Pi-Hole: It's not just for blocking advertisements any more

Part 3: Blocking ads is just one way a Pi-Hole can help you get some time back on the Internet. But there are other uses.

As of this writing I own exactly one Raspberry Pi computer, and I use it to run a Pi-Hole. If you don't know, a Pi-Hole is a DNS server that you configure and put on your network so you can ask it to resolve things for you instead of using the DNS provided by your ISP or Google or whatever other DNS provider you or your network admin set up1. After I installed the Pi-Hole and was blocking known ad-riddled domains at the DNS level, I had an epiphany: there are a lot of other scummy sites out there. Sites that try to manipulate you into spending all your time on them with the veneer that you're doing something useful2 or learning something3. But what really happens is that you sit there scrolling forever or clicking around on links and at the end of it, you either don't know any more useful information than you did before4, or you're left scrolling and scrolling trying to find something moderately interesting in the grey morass of social media posts.

This is one of the reasons that I quit Facebook a while ago. Also the tracking and the invasiveness, but mostly because Facebook tries very very hard to make it so that you never want to leave their wonderful site. They will curate things for you so you don't have to go looking for them. They'll bubble up posts from your 'friends' that they think you want to see and they'll hide the ones they think you don't. Their algorithm is good enough that they know exactly how long you'll tolerate scrolling past things you've seen before and just before you close the tab to go mindlessly scroll through something else, they'll hit you with a new post to keep you there. It's insidious.

At least, I had always heard that this was what Facebook did, but I didn't really believe it until two things happened:

  1. I found out several months after the fact that one of my friends was going through a tough time and I didn't know anything about it. In fact, I didn't see any posts from that person at all in the intervening several months, and I had assumed that they had just stopped posting. In actual fact, they had been posting daily, but since I hadn't interacted with their posts in any way (you know, other than reading them with my human eyes), Facebook decided I wasn't interested in them and just stopped showing me their posts. I visited their profile one day to see when they posted last only to find out that Facebook had decided to not show me their stuff.
  2. I was a bad Facebook citizen, I guess, and I didn't usually like or comment on anything5. After several months of me not interacting with any posts on my timeline (I wouldn't even hover over them with the mouse (yes, websites can tell where your mouse pointer is and use that to 'personalize' your experience)) my timeline got very strange. First it started showing me the same few posts over and over again and some bizarre suggestions of pages it thought I might want to 'like'. I ignored those and kept scrolling while Facebook got more and more desparate trying to feed me things it thought I would like. After changing up the mix over and over again, a curious thing happened: when I logged in to Facebook, it would eventually show me just one post, at random, from someone I was following, and that's where it stayed, desperately flailing around trying to get me to engage with something, anything to give it more data so it could give me what it thought I wanted instead of what I actually wanted: a list of my friends' posts in reverse-chronological order.

Put another way, Facebook and sites like it are designed to be addictive, and if you don't engage with them in the way that they expect, odd things tend to happen. This should not be news, but if it is news to you, I would recommend that you do some additional investigation on this.

But it goes beyond simple addiction. To be a better 'drug', sites like Facebook need to have more data on the things you like so it can show you more things it thinks you like (or things that it's being paid to show to you by advertisers), so it does this by tracking you on the Internet via those little 'share on Facebook' or 'log in via Facebook' or other avenues. They still gather information on me just by me visiting other websites that have integrated Facebook's platform for one reason or another. I didn't like that, either.

I realized that the Pi-Hole I had set up allows me to block custom domains, and I decided that I wanted to block Facebook. All of it (or, as much of it as is feasible). I wanted to disallow any computers under my control from accessing Facebook in any form6.

That was a good start, but then I started thinking about all the other bad actors out there, other than the invasive advertisers. I realized that a lot of sites have outsourced their comment sections to Disqus (which has to track you around the Internet to work properly)7, so I blocked that at the DNS level, too.

And that's basically how my network has been configured for the last couple of years. Unfortunately, I've tended to replace one mindless scrolling website with another, and I'm only marginally better off than I was before (in terms of time saved, not in terms of privacy, that's an ongoing battle). So, I've decided to block other time traps or otherwise low-quality sites that I get hung up on, and I've decided to document that list for myself as a reference.

However, and I can not stress this strongly enough, this is not a list of recommendations, and this is not a call to action. I can not make decisions on what web sites you should or shouldnt go to, that's something you have to decide on your own. You alone can decide what it is that you want to get out of the Internet and you absolutely should not base that decision solely on what some random person on the Internet tells you.

What I can do is to tell you a little bit about myself and the things I've observed me doing, and why I felt the need to make these changes in the first place.

Way back in Part 1 I did some self-reflection and realized that I had lots of things that I said I wanted to do, but I kept doing everything other than the things that I needed to do to get the things done that I needed to get done (whew!). One solution is to make doing those things that I'm doing to avoid doing the Important Stuff™ that I kept telling myself that I wanted to harder or impossible to do. Or, to put it in a way that is less confusing grammatically, I would make it harder to do the time wasters than to do the things I actually wanted to do.

Some examples

  • I was watching too much crap on cable television: I cut the cord and put up an antenna
  • I was spending too much time and money trawling Steam sales looking for deals and then barely playing the things I bought: I installed an operating system where Steam isn't supported
  • I spent too much time scrolling through social media timelines looking for something 'interesting': I closed my account

And that worked! For a while. Eventually I found that I was replacing those things that I had identified as time-wasters with other things that were equally good at wasting my time. I stopped going to Facebook, and I spent more time on Twitter. I stopped mindlessly watching things on cable, so I started mindlessly watching things over the air. It's like there's this part of my brain that is determined to find something to do, anything at all, that's going to prevent me from doing the things I that I say I want to do (I believe the technical term for this is: procrastination).

That's why I started blocking some of the more egregious offenders on the web from my personal network, and whenever I notice that I'm spending a disproportionate amount of time on a site and I realize that I'm not having fun, I'm just doing a thing. Then that site goes into the hole.8.

This may not be the best solution to this problem, but it's the one that I'm working on for now. It's roughly the equivalent trying to cut back on junk food by just not keeping any in the house. Just like I could go to the store any time I wanted to and buy a pack of Ding Dongs, the slightly increased amount of effort means that I probably won't bother. Similarly, I'm the network administrator for my network, I can log in to my Pi-Hole and hit the 'disable' button any time I want if I decide I want the Internet equivalent of Ding Dongs for a few minutes. The idea here is to make doing the things I don't want to doslightly more difficult so that the things I want to do are the things I do by default9.

Originally I was going to post the list of the sites right around here ↓

My List of Sites That I Block For Reasons Nobody Really Cares About
Site1: Facebork
Site2: Twibbler
Site3: 3rd party comment site integrated everywhere
Site4: And so on

But then I thought that it might be a better idea to put it in a more accessible place. That way if someone wants to send me a link to something they saw on Facebook, I can point them to the list and tell them, "Sorry, I block that site".10

That list is available here and will be updated as I find more sites that I don't want or need to visit for whatever reasons I want.


  1. Going over how DNS works is way beyond the scope of this article, but it's worth looking up to get a casual understanding of it.
  2. AKA News Aggregators
  3. AKA Top 'X' lists
  4. Not that there's anything wrong with learning useless information sometimes. In the vernacular, we call that 'having a hobby'.
  5. Even though I was using Facebook at the time, I didn't want to give them any more data on me than I had to.
  6. This is made a little bit more difficult since Facebook owns a bazillion companies and domain names, but it was a good opportunity to learn the basics of Regular Expressions
  7. Not to mention that Disqus comment sections are universally garbage posts anyway. They're like a tiny Facebook window at the bottom of whatever article I'm reading, and nothing useful or interesting is ever said there.
  8. There are other reasons they might end up on the blocklist, but those reasons are beyond the scope of this article.
  9. And, to be clear on this, there's nothing wrong with eating ice cream (or your junk food of choice) once in a while, eating it multiple times a day every day turns it into a problem. It's the same with low-quality time-wasters on the Internet. Sometimes it's fine to turn your brain off and look at pictures of cats falling down for an hour. But if you do that for multiple hours every day, maybe that's not as fine.
  10. It's kind of like how I stopped subscribing to cable over ten years ago, but people still ask me if I've seen Some Show and I have to keep reminding them that I don't have cable*
    • If I'm being honest, I'll probably have to remind people of this for the rest of my life, or until the cable industry collapses. Whichever comes first.

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