March 26

Feed Fight

LinkedIn has Facebook envy, and Facebook has Twitter envy. Ignoring MySpace (my general recommendation), these are three big social networks that, sadly, seem to be trying to co-opt each others strengths rather than differentiate themselves.  Per Readwriteweb, LinkedIn is jealous of Facebook’s page views, and is looking for ways (like applications) to keep users connected to the web site.  More noticeably, Facebook’s recent failed attempt to buy Twitter was followed up by a redesign that makes Facebook much more like Twitter.  Al of this inter-related activity has created some confusion as to what one should or shouldn’t do where, and a question as to whether this strategy of co-opting your neighbors’ features is a sound strategy.

My take is that each of these networks serve different purposes, and, while I am connected to a lot of the same people on all three, they each have distinct audiences and the communication I do on these networks is targeted to the individual networks.

  • LinkedIn is a business network. This is a place where potential employers and business associates are likely to go to learn about me.  Accordingly, I sparingly use the status update feature there, and never post about what movie I took the kid to or how funny the latest XKCD strip was.
  • Facebook is a casual network where I have some control over who sees my posts; it’s also the place where I find the most old friends and family. So, given that my potential employers and business associates aren’t likely to see my profile unless they have a personal or more collegial relationship already established with me, this is where I’ll give a status review of the Watchman movie or post a picture of the kid.
  • For me, Twitter is the business casual network, where my nptech peers gather to support each other and shmooze.  I am mindful that my tweets paint a public picture, so I keep the ratio of professional to personal tweets high and I don’t say things that I wouldn’t want my wife or boss to see on the web.

The multiple, overlapping networks create some issues in terms of effective messaging.  One is the echo chamber effect – it’s ridiculously easy to automatically feed your tweets to Facebook and LinkedIn.  The other is the lack of ability to do more than broadly address numerous audiences.  I mean, my Facebook friends include co-workers, business associates, childhood friends and Mom; you’re probably in a similar boat.  For some people, this creates the “I really didn’t want Mom to hear about the party I attended last night” issue.  For most of us, it simply means that we don’t want to bore our old friends and family with our professional blogging and insights, any more than we really want our co-workers to see what sort of hippies we were when we were 17.

So I manage some of this by using Tweetdeck as my primary Twitter client, because the latest version lets me, optionally, send a status update to Facebook as well as Twitter, which I do no more than once a day with something that should be meaningful to both audiences.  What I won’t do (as many of my Facebook/Twitter friends do) is publish all of my tweets to Facebook — that’s cruel to both the friends who don’t need to see everything you tweet and the ones who are already seeing what you tweet on Twitter.

At first, I thought the idea of Facebook incorporating Twitter might be a good one.  Facebook has a big advantage over Twitter.  It’s hard to be new to Twitter; the usefulness and appeal are pretty muted until you have a community that you communicate with.  Facebook starts with the community, so it solves that problem.  But, for me, the amount of control I have over the distribution has a lot to do with the messaging, and I like that Twitter is completely public, republishable, and Google-searchable.  I communicate (appropriately) in that medium; and if you aren’t interested in what I want to communicate, I’m really easy to drop or ignore.  But my Mom is probably far less interested in both non-profit management and Technology than my Twitter followers, and I don’t want her to unfriend me on Facebook.  So I’d rather let Facebook be Facebook and let Twitter be Twitter.  Just because an occasional beer hits the spot, as does an occasional glass of wine, that doesn’t mean that I want to mix them together.

Category: nptech, software, techcafeteria, tools, twitter, Web | Comments Off
March 24

More RSS Tools: Web Site Integration

Those of you who visit pages besides the blog here at Idealware have noted that my article Using RSS Tools to Feed your Information Needs is up. If you’re new to Really Simple Syndication, my hope is that my guide will help you become more efficient and effective in your use of the web. If you’re an old hand at RSS, then I’m hoping the article will serve as a good tool when trying to impress others of the value of syndication.

RSS is a big topic, and writing the article was, in one respect, a challenge: in order to write a solid, intermediate guide to RSS use, I had to narrow the scope a bit. My initial interest and eventual obsession with RSS was sparked by two things: The overall usefulness of a tool that brings the web info I’m interested in to me; and the possibilities of using RSS as a publishing platform. So the article covers the first use well, but omits many cool things, like RSS Pipes, OPML, web site integration, and aggregators/portals. I hope to take these on over the next few weeks here in the blog.

Let’s start with web site integration. If you manage a web site, then you know that the name of the game is fresh content. While RSS will not eliminate the need to actively maintain your site, it can supplement your content in an automatically refreshing stream, as well as serve as a publishing medium.

If your site is built with a content management system (CMS), then you are probably already most of the way there. Most CMS’s have built in RSS aggregators that allow you to select the relevant content and publish it to a section of your site. If it isn’t a standard feature of your CMS, then browse the catalog of add-ons and extensions and you’ll probably find it there. Of course, if you use a commercial CMS, as opposed to an open source product, you might have to pay more for the add-on.

If you don’t have a CMS, a minimal amount of PHP scripting expertise can accomplish the same thing by using pre-built RSS functions libraries like Magpie RSS. Magpie is a set of PHP routines that you copy to your web server, allowing you to write minimal, simple code that identifies the feed and publishes it to a page. the heavy lifting is done by the Magpie — all you do is reference the feed and format the appearance of the items.

The simplest use is in republishing content on the web that’s pertinent to your site. You can aggregate news relevant to your cause, or sample topics of related interest from blogs on the web. For an example, look at the nonprofit technology news aggregator that I set up at nptech.info. This uses Drupal‘s built-in RSS aggregator to create a three-section web site republishing nptech blogs, items tagged “nptech” on the web, and general technology news.

But it doesn’t stop there — if you post open positions on Craigslist, you can eliminate the need to also update your web page by simply subscribing to a search for your open jobs. The strategy here is in using RSS not only to add content, but to maintain content that currently requires a Webmaster’s attention. If you post your events to a site like Upcoming.org, your events page can be a simple RSS feed. If you link to related sites and associates, you can automate that as well by setting up an account at a bookmarking site, such as Delicious, tagging sites that you want to be linked to your web site with a unique tag, and then subscribing to that tag. And this concept works just as well for graphical content at Flickr, or videos at Youtube.

I’ll be posting soon about additional ways to manage RSS feeds, and I want to take a deeper dive into Google Reader, which takes it all to another level. In the meantime, if you have great stories about integrating RSS feeds with your web site, please share in the comments.

March 17

Now that Mom’s on Facebook…

…here’s what I want to write on her wall:

Dear Mom, welcome to Facebook!  I’m glad you’re here, because we don’t talk enough, and this is an opportunity to be a little more present in each other’s lives.  Mind you, it won’t, and shouldn’t, replace any phone calls or visits.

Facebook is a bit like taking the big, wide, Internet, and narrowing it down to just the stuff that your friends would show you.  It’s nice because we get to catch up with a lot of old and new friends in one place, but that same convenience also makes it a bit superficial.  Since almost everything you say on Facebook is shared with all of your friends, you’ll be saying things that you don’t mind everyone hearing,  That puts a bit of a filter on some of the meaningful exchanges that are so much a part of our true friendships.

Another big thing about Facebook is that it is the product of a private company; not a big, amorphous set of connections like the Internet at large.  And, since it’s “free”, the business model is advertising.  So Facebook is a business that makes money off of your interests and relationships. If that doesn’t sound just a little bit scary to you, I think it should.

So here are some great things to do and some things to avoid on Facebook:

  • Connect with people you know (ignore requests from people that you’ve never met!
  • Share links to useful information, but stop short of sharing stuff that says more about your personal interests than you would want the world to know.
  • Ignore most of the applications.  Our friends and family are, in general, serious and active people who don’t have time to speculate on which of their Facebook friends they would like to be trapped on a desert island with.  I routinely ignore all of the non-existent gifts and requests to do things that I really don’t have any time to do, and, fortunately, my friends take the hint and stop bothering me with them.
  • Keep in mind that, every time you include a friend in an application invite, you’re telling the company that made the application about them.  So it’s not just that so many of these things are insanely trivial — they’re also potentially nebulous.
  • Don’t go crazy joining groups.  Every time you join a group, you open your profile to all of the members of that group.  It’s better to try and contain your exposure to people that you are fairly certain you would want to know.
  • Finally, you have my email address – send me personal mail there, not via Facebook’s mail.  While the mail is useful for establishing communication with people you reconnect with, and the wall writing is fun because you share it with others and can start conversations, I much prefer keeping our personal communication in my regular email.
  • To my mind, Facebook is a fun place to catch up with old friends and share things with my community, but if I only know someone on Facebook, let’s face it, they’re not really a friend.  Friendship implies a level of intimacy that shouldn’t be subject to broad peer review and data mining for advertisers.  And Facebook should not be a place that you can’t forget to visit for a week, or more, without risking offending someone.  Used moderately, with moderate expectations on the part of youa nd your Facebook friends, it has its rewards.

The world is coming to Facebook – it’s not just my Mom; it’s also my Dad, sister, brother-in-law, co-workers, grade school friends, and an assortment of people from everywhere in my life.  What do you want to say to the people you’re connecting with?  Leave a comment!

Category: idealware, nptech, software, techcafeteria, tools, Web | Comments Off
March 10

Both Sides Now

Say you sign up for some great Web 2.0 service that allows you to bookmark web sites, annotate them, categorize them and share them. And, over a period of two or three years, you amass about 1500 links on the site with great details, cross-referencing — about a thesis paper’s worth of work. Then, one day, you log on to find the web site unavailable. News trickles out that they had a server crash. Finally, a painfully honest blog post by the site’s founder makes clear that the server crashed, the data was lost, and there were no backups. So much for your thesis, huh? Is the lesson, then, that the cloud is no place to store your work?

Well, consider this. Say you start up a Web 2.0 business that allows people to bookmark, share, categorize and annotate links on your site. And, over the years, you amass thousands of users, some solid funding, advertising revenue — things are great. Then, one day, the server crashes. You’re a talented programmer and designer, but system administration just wasn’t your strong suit. So you write a painful blog entry, letting your users know the extent of the disaster, and that the lesson you’ve learned is that you should have put your servers in the cloud.

My recent posts have advocated cloud computing, be it using web-based services like Gmail, or looking for infrastructure outsourcers who will provide you with virtualized desktops. And I’ve gotten some healthily skeptical comments, as cloud computing is new, and not without it’s risks, as made plain by the true story of the Magnolia bookmarking application, which recently went down in the flames as described above. The lessons that I walk away with from Magnolia’s experience are:

  • You can run your own servers or outsource them, but you need assurances that they are properly maintained, backed up and supported. Cloud computing can be far more secure and affordable than local servers. But “the cloud”, in this case, should be a company with established technical resources, not some three person operation in a small office. Don’t be shy about requesting staffing information, resumes, and details about any potential off-site vendor’s infrastructure.
  • You need local backups, no matter where your actual infrastructure lives. If you use Salesforce or Google, export your data nightly to a local data store in a usable format. Salesforce lets you export to Excel; Google supports numerous formats. Gmail now supports an Offline mode that stores your mail on the computer you access it from. If you go with a vendor who provides virtual desktop access (as I recommend here), get regular snapshots of the virtual machines. If this isn’t an over the air transfer, make sure that your vendors will provide DVDs of your data or other suitable medium.
  • Don’t sign any contract that doesn’t give you full control over how you can access and manipulate your data, again, regardless of where that data resides. A lot of vendors try and protect themselves by adding contract language prohibiting mass updates and user access, even on locally-installed applications. But their need to simplify support should not be at the expense of you not having complete control over how you use your information.
  • Focus on the data. Don’t bend on these requirements: Your data is fully accessible; It’s robustly backed up; and, in the case of any disaster, it’s recoverable.

Technology is a set of tools used to manage your critical information. Where that technology is housed is more of a feature set and financial choice than anything else. The most convenient and affordable place for your data to reside might well be in the cloud, but make sure that it’s the type of cloud that your data won’t fall through.

March 9

RSS Article is up

I spent a good chunk of December and January writing what I hope is a very complete guide to RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and how you (whomever you might be) can use it. The article takes on the ambitious goal of identifying the types of information available in RSS format, the types of programs that can be used to read RSS feeds, and the best ones for different types of use, from tickers to email add-ons to full fledged RSS readers. I’m proud of this one – I think it’s a new approach to the topic that should be helpful for anyone who’s tired of hearing that they should be using RSS and, instead, would like to know why and how. Choose your portal, as it’s at Idealware and Techsoup.

Category: email, idealware, software, strategy, techcafeteria, tools, Web | Comments Off
March 6

Here with the Wind

Techcafeteria landed on it’s third (or fourth, if you count the ibook I developed it on) web host this week. I have hope that this is one that won’t merge with a bigger, awfuller company or forget to tell me that they regularly overload their servers to the point where my web sites go down. I’ve had a run of bad luck. I host seven or eight domains, including a couple of sites for friends, so I like to get a decent reseller’s account.

I was with Dotable, a nice outfit out of Australia run by a guy named “Aussie Bob”, and it was a good place to be – decent pricing, really responsive support, mostly stable. I recommended Dotable often because the problems were minimal in relation to the great communication and supportive attitude of the staff.

A few months ago Bob announced that he was retiring and handing over management to another company. In short order, the new service deleted a (dormant) Drupal site off of one of my domains without telling me; and changed my mail records to point to a new spam filtering service, without informing me. Since one of my “client” domains routes his mail through EasyDNS (on my recommendation), this resulted in two days of mail being completely lost. During the crisis, every support ticket I put in got a “we’re forwarding this to our admin” answer. The admin had a backlog, I bet, because I wasn’t getting responses for days, and the responses I got were not helpful, and ducked the ones like “why did you change my MX record without telling me?”

Anyway, my friend/client is active on Green America’s forums (they used to be Coop America), and he’d heard very good things about Canvas Dreams, an Oregon hosting service with a wind-powered server farm and the exact plans and setup that I was looking for. So I made the move, and Techcafeteria,NPTech.info and Krazy.com, along with my other projects, are all a bit greener and happier today. And it does seem to me that this server is faster than the one I was on with Dotable. Those of you who actually visit the site (I assume that most of you simply subscribe) might have noticed some weirdness this morning as I adjusted a few things, but the blog came over without a noticeable hitch.

So, welcome to the same site, at it’s new green home.

Category: Green Computing, Miscellany, techcafeteria | Comments Off