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

“We thought we were gonna change the world”

From Mike Monteiro’s One person’s history of Twitter, from beginning to end:

Their goal was giving everyone a voice. They were so obsessed with giving everyone a voice that they never stopped to wonder what would happen when everyone got one. And they never asked themselves what everyone meant. That’s Twitter’s original sin. Like Oppenheimer, Twitter was so obsessed with splitting the atom they never stopped to think what we’d do with it.

Related: more Twitter-related news from the Civicist.


Escape from distractionland

I recently added some scripts to my work laptop designed to help me break out of my reflexive “cmd-T, T, enter” keyboard habit. That keyboard sequence loads up my Twitter timeline in a new tab before I’ve even realized what’s happening. I’m untraining myself out of habitual social media grazing by enforcing a rigid schedule.

Based on Mike Rugnetta’s excellent write-up, I basically hijack my Mac laptop’s /etc/hosts file on a daily interval from 10am to 6pm, with a one hour lunch break at noon. I’ve modified his approach slightly, since I tend to edit my /etc/hosts file regularly for web development, and can’t be bothered to maintain two separate copies of it. Instead of swapping between two different hosts files, I use sed to modify the file in place.

In my hosts file I have a couple lines that look like this at the beginning of the day:

# distractionland

The rule starts the day commented out, so up until 10am it’s still open season on my wandering attention. Notice that you can stack up a bunch of hostnames after the IP address, there’s no need to make a separate line for each one. I recently deactivated my Facebook, so I don’t need that one in the mix any more.

My first script /usr/local/bin/disable-distractions blocks access to Twitter, et al by uncommenting the line:

sudo sed -i .bak -E 's/^# ($/\1/' /etc/hosts

The script creates a backup file hosts.bak and then removes the comment like this:

# distractionland    

The second script /usr/local/bin/enable-distractions comments the line back out, unblocking the websites:

sudo sed -i .bak -E 's/^\s*($/# \1/' /etc/hosts

The -i flag for sed is for “inline” editing, and the -E activates extended regular expression syntax. The edit command uses the form 's/.../.../', which basically reads as “search for … and replace it with …” The first … is a regular expression matching the line, and the second … either prefixes the line with # or removes the #.

I use the launchd daemon to call these scripts using four .plist files according to a daily schedule:

  • 10am: disable-distractions
  • 12pm: enable-distractions
  • 1pm: disable-distractions
  • 6pm: enable-distractions

Note that the computer must be running at each transition time, or the scripts won’t fire. But I can always just invoke one or the other from the command line if needed.

The launchd configuration is handled by four .plist files saved in my /Library/LaunchDaemons folder. Once everything was set up I activated them like this:

sudo launchctl load /Library/LaunchDaemons/org.phiffer.workday-start.plist
sudo launchctl load /Library/LaunchDaemons/org.phiffer.workday-end.plist
sudo launchctl load /Library/LaunchDaemons/org.phiffer.lunchbreak-start.plist
sudo launchctl load /Library/LaunchDaemons/org.phiffer.lunchbreak-end.plist

I’ve found this “one simple trick” has been effective at managing my novelty-seeking brain. Each time I absent-mindedly load up a blocked page I take a deep breath and close the tab. For now I’ve chosen not to block my feed reader, so I’m keeping up with the weblogs I subscribe to much more regularly than I did before. Keep on posting, friends!

Solidarity from NYC

Yesterday’s protests at JFK airport were loud and angry and make me hopeful. Photo by Ellie Irons.

Decided to publish this message I just sent to a friend in Atlanta who emailed asking about how to find out when and where the protests are happening.

Thanks for the link, I’ll give that a read. It’s interesting how these dynamics of oppression seem to fit so neatly into historical precedent. How is it that us Americans think of ourselves as somehow immune to all of this?

We were out at JFK yesterday and it was a really great experience. Loud and angry, with overwhelming turnout. But honestly the smaller protests in lower-profile places in the world continue to be the ones that give me the most inspiration. It takes a lot more guts to show up for a tiny demonstration where you’re easily picked out of a crowd, or where small town dynamics make anonymous protest impossible.

BTW, I saw that Rep. John Lewis was out at ATL, just hanging out in the terminal until he got some answers. So awesome.

I feel like getting information about a protest is an ongoing challenge, especially at events that aren’t officially permitted by local government. There’s a kind of fine line to walk—organizers want to get the word out, for news of an event to spread. But if it’s technically an illegal gathering, it may be difficult to find “official” or consistent sources of good info. And this is where social media is helpful.

It’s a good time to get into Twitter I think, but the trick is in knowing who to follow and how to avoid feeling overwhelmed. My advice would be to find out people you know who went to protests in Atlanta, and just ask them to ping you next time they hear about something. For my part, I first heard about the JFK demonstration via Facebook Messenger (which I hate, but shit like this keeps me on it) from a friend who lives in LA, and then a couple hours later I got a mass email from an immigrant rights org. So maybe sign up for some email lists for local advocacy groups.

Anyway, good to know you’re thinking about this stuff! I am hopeful that we’ll continue to exercise our right to free assembly before things get even worse and it becomes too dangerous to protest (from police violence or stiffer court penalties). So in the interim, let’s go and put our various privileges to productive use while we can.

Solidarity from NYC,


Good point from Paul, basically Facebook is still where things are happening.

Also, if you want to get out and protest today in New York City, go to Battery Park at 2pm.

The first day of Twitter

If you used Twitter today, you’ve probably heard it’s the social network’s 10th birthday. I used their API to recreate what Twitter’s first day looked like, by plugging in a sequence of ID numbers starting at number 20.

I’m curious what happened to those first 19 tweets, and some other subsequent missing ID numbers (e.g., 24, 27, 28). Were they deleted? If so, why? Also notable: missing tweet ID 105 returns “Sorry, you are not authorized to see this status.” instead of the usual “No status found with that ID.”

And then it was day two.

On faves, likes, and hearts

Filed under: Celebration
Filed under: Celebration

This week’s On the Media includes a discussion with the Tow Center’s Emily Bell, talking about a piece she wrote in The Guardian.

Yes, it’s about Twitter faves/likes/hearts. And yes, website design choices do influence user behavior!

I found myself not bookmarking, as I would have done a day earlier, a horrifying image retweeted by journalists depicting men using phones to film a woman being stoned to death for adultery. I did not “like” let alone “love” the image but wanted to note it as important. We must have a system which allows for capturing the significant as well as the appealing.

You may have experienced a version of this when a friend or loved one shares bad news on Facebook. I don’t “like” this, but I want to acknowledge it, and express my empathy. Facebook makes it easy to give that post a thumbs up. The cynical conspiracy theorist in me says this is an effort to make the site more compatible for a sale to Zuckerberg & Co.

The most baffling part is how Twitter is saying the new heart icon is “a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones.” But then in the following sentence claiming that it is “more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people.”

It may be true that newer users—from a wider range of backgrounds—may find ❤️ symbols more familiar, but the ⭐️ undoubtedly offers greater flexibility in terms of which “emotions” are being conveyed.

It’s a small change, and I understand that complaining about social media software is tedious, but it does point to how Twitter is first and foremost a profit-seeking company. This change was meant to get their monthly active users numbers up (and by extension, their stock price). And perhaps the strategy is working:

“It’s a change that’s been fantastic for the platform,” said Weil. “We see now 6% more hearts, 6% more likes on Twitter than we saw with favorites.” He also noted that new users tend to engage 9% more with this change.

Back to Emily Bell in The Guardian:

The inherent tension at the centre of all modern communication businesses—including every news organisation—is that only the likable is reliably bankable.

The relaying of trauma, devastation and cruelty is not inherently profitable in the same way that the relaying of how awesome the new Adele track is or how much we adore kittens might be.

What people like on social media has consequences; not just the marginal economic kinds, but also for how the public publics (a verb) on the network. As Zeynep Tufekci has written in The Message:

What if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.

Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?

Anyway, here’s a small selection of the 19,500+ (!!) tweets I’ve faved so far:

Me talking about the Somebody app on

I was interviewed by BBC correspondant Anna Bressanin for a show called Trending, talking ’bout Miranda July’s Somebody app. I’ve been using the service a bit, and it’s a lot of fun. The app is imperfect; the software is buggy, and I don’t like that it only works for iPhone, but the idea itself is interesting.