, but I realized with a sinking feeling that the SMS messages weren’t getting delivered. The server had recorded outgoing messages as sent, but they were not actually getting sent. But I could see the incoming SMS messages, and the list of phone numbers started stacking up in my MySQL table.

Oh shit.

That’s when I panicked. What if it really shits the bed? What if I start SPAMMING all of these people with SMS messages? I disabled the SMS service and hunkered down with the code. Meanwhile, I replied to each incoming email reply as best I could.

And then, life just kind of bumped my weird project down the list of priorities. I can’t even remember what specifically happened, but I know I was traveling and focused on other work responsibilities. The end result is that I just kind of … didn’t follow up.

And so here we are. It’s just before 10:30pm PDT on Email Debt Forgiveness Day (a useful holiday invented by the Reply All podcast).

I am posting this here to explain what happened to the many adventurous Listserve subscribers who took the time to reply, or send an SMS message.

To all of you, I want to say: I’m so sorry!

But I also think this idea still has legs! Maybe it just needed some more time and motivation to actually be workable. I have ran some more test runs with the SMS software since then, and it’s still not perfect, but it is starting to feel stable enough for actual use.

So much has happened since last September to warrant being mad as hell. I don’t know what it means to connect with a distributed group of mostly-strangers. But I think it could still be an interesting cross-section to mobilize to … do something.

If any of this resonates with you, please get in touch! The SMS service (fingers crossed) should actually work this time. I will try to do better with all the emailing and such.

And happy EDFD!

The world is weird and wonderful!

A tile mural at the 36th Street subway station in Sunset Park.

I wrote a post over on the Mapzen blog that I think came out nicely.

The territory means different things to different people. Depending on your perspective, the kinds of data that are captured about places may be missing, insufficient, or downright hostile. Who’s On First is opinionated—like all datasets, no collection is truly unbiased—but we hope to be aware of when we’re asserting our own opinions about places and create a framework where a polyglot of place-feels will be welcome.

The multifaceted maps we make simply reflect the weird and wonderful territory they represent.

I’m going to be adapting this as a talk at csv,conf. If you’ll be in Portland May 3, come out and say hello. (Bring your CSVs!)

Do not let the bastards grind you

I was recently on my friend Benjamen Walker‘s podcast Theory of Everything, talking about digital security.

MP3 download

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See also: Ellie’s essay about the project


The Whale is dead, long live Linky (updated)

I recently got this email about my project The Whale:

I am not a web developer or anything like that, but I am a person who has struggled with OCD and dyslexia for decades. A work like Moby Dick is normally not accessible to me because of the way I read. Your way of organizing it into small bitesize, all caps chunks has allowed me to enjoy this great literary work.

I know this is probably not what you had in mind when you wrote the code, but I wanted to thank you all the same.

I was floored. This is the most rewarding kind of feedback to get about a project.

And while that’s certainly not what I had in mind when I wrote the code, there is a part of me that enjoys the constant fidgeting with the text. All the clicking (or tapping) eases some part of my brain that might otherwise have me go impulsively check for new social media notifications.

I asked if there were any other texts that he might enjoy in this format, and then decided to generalize my project to show additional novels beyond Moby Dick. And so was born the project I’m now calling Linky. The current selection includes:

Update: Added three more titles to the list.

From [Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein](

If you have any ideas for other titles that might benefit from the Linky treatment, please let me know.

Let’s Encrypt (updated)

Update: since this was written, the letsencrypt-auto script has improved significantly. When I tried it again today (December 8, 2015), the process was basically just cloning the GitHub repo and running ./letsencrypt-auto. I’ll leave the original (outdated) information here for posterity.

As of today is being served using SSL encryption thanks to a free certificate from Let’s Encrypt. It’s a recently launched service, sponsored by Mozilla and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (among others), intended to make HTTPS encryption ubiquitous on the web.

Hooray for [Let's Encrypt!](
Hooray for Let’s Encrypt!

Let’s Encrypt is very new, and there are still some rough edges, but overall I’m impressed by how smoothly the process went. I wanted to document my experience, in case it’s helpful to others (and future-me). This post is a bit more technical than usual and, because the service is new, much of it may not be relevant very long into the future. That said, I hope this might offer some clues for folks trying to get up and running on HTTPS.


Radical /

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Radical / Networks conference (which continues today!). There’s a bit near the beginning where my audio cuts out, but you can fill in the gaps by pressing ‘p’ (for presenter mode) on my slide deck.

I mention two books at the end that you can find here:



As a coding exercise for a course I’m teaching this semester I created this single-serving site serializing Moby Dick into tiny individual texts. Remember single-serving sites? Sadly many of those domains have expired, but one of the best of them—Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle—is still there, if a bit quaint. I ruthlessly stole the design.


With apologies to Mat Honan. See also: Joshua Cohen serializing his novel PCKWCK (after Dickens’s Pickwick Papers) live on the Internet.

Link, source available on GitHub

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Joanne McNeil and I made a proposal for the Knight Foundation’s Trust Challenge. There’s a people’s choice deal where you can vote for us!

The first workshop will show students how to create a website with shared hosting where students can learn how simple it is to start their own social network and edit pages with a shell account. In the second workshop, students will build a “darknet” or private network independent of the Internet. Using a simple wifi router, students will be able to communicate in an anonymous forum.


2015 resolutions

I have some resolutions for the new year. By posting them onto a public weblog I believe they become officially binding.

  1. Write more, and read more to improve my writing.
  2. Live more in each moment. To that end, be more aware of how my time is spent.
  3. No new projects. Focus instead on fixing and improving things I’ve already begun.

In 2014 Ellie and I exchanged resolutions. Three times a week we each have our respective tasks: I have a regimen of stretches and exercises, and she is supposed to meditate for 5 minutes. We began last January and have been offering each other reminders when we forget to keep up.

My exercises—along the lines of Pilates or Yoga—feel part of my routine now. It seems that one has stuck, and now the resolution has become unnecessary. That ought to be a meta-resolution each year.

Ellie also does her own stretches and exercises, but doesn’t need the same spousal nudge to keep up with her routine. For the sake of balance, I’ll throw in a bonus fourth 2015 resolution: also make time for meditation.

  Writing  ·  January 1, 2015
  · on de

I was interviewed about for a recently-launched Dutch news site called de Correspondent. It was produced by Kel O’Neill and Eline Jongsma, who are wonderful people and doing very interesting things in addition to de Correspondent.


(And yes, I am posting here again!)

Twelve years of

Twelve years ago, on May 26th, I registered the domain It started out as a kind of online sketchbook. The first thing I posted here was an experiment in direct manipulation of the page. The point was to surprise visitors with an unexpected opportunity to create something. It’s a very crude drawing interface, and a bit pointless, but I’m amazed that it still works (for the most part). Go web standards!

The site has gone through many permutations since then, but it’s still primarily my online sketchbook. I’ve adopted a fairly conventional weblog format, but I’m still interested in exploring that element of surprise. I’d still like to try out some new things here. More to come!


Update: James reminded me of this box grid interface in the comments.