Tag Archives: rss

How Easy Is It For You To Manage, Analyze And Present Data?

apple-256262_640I ask because my articles are up, including my big piece from NTEN’s Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits on Architecting Healthy Data Management Systems. I’m happy to have this one available in a standalone, web-searchable format, because I think it’s a bit of a  signature work.  I consider data systems architecture to be my main talent; the most significant work that I’ve done in my career.

  • I integrated eleven databases at the law firm of Lillick & Charles in the late 90’s, using Outlook as a portal to Intranet, CRM, documents and voicemail. We had single-entry of all client and matter data that then, through SQL Server triggers, was pushed to the other databases that shared the data.  This is what I call the “holy grail” of data ,entered once by the person who cares most about it, distributed to the systems that use it, and then easily accessible by staff. No misspelled names or redundant data entry chores.
  • In the early 2000’s, at Goodwill, I developed a retail data management system on open source (MySQL and PHP, primarily) that put drill-down reporting in a web browser, updated by 6:00 am every morning with the latest sales and production data.  We were able to use this data in ways that were revolutionary for a budget-challenged Goodwill, and we saw impressive financial results.

The article lays out the approach I’m taking at Legal Services Corporation to integrate all of our grantee data into a “data portal”, built on Salesforce and Box. It’s written with the challenges that nonprofits face front and center: how to do this on a budget, and how to do it without a team of developers on staff.

At a time when, more and more, our funding depends on our ability to demonstrate our effectiveness, we need the data to be reliable, available and presentable.  This is my primer on how you get there from the IT viewpoint.

I also put up four articles from Idealware.  These are all older (2007 to 2009), they’re all still pretty relevant, although some of you might debate me on the RSS article:

This leaves only one significant piece of my nptech writing missing on the blog, and that’s my chapter in NTEN’s “Managing Technology To Meet Your Mission” book about Strategic Planning. Sorry, you gotta buy that one. However, a Powerpoint that I based on my chapter is here.

The End Of NPTech (.INFO)

After eight years, I’ve decided to shutter the nptech.info website, which will also disable the @nptechinfo twitter feed that was derived from it.  Obviously, Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus have made RSS aggregation sites like nptech.info obsolete. Further, as Google ranks links from aggregators lower and lower on the optimization scale, it seems like I might be doing more harm than good by aggregating all of the nptech blogs there. It will be better for all if I spend my efforts promoting good posts on social media, rather than automatically populating a ghost town.

Long-time Techcafeterians will recall that NPTECH.INFO used to be a pretty cool thing. The history is as follows:

Around 2004, when RSS first started getting adopted on the web, a very cool site called Del.icio.us popped up.  Delicious was a social bookmarking site, where you could save links with keywords and descriptions, and your friends could see what you were sharing (as well as the rest of the delicious userbase). Smart people like Marnie Webb and Marshall Kirkpatrick agreed that they would tag articles of interest to their peers with the label “nptech”. Hence, the origin of the term. They let about 50 friends know and they all fired up their newsreaders (I believe that Bloglines was state of the art back then — Google Reader was just a glimmer in some 20%er’s eye).

Understand, referring information by keyword (#hashtag) is what we are all doing all of the time now.  But in 2005, it was a new idea, and Marnie’s group were among the first to see the potential.

I picked up on this trend in 2005.  At lunch one day, Marnie and I agreed that a web site was the next step for our experiment in information referral.  So I installed Drupal and registered the domain and have kept it running (which takes minimal effort) ever since.  It got pretty useless by about 2009, but around that time I started feeding the links to the @nptechinfo Twitter account, and it had a following as well.

Yesterday, I received an email asking me to take down an article that included a link to a web site.  It was an odd request — seemed like a very 2001, what is this world wide web thing? request: “You don’t have permission to link to our site”.  Further digging revealed that these were far from net neophytes; they were SEO experts who understood that a click on the link from my aggregator was being misinterpreted by Google as a potential type of link fraud, thus impairing their SEO.  I instantly realized that this could be negatively impacting all of my sources –and most of my sources are my friends in the nptech community.

There is probably some way that I could counter the Google assumption about the aggregator.  But there are less than three visitors a day, on average. So, nptech.info is gone, but the community referring nptech information is gigantic and global.  It’s no longer an experiment, it’s a movement.  And it will long outlive its origins.

Everything That You Know About Spam Is Wrong

At least, if everything you know about it is everything that I knew about it before last week. I attended an NTEN 501TechClub event where Brett Schenker of Salsa Labs spoke on how the large mail services identify Spam emails.  It turns out that my understanding that it was based primarily on keywords, number of links and bulk traits is really out of date.  While every mail service has their own methods, the large ones, like GMail and Yahoo!, are doing big data analysis and establishing sender reputations based on how often their emails are actually opened and/or read. You probably have a sender score, and you want it to be a good one.

Put another way, for every non-profit that is dying to get some reasonable understanding of how many opens and clicks their newsletters are getting, Google could tell you to the click, but they won’t.  What they will do is judge you based on that data.  What this really means is that a strategy of growing your list size could be the most unproductive thing that you could do if the goal is to increase constituent engagement.

As Brett explained (in a pen and paper presentation that I sadly can not link to), if 70% of your subscribers are deleting your emails without opening them, than that could result in huge percentages of your emails going straight to the spam folder.  Accordingly, the quality of your list is far more critical than the volume. Simply put, if you send an email newsletter to 30,000 recipients, and only 1000 open it, your reputation as a trustworthy sender drops.  But if you send it to 5000 people and 3500 of them open it, you’ve more than tripled the engagement without soiling your email reputation.

I know that this goes against the grain of a very established way of thinking.  Percentage of list growth is a simple, treasured metric.  But it’s the wrong one.

Here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure that your list is Opt-In only, and verify every enrollment.
  • Don’t buy big lists and mail to them. Just don’t! Unless you have solid reasons to think the list members will be receptive, you’ll only hurt your sender score.
  • Put your unsubscribe option in big letters at the top of each email
  • Best of all, send out occasional emails asking people if they want to keep receiving your emails and make them click a link if they want to.  If they don’t click it, drop them.
  • Keep the addresses of the unsubscribed; inviting them to reconnect later might be a worthwhile way to re-establish the engagement.

Don’t think for a minute that people who voluntarily signed up for your lists are going to want to stay on them forever.  And don’t assume that their willingness to be dropped from the list indicates that they’ll stop supporting you.

Even better, make sure that the news and blog posts on your web site are easy to subscribe to in RSS.  We all struggle with the mass of information that pushes our important emails below the fold.  Offering alternative, more manageable options to communicate are great, and most smartphones have good RSS readers pre-installed.

One more reason to do this?  Google’s imminent GMail update, which pushes subscriptions out of the inbox into a background tab.  If most people are like me, once the emails are piling up in the low priority, out of site subscriptions tab, they’ll be more likely to be mass deleted.

Google Made Me Cry

Well, not real tears. But the announcement that Google Reader will no longer be available as of July 1st was personally updating news.  Like many people,  over the last eight years, this application has become as central a part of my online life as email. It is easily the web site that I spend the most time on, likely more than all of the other sites I frequent combined, including Facebook.

What do I do there? Learn. Laugh. Research. Spy. Reminisce. Observe. Ogle. Be outraged. Get motivated. Get inspired. Pinpoint trends. Predict the future.

With a diverse feed of nptech blogs,  traditional news,  entertainment, tech, LinkedIn updates, comic strips and anything else that I could figure out how to subscribe to,  this is the center of my information flow. I read the Washington Post every day,  but I skim the articles because they’re often old news. I don’t have a TV (well, I do have Amazon Prime and Hulu).

And I share the really good stuff.  You might say, “what’s the big deal? You can get news from Twitter and Facebook”  or “There are other feed readers.”

The big deal is that the other feed readers fall in three categories:

  1. Too smart: Fever
  2. Too pretty: Feedly, Pulse
  3. Too beta: Newsblur, TheOldReader
“Smart” readers hide posts that aren’t popular, assuming that I want to know what everyone likes, instead of research topics or discover information on my own. There’s a great value to knowing what others are reading; I use Twitter and Facebook to both share what I find and read what my friends and nptech peers recommend.  I use my feed reader to discover things.
Pretty readers present feed items in a glossy magazine format that’s hard to navigate through quickly and hell on my data plan.
The beta readers are the ones that look pretty good to me, until I have to wait 45 seconds for a small feed to refresh or note that their mobile client is the desktop website, not even an HTML5 variant.

What made Google Reader the reader for most of us was the sheer utility.  My 143 feeds generate about 1000 posts a day.  On breaks or commutes, I scan through them, starring anything that looks interesting as I go.  When I get home from work, and again in the morning, I go through the starred items, finding the gems.

Key functionality for me is the mobile support. Just like the web site, the Google Reader Android app wins no beauty contests, but it’s fast and simple and supports my workflow.

At this point, I’m putting my hopes on Feedly, listed above as a “too pretty” candidate.  It does have a list view that works more like reader does.  The mobile client has a list view that is still too graphical, but I’m optimistic that they’ll offer a fix for that before July.  Currently, they are a front-end to Google’s servers, which means that there is no need to export/import your feeds to join, and your actions stay synced with Google Reader (Feedly’s Saved Items are Google’s Starred, wherever you mark them).  Sometime before July, Feedly plans to move to their own back-end and the change should be seamless.

July is three months away. I’m keeping my eyes open.  Assuming that anyone who’s read this far is wrestling with the same challenge, please share your thoughts and solutions in the comments.

 

 

Delicious Memories

This article was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2010.

Like many of my NPTECH peers, I was dismayed to learn yesterday that Delicious, the social bookmarking service, was being put to pasture by Yahoo!, the big company that purchased the startup five years ago.  Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb has written the best memorial,  But the demise of Delicious marks a passing of significant note to our community of nonprofit staff that seek innovative uses of technology.  So let me talk quickly about how Delicious brought me into this community, and, along the way, a bit about what it meant to all of us.

In 2002, I was wrapped up in my job as VP of Information Technology at San Franciscco Goodwill.  At that time, the buzz term was “Web 2.0”, and it was all over the tech press with about a thousand definitions.  We all knew that “Web 2.0” meant the evolution of the web from a straight publisher to consumer distribution medium to something more interactive, but nobody knew exactly what. Around that time, I started reading columns by Jon Udell about RSS, technology that would, as a simpler, subset of XML, helps us share web-based information the way that newspapers share syndicated content, such as comic strips and columns.  I was really intrigued.  The early adopters of RSS were bloggers, and what I think was very cool about this is that RSS was free technology that, like the web, advanced the opportunities of penniless mortals to become global publishers.  People who couldn’t tell an XML feed from an XL T-Shirt were championing an open standard, because it served as the megaphone in front of their soapboxes.

I kept my eye out for innovative uses of RSS,a nd quickly discovered Joshua Schacter’s del.icio.us website.  This was a social bookmarking service where, by adding a little javascript link to your web browsers bookmark bar (or quick links, or whatever), you could quickly save any web page you enjoyed to an online repository for later retrieval.  That repository was public, so others could see what you found valuable as well.  But this is where Schacter jumped the gun, and championed two information technology strategies that have, since that time, significantly changed the web: tagging and rss.

Tagging

In addition to the link and a brief description, you could add keywords to each bookmark, and then later find related bookmarks by that keyword.  You could just find the bookmarks that you tagged with a word, or you could find the tags that anyone using Delicious tagged with that word.  So, if you were studying the russian revolution, you could search Delicious for russia+revolution and find every bookmark that anyone had saved,   This was different than searching for the same terms in Google or yahoo, because the results weren’t just the most read; they were the sites that were meaningful enough to people to actually be saved.  Delicious became, as Kirkpatrick points out,  a mass-curated collection of valuable information, more like wikipedia than, say, Yahoo Directory.  Delicious was the lending library of the web.

RSS

In addition to searching the site for tags by keyword and/or user, any results your searching found could be subscribed to via RSS.  This was crazy powerful! Not only could you follow topics of interest, but, using PHP add-ons like MagpieRSS or aggregation functions like those built into Drupal, Joomla, and pretty much any major Content Management System, you could quickly incorporate valuable, easily updated content into your website.  I immediately replaced my static “Links” page on my website to one that grabbed items witha  particular keyword from Delicious, so that updating that Links page was as easy as bookmarking a site that I wanted listed there.

NPTECH

I wasn’t the only nonprofit strategist taking note of these developments.  One day, while browsing items that Delicious termed Popular (e.g., bookmarks that multiple people had saved to the site), I noted a blog entry titled “The Ten Reasons Nonprofits Should Use RSS“.  The article was written by one Marnie Webb of CompuMentor (now better known as TechSoup, where she is one of the CEOs).  A week or so later, while following the office email mailing lis for Delicious, I encountered Marnie again, and, this time, emailed her and suggested that we meet for lunch, based on our clearly common interest in nonprofits and RSS.  Marnie told me about the NPTech Tagging Project, and effort she started by simply telling her friends to tag websites related to nonprofit technology with the tag “nptech” on Delicious, so that we could all subscribe to that tag in our RSS readers.

Marnie and I believe that what we started was the first mass information referral system of this type.  In 2005 we took it up a level by creating the nptech.info website, which aggregates items tagged with nptech from Delicious, Twitter, Flicker and numerous other sources across the web. Nptech.info is now more widely read via it’s Twitter feed, @nptechinfo.

I think it’s safe to say that the nptech tagging project grew from a cool and useful idea and practice into a community, and a way that many of us identify who we are to the world.  I’m a lot of things, but nptechie sums most of them up into one simple word.  I know that many of you identify yourselves that way as well.

An offshoot of meeting Marnie on the Delicious mailing list was that she introduced me to NTEN, and brought me into the broad community of nptech, and my current status as a blogger, writer, presenter, Idealware board member and happy member of this broad community ties directly back to the Delicious website.  I stopped using the site as a bookmarking service some time ago, as efforts that it inspired (like Google Reader sharing)  became more convenient.  But I still subscribe to Delicious feeds and use it in websites.  It’s demise will likely be the the end of nptech,info.  Efforts are underway to save it, so we’ll see.  But even if this article is the first you’ve heard of Delicious, it’s important to know that it played a role in the evolution of nonprofit technology as the arbiter of all things nptech.  It’s ingenuity and utility will be sorely missed.

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.

Drupal 101

I’ve been doing a lot of work with the open source content management system Drupal lately, and thought I’d share some thoughts on how to get a new site up and running. Drupal, you might recall, got high ratings in Idealware’s March ’09 report comparing open source content management systems. Despite it’s popularity, there are some detractors who make good points, but I find Drupal to be flexible, powerful and customizable enough to meet a lot of my web development needs.

While you can put together a very sophisticated online community and/or website with it, you can also use it for pretty simple things. For example, the nptech aggregator at nptech,info uses Drupal’s excellent RSS aggregation functions extensively, and not much else. No blog, no forums. But, having installed and tried standalone RSS aggregators like Gregarius, it became clear that Drupal was just as good an aggregator and, if desired, much, much more. Similarly, when co-workers were looking for a site to share documents with optional commenting (to replace an FTP repository), Drupal was a good choice to support a simple task without locking out growth possibilities.

Installation

Installing Drupal can be a three click process or a unix command line nightmare, depending on your circumstances. These days, there are simple options. If you are using a web host, check to see if your site management console is the popular CPanel, and, if so, if it includes the Fantastico utility. Fantastico offers automated installs for many popular open source CMSes, blogs and utilities.

Absent Fantastico, your host might have something similar, or you can download the Drupal source and follow the instructions. Required skills include the ability to modify text files, change file and folder permissions, and create a MySQL database. At a minimum, FTP access to your server, or a good, web-based file manager, will be required.

If you’re installing on your own server, things to be aware of are that you’ll need to have PHP, MySQL and a decent web server, such as Apache installed (these are generally installed by default on Linux, but not on Windows). If you use Linux, consumer-focused Linux variants like Ubuntu and Fedora will have current versions of these applications, properly configured. More robust Linux distributions, like Redhat Enterprise, sometimes suffer from their cautious approach by including software versions that are obsolete. I’m a big fan of Centos, the free version of Red Hat Enterprise, but I’m frustrated that it comes with an older, insecure version of PHP and only very annoying ways to remedy that.

Up and Running

Once installed, Drupal advises you to configure and customize your web site. There are some key decisions to be made, and the success of the configuration process will be better assured if you have a solid idea as to what your web site is going to be used for. With that clearly defined, you can configure the functionality, metadata, site structure, and look and feel of your web site.

  1. Install and enable Modules. Which of the core modules (the ones included in the Drupal pacckage) need to be enabled, and what additional modules are required in order to build your site? This is the first place I go.
  2. Define the site Taxonomy. While you can build a site without a taxonomy, you should only do so for a simple site. A well structured taxonomy helps you make your site navigable; enhances searching; and provides a great tool for pyramid-style content management, with broad topics on one level and the ability to refine and dig deeper intuitively built into the site.
  3. Structure your site with Blocks. You can define blocks, assign them to regions on a page (such as the sidebars or header) and restrict them to certain pages. On the theory that a good web site navigates the user through the site intelligently, based on what they click, the ability to dynamically highlight different content on different pages is one of Drupal’s real strengths.
  4. Theme your web site. Don’t settle for the default themes — there are hundreds (or thousands) to choose from. Go to Drupal Theme Garden and find one that meets your needs, then tweak it. You can do a lot with a good theme and the built in thee design tools, or, if you’re a web developer, you can modify your themes PHP and CSS to create something completely unique. Just be sure that you followed the installation suggestions as to where to store themes and modules so that they won’t get overwritten by an upgrade.

This just brushes the surface, so I’ll do some deeper dives into Drupal configuration over the next few weeks.

How and Why RSS is Alive and Well

This post was first published on the Idealware Blog in September of 2009.

rss.png
Image: SRD

RSS, one of my favorite protocols, has been taking a beating in the blogosphere. Steve Gillmor, in his blog TechcrunchIT, declared it dead in May, and many others have followed suit.

Did Twitter Kill it?

The popular theory is that, with social networks like Twitter and Facebook serving as link referral tools, there’s no need to setup and look at feeds in a reader anymore. And I agree that many people will forgo RSS in favor of the links that their friends and mentors tweet and share. But this is kind of like saying that, if more people shop at farmer’s markets than supermarkets, we will no longer need trucks. Dave Winer, quite arguably the founder of RSS, and our friends at ReadWriteWeb have leapt to RSS’s defense with similar points – Winer puts it best, saying:

“These protocols…are so deeply ingrained in the infrastructure they become part of the fabric of the Internet. They don’t die, they don’t rest in piece.”

My arguments for the defense:

1. RSS is, and always has been about, taking control of the information you peruse. Instead of searching, browsing, and otherwise separating a little wheat from a load of chaff, you use RSS to subscribe to the content that you have vetted as pertinent to your interests and needs. While that might cross-over a bit with what your friends want to share on Facebook, it’s you determining the importance, not your friends. For a number of us, who use the internet for research; brand monitoring; or other explicit purposes, a good RSS Reader will still offer the best productivity boost out there.

2. Where do you think your friends get those links? It’s highly likely that most of them — before the retweets and the sharing — grabbed them from an RSS feed. I post links on Twitter and Facebook, and I get most of them from my Google Reader flow.

3. It’s not the water, it’s the pipe. The majority of those links referred by Twitter are fed into Twitter via RSS. Twitterfeed, the most popular tool for feeding RSS data to Twitter, boasts about half a million feeds. Facebook, Friendfeed and their ilk all allow importing from RSS sources to profiles.

So, here are some of the ways I use RSS every day:

Basic Aggregation with Drupal

My first big RSS experiment built on the nptech tagging phenomenon. Some background: About five years ago, with the advent of RSS-enabled websites that allowed for storing and tagging information (such as Delicious, Flickr and most blogging platforms), Techsoup CEO Marnie Webb had a bright idea. She started tagging articles, blog posts, and other content pertinent to those working in or with nonprofits and technology with the tag “nptech”. She invited her friends to do the same. And she shared with everyone her tips for setting up an RSS newsreader and subscribing to things marked with our tag. Marnie and I had lunch in late 2005 and agreed that the next step was to set up a web site that aggregated all of this information. So I put up the nptech.info site, which continues to pull nptech-tagged blog entries from around the web.

Other Tricks

Recently, I used Twitterfeed to push the nptech aggregated information to the nptechinfo Twitter account. So, if you don’t like RSS, you can still get the links via Twitter. But stay aware that they get there via RSS!

I use RSS to track Idealware comments, Idealware mentions on Twitter, and I subscribe to the blog, of course, so I can see what my friends are saying.

I use RSS on my personal website to do some lifestreaming, pulling in Tweets and my Google Reader favorites.

But I’m pretty dull — what’s more exciting is the way that Google Reader let me create a “bundle” of all of the nptech blogs that I follow. You can sample a bunch of great Idealware-sympatico bloggers just by adding it to your reader.

Is RSS dead? Not around here.

NPTech Update

Notes from here and there:

  • On a different topic, NTEN’s Online Technology Conference starts Wednesday. You can still register, and, if you tell them that you heard it here, they’ll give you a 25% discount. Who’s says it doesn’t pay off to read my blog?

Google Reader Reaches Out

This article first appeared on the Idealware Blog in July of 2009.

As the internet has progressed from a shared source of information to a primary communications tool, a natural offshoot of the migration has been where the two things meet: people referring internet information.  If you’re active at all on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Friendfeed, or any of the numerous online communities, big or small, then you are regularly seeing links to useful articles and blog posts; cute YouTube videos, and entertaining photos.  Much of this information is passed along from online friend to online friend, but where does the first referral originate from? Usually, it’s somebody’s RSS reader.

The main reason that I’m such an RSS advocate is that I believe that it’s the tool that lets me find the strategic and useful needles lost in the haystack of celebrity gossip, prurient content, and corporate promotional materials that they’re buried under. But it isn’t “RSS”, per se, that does the filtering — it’s other people, whom I call “information agents”, who do the sifting.  If I want to keep up with fundraising trends, a topic that interests me, but, as an IT Director, isn’t my primary area of expertise, I’m not going to spend thirty minutes a day doing research.  I subscribe to some very pertinent blogs, and I follow a few people on Twitter and in Reader who find the important and insightful articles and share them with me.

Now it appears that Google wants to cut out the social media middle people.  As I alluded to in my article on RSS, and fleshed out in this post about sharing with reader, the ability to refer information that you find in Reader is one of the things that makes it so powerful.  Last week, Google seriously upped the ante by adding Twitter/Facebook/Delicious-like following, “liking” and sharing to the mix.

Here’s what the new features do:

Sharing now lets you share with the world, or just those members of the world that you want to share with.  Google has always allowed you to share items, but connecting to other people was a bit arcane and limited, as, by default, Google only allowed you to connect to those that you chat with in GMail.  If you read up on it, you learned that you could change that to any defined group of associates in your Google Contacts (all of this assuming that you use Google Contacts – many Google Reader users don’t).  As someone who does use all of the Google stuff, I still found that opening this up to 80 or so people in my contacts didn’t make it clear to many of them as to how they could connect with me.

The new Following feature lets you follow anyone who is willing to share, not just people that you personally communicate with. Now my shared items are marked as public, so anyone can follow my shared items feed by clicking on “Sharing Settings” (in the “People You Follow” section) and searching for me by name or email address.  Once you locate me (or someone else), you can (and should) browse through their items to make sure that they share things that you’ll find useful.  For example, I share a lot of things that are on the topics that I blog about here.  But I also share items related to civil rights issues and the occasional link that I find funny. Since humor and politics are very subjective topics, you might want to be sure that you’re not going to be annoyed or offended you before you subscribe to a feed.

But the internet is not just about who you know. The Like feature allows you to find new people to follow based on common interests.  You’ll note that certain articles have a new note at the top saying “XX people liked this”, where “XX” is the number of people who have indicated that they like the article by checking the option at the bottom of the post.  This message is a link, and clicking it expands it into links to each of the people who “liked” it, allowing you to browse their shared items and optionally follow them.  This, to me, enables the real power of the social web — finding people who share your interests, but have better sources.  It’s what initially was so exciting about social bookmarking service Delicious, and it’s about time that Google Reader enabled it.

I’m hoping the Google’s next round of Reader updates will improve our ability to not just tag and classify the information that we find, but also share based on those classifications.  That will enable me to selectively publish items that I think are of interest to others, perhaps sending nptech links to Friendfeed and the humorous stuff to Facebook.  But I welcome these improvements, and I appreciate the way that reader becomes more and more of a single stop for information discovery and distribution. The Internet would be a messier place without it.