Tag Archives: communication

The Buzz Factor

This post was first published on the Idealware Blog in February of 2010.

 

buzz.png
buzz.png

Long time readers of my ramblings here are aware that I drink the Google kool-aid. And they also know that I’ve been caught tweeting, on occasion. And, despite my disappointment in Google’s last big thing (Wave), I am so appreciative of other work of theirs — GMail, Android, Picasa — that I couldn’t pass up a go with their answer to Facebook and Twitter, Buzz.

Google, perhaps because their revenue model is based on giving people ad-displaying products, as opposed to selling applications, takes more design risks than their software-developing competitors. Freed of legacy design concepts like “the computer is a file cabinet” or “A phone needs a “start” menu“, they often come up with superior information management and communication tools.

What is Buzz?

Buzz, like Twitter and Facebook, and very much like the lesser used Friendfeed, lets you tell people what you’re up to; share links, photos and other content; and respond to other people’s posts and comments. Like Facebook, Friendfeed and Twitter (if you use a third party service like Twitterfeed), you can import streams from other services, like Google Reader, Flicker, and Twitter itself, into your Buzz timeline.

Unlike Twitter, there is no character limit on your posts. And the comment threading works more like Facebook, so it’s easy to keep track of conversations.

How is Buzz Different?

The big distinguishing factor is that Buzz is not an independent service, but an adjunct of GMail. You don’t need a GMail account to use it, but, if you have one, Buzz shows up right below your inbox in the folder list, and, when a comment is posted on a Buzz that you either started or contributed to, the entire Buzz shows up in your inbox with the reply text box included, so that continuing the conversation is almost exactly like replying to an email.

The Gmail integration also feeds into your network on Buzz. Instead of actively seeking out people to follow, Buzz loads you up from day one with people who you communicate regularly with via GMail.

Privacy Concerns

Buzz’s release on Tuesday spawned a Facebook-like privacy invasion meme the day that it was released — valid concerns were raised about the list of these contacts showing up on Buzz-enabled Google Profile pages. A good “get rid of Buzz” tutorial is linked here. To Google’s credit, they responded quickly, with security updates being rolled out two days later. I’m giving Google more of a pass on this than some of my associates, because, while it was a little sloppy, I don’t think it compares to the Facebook “Beacon” scandal. Google didn’t think through the consequences, or the likely reaction to what looked like a worse privacy violation than it actually was (contact lists were only public on your profiles if you had marked your profile “public”, and there was a link to turn the lists off, it just wasn’t prominently placed or obvious that it was necessary). Beacon, in comparison, started telling the world about every purchase you made (whether it was a surprise gift for your significant other or a naughty magazine) and there was no option for the user to turn it off. And it took Facebook two years to start saying “mea culpa”, not two days.

Social Media Interactions for Grownups

Twitter’s “gimmick” — the 140 character limit — defines its personality, and those of us who enjoy Twitter also enjoy the challenge of making that meaningful comment, with links, hashtags, and @ replies, in small, 140 character bursts. It’s understood now that continuing a tweet is cheating.

Facebook doesn’t have such stringent limits, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that to glance at it. It hasn’t shaken it’s dorm room roots; it’s still burdened by all of the childish quizzes and applications; and, maybe more to the point, cursed by a superficiality imposed by everyone having an audience composed of high school buds that they haven’t seen for a decade or two, and who might now be on the other side of the political fence.

But Buzz can sustain a real conversation — I’ve seen this in my day and a half of use. Partially because it doesn’t have Twitters self-imposed limit or Facebooks playful distractions; and largely because you reply in your email, a milieu where actual conversation is the norm. This is significant for NPOs that want to know what’s being said about them in public on the web. I noted from a Twitter post this week that the Tactical Philosophy blog had a few entries discussing the pros and cons of Idealistshandling of a funding crisis. But Twitter wasn’t a good vehicle for a nuanced conversation on that, and I can’t see that type of dialogue setting in on Facebook. Buzz would be ideal for it.

The Best is Yet to Come

This week, Google rolled out Buzz to GMail. Down the road, they’ll add it to Google Apps for Domains. The day that happens, we’ll see something even more powerful. Enterprise microblogging isn’t a new idea — apps like Yammer and Socialcast have had a lot of success with it. I’m actually a big fan of Socialcast, which has a lot in common with Buzz, but I was stumped as to how I could introduce a new application at my workplace that I believe would be insanely useful, but most of the staff can’t envision a need for at all. What would have sold it, I have no doubt, is the level of email integration that Buzz sports. By making social conversations so seamlessly entwined with the direct communication, Google sells the concept. How many of you are trying hard to explain to your co-workers that Twitter isn’t a meaningless fad, and that there’s business value in casual communication? Buzz will put it in their faces, and, daunting as it might be at first, I think it will win them over.

Why Google Buzz Should Be Your Blog

Buzzcafeteria
Now, you might think that’s a crazy idea, but  I think Buzz is about 80% of the way there. Last week, in my Google’s Creepy Profiles post, I made a suggestion (that someone at Google has hopefully already thought of) that it wouldn’t take much to turn a Profile into a full-fledged biography/lifestreaming site.  Just add some user-configurable tabs, that can contain HTML or RSS-fed content, and add some capability to customize the style of the profile.  Since I wrote that, I’ve been using Buzz quite a bit and I’ve really been appreciating the potential it has to deepen conversations around web-published materials.I think some of my appreciation for Buzz comes from frustration with Google’s previous, half-hearted attempts to make Google Reader more social. If you use Reader heavily, then you know that you can share items via a custom, personal page and the “People You Follow” tab in Reader. You also know that you can comment on items and read others comments in the “Comments View”.  But it’s far from convenient to work with either of these sharing methods.  But, once you link your reader shared items to Buzz, then you aren’t using Reader’s awkward interface to communicate; you’re using Buzzes.  And Buzz, for all of Google’s launch-time snafus, is an easy to use and powerful communications tool, merging some of the best things about Twitter and Facebook.

So, how is Buzz suitable for a blog?

  • It’s a rich editing environment with simple textile formatting and media embedding, just like a blog.
  • Commenting — way built-in.
  • RSS-capable – you can subscribe to anyone’s Buzz feed.
  • Your Google Profile makes for a decent public Blog homepage, with an “About the Author”, links and contact pages.
  • It’s pre-formatted for mobile viewing

What’s missing?

  • Better formatting options.  The textile commands available are minimal
  • XML-RPC remote publishing
  • Plug-ins for the Google Homepage
  • As mentioned, more customization and site-building tools for the Google Homepage.

Why is it compelling?

  • Because your blog posts are directly inserted into a social networking platform.  No need to post a link to it, hope people will follow, and then deal with whatever commenting system your blog has to respond.
  • Your blog’s community grows easily, again fueled by the integrated social network.
  • Managing comments – no longer a chore!

This is the inverse of adding Google or Facebook’s Friend Connect features to your blog.  it’s adding your blog to a social network, with far deeper integration that Twitter and Facebook currently provide. Once Google releases the promised API, much of what’s missing will start to become available.  At that point, I’ll have to think about whether I want to move this island of a blog to the mainland, where it will get a lot more traffic.  I’ll definitely be evaluating that possibility.

The Cults That Get Things Done

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2009.

Here at Idealware, an organization that’s all about nonprofit-focused software, we understand that the success or failure of a software project often has far more to do with the implementation than the application. So, in addition to discussing software, we talk a lot about project management. To many of us, it seems like the only thing worse than devoting our scant resources to the task of building and maintaining a complex project plan is living with the result of a project that wasn’t planned. While I’m a big a fan as the next guy of PMP-certified, MS Project Ninja masters, and will argue that you need one if your project is to build a new campus or a bridge, I think there are alternate methodologies that can cover us as we roll out our CRMs and web sites, even though I know that these projects that will fail expensively without proper oversight.

The traditional project planning method starts with a Project Manager, who plays a role that fluctuates between implementation guru, data entry clerk and your nagging Mom when you’re late for school.  The PM, as we’ll call her or him, gathers all of the projected dates, people, budget, and materials, then builds the house of cards that we call the plan.  The plan will detail how the HR Director will spend 15% of her time on a series of scheduled tasks that, if they slip, will impact the Marketing Coordinator and the Database Manager’s tasks and timelines.  So the PM has to be able to quickly, intelligently, rewrite the plan when the HR Director is pulled away for a personnel matter, skewering those assumptions.

My take is that this methodology doesn’t work in environments like ours, where reduced overhead, high turnover and unanticipated priorities are the norm.  We need a less granular methodology; one that will bend easily with our flexible work conditions.  Mind you, when you give up the detailed plan, you give up the certainty that every “i” will be dotted, every “t” crossed, and every outcome accomplished on schedule.  But it’s possible to still keep sight of the important things while sacrificing some of the structural integrity.

First, keep what is critical: clear goals, communication, engagement and feedback.  The biggest risk in any project no matter how well planned, is that you’ll end up with something that has little relation to what you were trying to get.  You need clearly understood goals, shared by all internal and external parties. Each step taken must factor in those goals and be made in light of them.  All parties who have a stake in the project should have a role and a voice in the plan, from the CEO to the data entry clerk.  And everyone’s opinion matters.

Read up on agile project management, a collaborative approach that is more focused on the outcomes than  the steps and timeline to get there.  Offload the project management by focusing on expectation management.  The clearer the participants are about their roles and accountability for their contributions, the less they need to be managed.  Take a look at the Cult of Done (their manifesto is at the top of this article).  Sound insane? Maybe.  More insane than spending thousands of dollars and hours on an over-planned project that never yields results? For some perspective, read The Mythical Man Month (or, at least, this Wikipedia article on it), a book that clearly illustrates how the best laid plans can go horribly wrong.

Finally, my advocacy for less stringent forms of project management should not be read as permission to do it haphazardly.  Engagement in and attention to the project can’t be minimized.  I’m suggesting that we can take a more creative, less traditional approach in environments where the traditional approach might be a bad fit, and for projects that don’t require it.  There are a lot of judgment calls involved, and the real challenge, as always, is keeping your eye on the goals and the team accountable for delivering them.

Twitiquette

This post first appeared on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.

Social networks provide nonprofits with great opportunities to raise awareness, just as they offer individuals more opportunities to be diagnosed with information overload syndrome. To my mind, the value of tools like Twitter and Facebook are not only that they increase my ability to communicate with people, but also that they replace communication models that are less efficient. Prior to social networks, we had Email, phones, Fax and Instant Messaging (IM). Each of these were ideal for one to one communication, and suitable for group messaging, but poor at broadcasting. With Twitter and Facebook, we have broader recipient bases for our messaging. Accordingly, there’s also an assumption that we are casual listeners. With so much information hitting those streams, it would be unrealistic to expect anyone to listen 24/7.

Geek and Poke cartoon by Oliver Widder

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Twitter offers, in addition to the casual stream, a person-to-person option called direct messaging. This is handy when you want to share information with a twitter friend that you might not want to broadcast, such as your email address, or a link to a map to your house. You can only direct message someone who is following you — otherwise, it would be far too easy to abuse. Direct messages have more more in common with old-fashioned IM and EMail than Twitter posts. You can’t direct message multiple recipients, and most of us receive direct messages in our email inboxes and/or via SMS, to insure that we don’t miss them.

So I took note when a friend on a popular forum posted that his organization was launching a big campaign, and he was looking for a tool that would let him send a direct messages to every one of his followers. This, to me, seems like a bad idea. While I follow a lot of people and organizations on Twitter, I subscribe by email to far fewer mailing lists, limiting that personal contact to the ones that I am most interested in and/or able to support. I follow about 250 organizations on Twitter; I have no care to receive all of their campaign emails. But i trust that, if they are doing something exciting or significant, I’ll hear about it. My friends will post a link on Facebook. They’ll also retweet it. The power of social media is — or, at least, should be — that the interesting and important information gets voted up, and highlighted, based on how it’s valued by the recipients, not the sender.

Social networks differ primarily from email and fax in that they are socially-driven messaging. The priority of any particular message can be set by each persons community that they tune into. My friend thinks his campaign is the most important thing coming down the pike, and that he should be able to transcend the casual nature of Twitter conversation in order to let me know about it. And, of course, I think that every campaign that my org trumpets is more important than his. But I think that proper campaign etiquette and strategy is to blast information on the mediums that support that, where your constituents sign up to be individually alerted. If you want to spread the word on Twitter or Facebook, focus on the message, not the media, and let the community carry it for you, if they agree that it’s worthy.

Security and Privacy in a Web 2.0 World

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.
A Tweet from Beth

Yes, we do Twitter requests!

To break down that tweet a bit, kanter is the well-known Beth Kanter of Beth’s blog. pearlbear is former Idealware blogger and current contributor Michelle Murrain, and Beth asked us, in the referenced blog post, to dive a bit into internet security and how it contrasts with internet privacy concerns. Michelle’s response, offers excellent and concise definitions of security and privacy as they apply to the web, and then sums up with a key distinction: security is a set of tools for protecting systems and information. The sensitivity of that data (and need for privacy) is a matter of policy. So the next question is, once you have your security systems and policies in place, what happens when the the policies are breached?

Craft a Policy that Minimizes Violations

Social media is casual media. The Web 2.0 approach is to present a true face to the world, one that interacts with the public and allows for individuals, with individual tastes and opinions, to share organizational information online. So a strict rule book and mandated wording for your talking points are not going to work.

Your online constituents expect your staff to have a shared understanding of your organization’s mission and objectives. But they also expect the CEO, the Marketing Assistant and the volunteer Receptionists to have real names (and real pictures on their profiles); their own online voices; and interests they share that go beyond the corporate script. It’s not a matter of venturing too far out of the water — in fact, that could be as much of a problem as staying too close to the prepared scripts. But the tone that works is the one of a human being sharing their commitment and excitement about the work that they (and you) do.

Expect that the message will reflect individual interpretations and biases. Manage the messaging to the key points, and make clear the areas that shouldn’t be discussed in public. Monitor the discussion, and proactively mentor (as opposed to chastising) staff who stray in ways that violate the policy, or seem capable of doing so.

The Case for Transparency

Transparency assumes that multiple voices are being heard; that honest opinions are being shared, and that organizations aren’t sweeping the negative issues under the virtual rug. Admittedly, it’s a scary idea that your staff, your constituents, and your clients should all be free to represent you. The best practice of corporate communications, for many years, was to run all messaging through Marketing/Communications experts and tightly control what was said. I see two big reasons for doing otherwise:

  • We no longer have a controlled media.

Controlled messaging worked when opening your own TV or Radio Station was prohibitively expensive. Today, YouTube, Yelp and Video Blogs are TV Stations. Twitter and Facebook Status are radio stations. The investment cost to speak your mind to a public audience has just about vanished.

  • We make more mistakes by under-communicating than we do by over-communicating.

Is the importance of hiding something worth the cost of looking like you have something to hide? At the peak of the dot com boom, I hired someone onto my staff at about $10k more (annually) than current staff in similar roles were making. An HR clerk accidentally sent the offer letter to my entire staff. The fallout was that I had meaningful talks about compensation with each of my staff; made them aware that they were getting market (or better) in a rapidly changing market, and that we were keeping pace on anniversary dates. Prior to the breach, a few of my staff had been wrongly convinced that they were underpaid in their positions. The incident only strengthened the trust between us.

The Good, the Bad, and the Messenger

Your blog should allow comments, and — short of spam, personal attacks and incivility — shouldn’t be censored. A few years ago, a former employee of my (former) org managed to register the .com extension of our domain name and put up a web site criticizing us. While the site didn’t get a lot of hits, he did manage to find other departed staff with axes to grind, and his online forum was about a 50-50 mix of people trashing us and others defending. After about a month, he went in and deleted the 50% of forum messages that spoke up for our organization, leaving the now one-sided, negative conversation intact. And that was the end of his forum; nobody ever posted there again.

There were some interesting lessons here for us. He had a lot of inside knowledge that he shared, with no concern or allegiance to our policy. And he was motivated and well-resourced to use the web to attack us, But, in the end, we didn’t see any negative impact on our organization. The truth was, it was easy to separate his bias from his “inside scoops”, and hard to paint us in a very negative light, because the skeletons that he let out of our closet were a lot like anybody else’s.

What this proves is that message delivery accounts for the messenger. Good and bad tweets and blog posts about your organization will be weighed by the position and credibility of the tweeter or blogger.

Transparency and Constituent Data Breaches

Two years ago, a number of nonprofits were faced with a difficult decision when a popular hosted eCRM service was compromised, and account information for donors was stolen by one or more hackers. Thankfully, this wasn’t credit card information, but it included login details, and I’m sure that we all know people who use the same password for their online giving as they do for other web sites, such as, perhaps, their online banking. This was a serious breach, and there was a certain amount of disclosure from the nonprofits to their constituents that was mandated.

Strident voices in the community called for full disclosure, urging affected nonprofits to put a warning on the home page of their web sites. Many of the organizations settled for alerting every donor that was potentially compromised via phone and/or email, determining that their unaffected constituents might not be clear on how the breach happened or what the risks were, and would simply take the home page warning as a suggestion to not donate online.

To frame this as a black and white issue, demanding that it be treated with no discretion, is extreme. The seriousness and threat that resulted from this particular breach was not a simple thing to quantify or explain. So it boils down to a number of factors:

  • Scope: If all or most of your supporters are at risk, or the number at risk is in the six figure range, it’s probably more responsible, in the name of protecting them, to broadcast the alert widely. If, as in the case above, those impacted are the ones donate online, then that’s probably not close to the amount that would fully warrant broad disclosure, as even the strident voice pointed out.
  • Risk: Will your constituents understand that the notice is informational, and not an admission of guilt or irresponsibility in handling their sensitive data? Alternatively, if this becomes public knowledge, would your lack of transparency look like an admission of guilt? You should be comfortable with your decision, and able to explain it.
  • Consistency: Some nonprofits have more responsibility to model transparency than others. If the Sunlight Foundation was one of the organizations impacted, it’s a no-brainer. Salvation Army? Transparency isn’t referenced on their “Positions” page.
  • Courtesy: Some constituencies are more savvy about this type of thing than others. If the affected constituents have all been notified, and they represent a small portion of the donor base, it’s questionable whether scaring your supporters in the name of openness is really warranted.

Since alternate exposure, in the press or community, is likely to occur, the priority is to have a consistent policy about how and when you broadcast information about security breaches. Denying that something has had happened in any public forum would be irresponsible and unethical, and most likely come right back at you. Not being able to explain why you chose not to publicize it on your website could also have damaging consequences. Erring on the side of alerting and protecting those impacted by security breaches is the better way to go, but the final choice has to weigh in all of the risks and factors.

Conclusion

All of my examples assume you’re doing the right things. You have justifiable reasons for doing things that might be considered provocative. Your overall efforts are mission-focused. And the reasons for privacy regarding certain information are that it needs to be private (client medical records, for example); it supports your mission-based objectives by being private, and/or it respects the privacy of people close to the information.

No matter how well we protect our data, the walls are much thinner than they used to be. Any unfortunate tweet can “go viral”. We can’t put a lock on our information that will truly secure it. So it’s important to manage communications with an understanding that information will be shared. Protect your overall reputation, and don’t sweat the minor slips that reveal, mostly, that you’re not a paragon of perfection, maybe, but a group of human beings, struggling to make a difference under the usual conditions.

How to Send an All Staff Technical Email

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in April of 2009.

I had big plans for another insightful, deep, break-down-the-walls-of-the-corporate-culture-that-diminishes-use-of-technology post today, but I think I’m gonna save it for a rainy day and write something a bit more useful, instead.  I have a big nonprofit technology conference coming up this weekend, as you might, as well, and I think we should all be resting up for it.

The most important skill for any IT staff person to have is the ability to communicate.  All of the technical expertise in the world has little value without it, because, if you can’t tell people what you’re doing, what you’re doing won’t be well-received.  And there is an art, particularly with tech, to telling people what you’re doing, whether it’s taking the system down for maintenance of upgrading staff from Notepad to Office 2007.

Here are my five rules for crafting an technical email that even my most computer-phobic constituents will read:

  • Let no acronym go unexplained

The simplest, worst mistake that techies regularly make is to tell people that

“The internet will be down while we reconfigure the DHCP server” or

“The database will be unavailable while we replace the SCSI backplane”.

Best practice is to avoid the technical details in the announcement, if possible.  But if it’s relevant, speak english: “In order to accommodate the growth of our staff, we need to reconfigure the server that assigns network resources to each system to allow for more connections.”

  • Be clear, concise and consistent in your subjects

Technical messages should have easily recognizable subjects, so that staff can quickly determine relevance.  If your message is titled “Technical Information”, it might as well be titled “You are getting sleepy…”  But, if it’s titled “Network Availability” or “Database Maintenance Scheduled”, your staff will quickly figure out that these are warnings that are relevant to them. Don’t worry about the Orwellian aspect of announcing system downtime with a message about availability.  The point here is that using the consistent phrasing will grab staff’s attention far more effectively than bolding, underlining and adding red exclamation points to the email (see rule 4).

  • Keep it short and simple

It’s about what the staff needs to know, not what you’d like to tell them.  So, the network maintenance email should not read:

“The systems will be down from 4:30 to 9:00 tonight while we replace drives in the domain controllers and run a full defrag on the main document server”

It should read:

“The network will be unavailable from 4:30 pm until 9:00 pm while we perform critical maintenance”.

If it’s only a portion of the network, but something useful will be up – as when the file servers are being repaired, but email is still available, make a note of that: “While the main servers will not be available, you will still be able to send and receive email”.

  • No ALL CAPS, no exclamation points!!! and go sparingly on the bold

System downtime might be urgent to you, but it’s never urgent to the staff.  It’s a fact of life.  A reply from the Director of Online Giving that the downtime will jettison a planned online campaign is urgent; not your routine announcement.

  • Tell the whole story

…even if this sounds like it conflicts with rule 3.  Because there are two types of people on your staff:

  1. The majority, who want simple, non-techie messages as described above
  2. The rest, who want the gory details, either so they can rest easy that you aren’t making anything up, or because they’re actually interested in what you’re up to.

My approach is to do the simple message and, below it type, “Technical Details (optional reading)”.  In this section I might explain that we’re replacing the server that processes their network logins (I won’t use “DHCP” or “Domain Controller” if I can help it) or that we’re upgrading to the new version of Outlook.

The key concepts here are consistency, simplicity, and a focus on what impacts them regarding what you’re doing.  Stick to it and, miraculously, people might start reading your all staff emails.

Using RSS Tools to Feed Your Information Needs

This article was originally published at Idealware in March of 2009.

The Internet gives you access to a virtual smorgasbord of information. From the consequential to the trivial, the astonishing to the mundane, it’s all within your reach. This means you can keep up with the headlines, policies, trends, and tools that interest your nonprofit, and keep informed about what people are saying about your organization online. But the sheer volume of information can pose challenges, too: namely, how do you separate the useful data from all the rest? One way is to use RSS, which brings the information you want to you.

rss-40674_640 Many of the Web sites that interest you are syndicated. With RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, you subscribe to them, and when they’re updated, the content is delivered to you — much like a daily newspaper, except you choose the content. On the Web, you can not only get most of what the newspapers offer, but also additional, vital information that informs your organizational and mission-related strategies. You subscribe only to the articles and features that you want to read. It’s absolutely free, and the only difficult part is deciding what to do with all the time you used to spend surfing.

Since TechSoup first published RSS for Nonprofits, there has been an explosion of tools that support RSS use. There are now almost as many ways to view RSS data as there are types of information to manage. Effective use of RSS means determining how you want your information served. What kind of consumer are you? What type of tool will help you manage your information most efficiently, day in and day out? Read on to learn more.

What’s on the Menu?

You probably already check a set of information sources regularly. The first step in considering your RSS needs is to take stock of what you are already reading, and what additional sources you’d like to follow. Some of that information may already be in your browser’s lists of Bookmarks or Favorites, but consider seeking out recommendations from trusted industry sources, friends, and co-workers as well. As you review the Web sites that you’ve identified as important, check them to make sure you can subscribe to them using RSS. You can find this out by looking for “subscribe” options on the Web page itself, or for an orange or blue feed icon resembling a radio signal in the right side of your Web browser’s address bar.

Consider the whole range of information that people are providing in this format. Some examples are:

  • News feeds, from traditional news sources or other nonprofits.
  • Blogs, particularly those that might mention or inform your mission.
  • Updates from social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace (for instance, through FriendFeed).
  • Podcasts and videos.
  • Updates from your own software applications, such as notifications of edits on documents from a document management system, or interactions with a donor from your CRM. (Newer applications support this.)
  • Information from technical support forums and discussion boards.
  • All sorts of regularly updated data, such as U.S. Census information, job listings, classified ads, or even TV listings and comic strips.

 

You can get a good idea of what’s out there and what’s popular by browsing the recommendations at Yahoo! Directory oriGoogle, while a tool like PostRank can help you analyze feeds and determine which are valuable.

RSS also shines as a tool for monitoring your organization and your cause on the Web. For instance, Google Alerts lets you subscribe, for free, to RSS updates that notify you when a particular word or phrase is used on the Web. (To learn more about “listening” to what others are saying about your organization online, see We Are Media’s wiki article on online listening.)

How Hungry Are You?

Dining options abound: you can order take-out, or go out to eat; you can snack on the go, or take all your meals at home; you can pick at your food, or savor each bite. Your options for RSS reading are equally diverse, and you’ll want to think carefully about your own priorities. Before choosing the tool or tools that suit you, ask some questions about the information you plan to track.

  • How much information is it? Do you follow a few blogs that are updated weekly? Or news feeds, like the New York Times or Huffington Post, which are updated 50 to 200 times a day?
  • How intently do you need to monitor this information? Do you generally want to pore over every word of this information, or just scan for the tidbits that are relevant to you? Is it a problem if you miss some items?
  • Are you generally Web-enabled? Can you use a tool over the Internet, as opposed to one installed on your desktop?
  • Do you jump from one computer to another? Do your feeds need to be synchronized so you can access them from multiple locations?
  • Is this information disposable, or will it need to be archived? Do you read articles, perhaps email the link to a colleague, and then forget about it? Or do you want to archive items of particular interest so you can find them in the future?
  • Will you refer a lot of this information to co-workers or constituents? Would you like to be able to forward items via email, or publish favorites to a Web page?
  • Do you need mobile access to the information? Will you want to be able to see all your feeds from a smartphone, on the run?

Enjoying the Meal

Once you have a solid understanding of your information needs, it’s time to consider the type of tool that you want to use to gather your information. First, let’s look at the terminology:

  • An Article (or Item) is a bit of information, such as a news story, blog entry, job listing or podcast.
  • A Feed is a collection of articles from a single source (such as a blog or Web site).
  • An Aggregated Feed is a collection of articles from numerous feeds displayed together in one folder.

So, what RSS options are available?

Tickers

Like the “crawl” at the bottom of CNN or MSNBC television broadcasts, RSS tickers show an automatically scrolling display of the titles of articles from your RSS feeds. Tickers can be a useful way to casually view news and updates. They’re a poor choice for items that you don’t want to miss, though, as key updates might move past when you’re not paying attention.

Snackr. For a very TV-news-like experience, try Snackr, an Adobe Air application. You can load up a variety of feeds which scroll in an aggregated stream across your desktop while you work.

Gmail users can use the email browser’s Web Clips feature to create a rotating display of RSS headlines above their inbox and messages. Because Gmail is Web-based, your headlines will be available from any computer.

Web Browsers

Your current Web browser — such as Internet Explorer (IE) or Firefox — can likely act as a simple RSS reader, with varying functionality depending on the browser and browser version. Browsers can either display feeds using their built-in viewers, or associate Web pages in RSS format with an installed RSS Feed Reader (much as files ending in “.doc” are associated with Microsoft Word). Even without an installed feed reader, clicking on the link to an RSS feed will typically display the articles in a readable fashion, formatting the items attractively and adding links and search options that assist in article navigation. This works in most modern browsers (IE7 and up, Firefox 2 and up, Safari and Opera). If your browser doesn’t understand feeds, then they will display as hard-to-read, XML-formatted code.

Firefox also supports plug-ins like Wizz RSS News Reader and Sage, which integrate with the browser’s bookmarks so that you can read feeds one at a time by browsing recent entries from the bookmark menu.

Portals

Portals, like iGoogle, My Yahoo!, and Netvibes, are Web sites that provide quick access to search, email, calendars, stocks, RSS feeds, and more. The information is usually presented in a set of boxes on the page, with one box per piece of information. While each RSS feed is typically displayed in a separate box, you can show as many feeds as you like on a single page. This is a step up from a ticker or standard Web browser interface, where you can only see one feed at a time.

Email Browsers

Asmany of us spend a lot of time dealing with email, your email browser can be a convenient place to read your RSS feeds. Depending on what email browser you use, RSS feeds can often be integrated as additional folders. Each RSS feed that you subscribe to appears as a separate email folder, and each article as a message. You can’t, of course, reply to RSS articles — but you can forward and quote them, or arrange them in subfolders by topic.

If you use Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express, the very latest versions (Vista’s Windows Mail and Outlook 2007) have built-in feed reading features. (Earlier versions of Outlook can support this through powerful, free add-ons, such as RSS Popper andAttensa.)

Mozilla’s Thunderbird email application and Yahoo! Mail also allow you to subscribe to RSS feeds. Gmail doesn’t, however, as Google assumes that you’ll use the powerful Google Reader application (discussed below) to manage your feeds.

RSS Feed Readers

Another advantage of the full-featured feed readers is that you can tag and archive important information for quick retrieval. The best ones let you easily filter out items you have already read, mark the articles that are important to you so that you can easily return to them later (kind of like TiVo for the Web), and easily change your view between individual feeds and collections of feeds.

In practice, feed readers make it very effective to quickly scan many different sources of information to filter out items that are worth reading. This is a much more efficient way to process new information on the Web than visiting sites individually, or even subscribing to them with a tool that doesn’t support aggregation, like a Web browser or portal.

Feed Readers come in two primary flavors, offline and online. Offline feed readers are Windows, Mac, or Linux applications that collect articles from your feeds when you’re online, store them on your computer, and allow you to read them at any time. Online feed readers are Web sites that store articles on the Internet, along with your history and preferences. The primary difference between an online and an offline reader is the state of synchronization. An online reader will keep track of what you’ve read, no matter what computer or device that you access it from, whereas an offline reader will only update your status on the machine that it’s installed on.

Offline feed readers, such as FeedDemon (for PCs) and Vienna (for Macs), allow you to subscribe to as many feeds as you like and keep them updated, organized and manageable. During installation, they will register as the default application for RSS links in your browser, so that subscribing to new sites is as easy as clicking on an RSS icon on a Web page and confirming that you want to subscribe to it.

Online feed readers, such as Google Reader or NewsGator, offer most of the same benefits as desktop readers. While offline readers collect mail at regular intervals and copy it to your PC, online readers store all of the feeds at their Web site, and you access them with any Web browser. This means that feeds are often updated more frequently, and you can access your account — with all your RSS feeds, markings, and settings intact — from any computer. You could be home, at the office, on a smartphone, or in an Internet cafe. The products mentioned even emulate offline use. NewsGator can be synchronized with its companion offline browser FeedDemon, and Google Reader has an offline mode supported by Google Gears.

Online Readers also provide a social aspect to feed reading. Both Google Reader and NewsGator allow you to mark and republish items that you want to share with others. NewsGator does this by letting you create your own feeds to share, while Google Reader lets you subscribe to other Google Reader users’ shared items. Google Reader also lets you tag Web pages that you find outside of Google Reader and save them to your personal and shared lists. If your team members don’t do RSS, Google has that covered as well — your shared items can also be published to a standalone Web page that others can visit. You can, of course, email articles from an offline reader, but any more sophisticated sharing will require an online reader.

For many of us, mining data on the Web isn’t a personal pursuit — we’re looking to share our research with co-workers and colleagues. This ability to not only do your own research, but share valuable content with others, ultimately results in a more refined RSS experience, as members of a given community stake their own areas of expertise and share highlights with each other.

Online browsers are less intuitive than offline ones, however, for subscribing to new feeds. While an offline browser can automatically add a feed when you click on it, online browsers will require you to take another step or two (for instance, clicking an “Add” button in your browsers’ toolbar). You’re also likely to have a more difficult time connecting to a secure feed, like a list of incoming donations from your donor database, with an online reader than you would with an offline one.

The online feed readers are moving beyond the question of “How do I manage all of my information?” to “How do I share items of value with my network?”, allowing us to not only get a handle on important news, views, and information, but to act as conduits for the valuable stuff. This adds a dimension we could call “information crowd-sourcing,” where discerning what’s important and relevant to us within the daily buffet of online information becomes a community activity.


In Summary

RSS isn’t just another Internet trend — it’s a way to conquer overload without sacrificing the information. It’s an answer to the problem that the Web created: If there’s so much information out there, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? RSS is a straightforward solution: Pick your format, sit back, and let the information feast come to you.


Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article. Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb, Laura Quinn of Idealware, Thomas Taylor of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and Marnie Webb of TechSoup Global, also contributed to this article.


Peter Campbell is the director of Information Technology at Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending the earth, and blogs about NPTech tools and strategies at Techcafeteria.com. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Peter spent seven years serving as IT Director at Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin Counties, and has been managing technology for non-profits and law firms for over 20 years.

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.

Now that Mom’s on Facebook…

This article was first published on the Idealware Blog in March of 2009.

…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!

Tweaking Twitter

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in February of 2009.

Twitter is my favorite social network. Why? Because it’s easy to use (type a short message and hit enter); it’s easy to follow (just keep scrolling through the main page); it’s more casually interactive than the competitors; and, because I follow it in Twhirl, which is always in the upper-lefthand corner of my desktop, it’s always there. To contrast, I usually have Facebook open in a Firefox tab, as well, but I can go for hours without thinking to click on it.

If you’ve been curious about Twitter, or you tried it, once, but couldn’t see the utility, now might be a good time to try again. Getting started with Twitter can be a bit of a challenge if you don’t know many people who are on it, but we have an active community that Idealware readers should fit right in with. The nonprofit Twitter pack gives you a quick index of people that you might actually want to follow. And as we move into nonprofit conference season, with NTEN’s big shindig up in April and Techsoup’s Netsquared a month behind it in May, there are a lot of people joining in. Just be sure that, before you follow a bunch of us, that you tell us who you are in your profile, and maybe post an introductory Tweet — most people will not automatically follow back a blank slate.

Convenience, simplicity, immediacy, camaraderie — these are the terms that I associate with Twitter. There are some features that I’d love to see, though. These could all be implemented by Twitter, or some by a clever third party.

First, I’d like to have the option, and for my followers to have the option, of typing an introductory note to appear in the email announcing that someone has a new follower. That way, if I follow you (assuming that you’re on Twitter), I can say “Hi, you, I’m following you because I can tell by your tweets that you read the Idealware blog, and that indicates a refined taste in blogs” or “Hi, you, I see that you have all sorts of tweets about Android and the T-Mobile G1. I’m a fellow G1 user.” Make this optional, sure, but the ability to set some context when I’m establishing a social relationship would be a welcome addition.

Second, please, make the user lists (followers and followees) into a manageable interface. Let me sort them by name, location, average number of tweets a day, whether they’re following me back, how long since they last tweeted, how many tweets they’ve posted total. These are all useful metrics, and I can gleam some of them on Twitter; others via useful tools like Tweepler, which takes a stab at this type of manageability. And let me add people to groups, something that I really appreciate in Facebook’s feature set. This can be done, in a fashion, by Tweetdeck, but only if you want to donate that much of your screen’s real estate to your Twitter client. Twhirl added spellcheck this week, so I’m not going anywhere soon.

Third, while we all appreciate innovations like “Mr. Tweet“, a service that analyzes your Twitter connections and makes additional recommendations, the main algorithm for this service seems to be “who are your friends following? You should follow them, too”. Seems logical. But the result is that Mr. Tweet tells me, and everyone else, that we should follow the Twitter superstars, mostly social media gurus with followers in the thousands. Analysis of my profile should reveal that I use Twitter to converse with friends and associates, and follow very few people like that to begin with. So a recommendation engine based on my behavior, as well as my friends lists, would be great — the current options are like a Google without the option to search on terms, just a button that returns the most popular sites on the web.

Those are my top three — add your Twitter wish list requests in the comments.