guide to using social media (in 6500 words)

Late last year, and early this year, I embarked on a social media training roadshow (for Headshift) that took me to the far corners of England, Scotland and Wales. My purpose was to show each of the finalist communities taking part in NESTA's Big Green Challenge, a million pound environmental competition now nearing it's end, how social tools could help them communicate more effectively both within their groups as well as with stakeholders and other external audiences.

Alongside the training, which was provided on-site in villages, towns and cities – and on one island – I wrote a series of eight blog posts, totally 6500 words, aimed at introducing a wider audience to the use of social media services, social networking sites and content sharing platforms. The original posts can still be found, for now, on the Big Green Challenge Blog but I have, below, brought them together as a single post.

This content is now also available as a 15 page pdf (250k): Download Guidetousingsocialmedia

Part One: Introducing social media and the whole web as your canvas

Social media, as Vicki Costello pointed out
in her post here last week, has lots of potential to help individuals,
groups and communities to communicate more effectively. This is
primarily because social media – a melting pot of social connectivity,
conversations and content sharing – allows people not only to create
and disseminate their messages in their own way and on their own terms,
but also creates opportunities for:

  • direct channels of engagement with and between stakeholders
  • enhanced transparency of purpose and action
  • increased opportunities for communities to form and grow around ideas
  • keep members of those communities better informed and involved
  • increase the visibility of the collective knowledge and creativity within the community
  • reach out to new audiences of potential supporters

It's pretty powerful stuff so, over the next six to eight weeks,
I'll be writing a series of posts – this one theoretical, the rest
practical – here to help you learn how to get the best out of emerging
social media tools and techniques. This week, in what is likely to be
the most theoretical post of the bunch, I'll set the scene by defining
social media for those who are a bit unsure what we're on about and
will talk about what I see as the key to success on the web today: the
ability to use the whole web as your canvas. Over the coming weeks my
posts will offer more practical advice on how to actually get started
using some of the services and tools mentioned here today.

As I started writing this post, I realised that I didn't really have
a one line definition of social media, so I used a social networking
tool called twitter to send a short message to my followers,
essentially friends and contacts who subscribe to my messages, or
tweets as they are called on twitter, asking if they might help. Within
a few minutes I had half a dozen thoughtful responses including:

"Social media is a new form of technology based communication. It fosters dialogue, transparency and collaboration." – Stefan

"like real life, just electric?" – Dominic

"Not media, but using technology for a conversation that connects, enables and leads to action, either online or offline." – Jason

"Making things, sharing them, seeing what other people have made, commenting on those things and adding to them." – Chris

My favourite response came from Howard Rheingold, a widely respected author, University Professor, past speaker at NESTA events
and a longtime friend who I credit with helping me land my first real
job helping build online communities back in 1998, who wrote:

"Many to many media that gains value as more people participate, and which enabled people to connect with each other."

There are hundreds of services and tools which could justifiably
fall within the definition of social media – below are just a few that
spring to mind:

  • Social networking services such as Facebook, Bebo and Myspace
  • Content sharing sites including flickr and YouTube
  • Online discussion spaces such as message boards, forums and chat rooms
  • Blogging platforms which allow easy publishing and more, including WordPress, Blogger, Typepad and others
  • Micro-blogging services including Twitter, which is mentioned above
  • Collaboration platforms, such as wiki's

The important thing to understand about each of these services is
that that they tend to do one thing very well indeed, but are less good
at other things. Social media is no exception to the cliche, which
often rings true, that you've got to have the right tools to do the
job. So, for example, if you want to post photographs and have
discussions with other keen photographers, you'd be hard pressed to
find a better place than flickr to do that but you probably wouldn't
want to use flickr for collaborative working.

This is where we start talking about using the whole web as your canvas (with much owed to Tom Loosemore,
who did much to bring this idea to life for me) – an idea which has, at
it's root, the idea that the internet is a vast network of interlinking

In the past, many people and organisations cared only about the
growth of their own website. This is a bit like trying to plant a
single apple tree at the end of a fenced garden. It might blossom, and
bare a few apples, but it's unlikely to flourish without other apples
trees in the close vicinity with which to cross-pollinate. Uploading an
image or video straight to your website or blog does exactly this – it
services the audience already inside the fence but it's impact is
confined, and thus smaller.

When you think of the whole web as your canvas, you use links to
send your visitors to other places on the web to bring visitors back to
you. You distribute content all over the web – photos on flickr, posts
on your blog, short messages from out in the field to twitter, podcasts
to odeo – each time reaching out to different, and potentially new,
audiences. You participate widely, and wider participation takes place
around you. It's like planting a whole bunch of trees in an orchard,
and watching them each gain from, and contribute to, the success of all
the other trees.

The most effective way to grow audiences online is becoming less
about having a single destination for people to visit and more about
having multiple destinations, a sort of distributed web presence,
scattered all over the web. But before you dive right in, make sure you

  • Seek out and find the places online where people might be interested in your content and your message
  • Learn about how people participate in those spaces
  • Make sure that your contributions would be welcome
  • Be transparent about who you are and what you're trying to achieve

Before you know it, you'll be growing audiences all over the web.
Some of them may very well never visit your website but does that
really matter if, regardless of where they're doing it, more and more
people are able to learn about, and engage with, what you're trying do?

This post is part of series on using social media to get your
message out and, as I'm sure you're gathered from this post, do a whole
lot more than just that. In the posts which follow, I'll be providing
more practical, hands-on advice, how-to's and inspiring examples to
help you get the most out of social media. Please do feel encouraged to
follow or join in the conversation.

Part Two: Reaching new audiences with photos online

In this post, the second in a series about getting the most out of using social media, I'll discuss a few of the different ways the Big Green Challengers, Finalists and other groups can use photographs to tell their story and reach out to new audiences.

Most people building a website would upload their pages and images
directly to their web host. When people visit those pages, the images,
along with text and any other content, is displayed. The problem with
this approach is that the only people who will see those images are
those who already know about the website, probably because they are
familiar with the organisation or individual behind it. There is
another way which, through the clever use of social media, can help you
gain more from posting your images online.

Photo sharing websites such as flickr, picasa, photobucket and smugmug
(to name a few) allow people to upload, store, share, describe, discuss
and sometimes print digital images. Each of these services has large
audiences of people actively seeking out photographs for information,
fun, or personal or professional re-use. By posting your images here,
then embedding them in your own website, you're potentially getting
your image – and through it your ideas, message or organisation – in
front of a whole new audience.

So here's the technique:

  1. choose and register for a photo-sharing website
  2. upload your photograph to that site
  3. describe your images properly using titles, descriptions and tags
    (tags are words or phrases that tell other people what subjects or
    themes your content relates to)
  4. make sure you put a link back to the related content page on your website
  5. copy the embed code, which you'll usually find next to or below the
    image on most photo-sharing websites (although on flickr you need to go
    to the All Sizes tab above the photo), and paste it into the html
    source code of your blog post or web page

Last weekend, I was in Brecon Beacons running a social media workshop with the Big Green Challenge Finalists there.

Brecon Beacons

The photo above was taken outside the training venue. I've used the
instructions provided here to uploaded, tag and link from that photo to
this blog. Here's how it looks on flickr.

With any luck, at least a few of the people who search for photos of
Brecon Beacons, Wales or any of the other tags I've used to describe
the photo on flickr, will stumble across my photo, want to know more,
and click the link. If just one of those visitors – people who are
unlikely to have any previous contact with me or the Big Green
Challenge – decides they like what they see here, is encouraged to
learn more, and perhaps even joins the efforts of the communities, then
the very minimal additional effort required to go about posting images
in this way will have been well spent.

In the coming weeks, I'll be offering further advice and
step-by-step instructions to help you make the most of social media
tools and services to tell your story, share knowledge, engage with
stakeholders, and reach out to new supporters. In the next post, the
third in this series, I'll show you how to build google maps and
geo-tag your photos and other content.

Part Three: Getting Started Making Google Maps

Many of the Big Green Challenge
communities are reaching out, and creating a greater impact, by working
with people and organisations across their areas or regions. Maps give
those communities a way to visually documenting this.

There are quite a few ways to create and share a map online. The easiest method I've come across is to use  google maps which offers a straight-forward, drag and drop interface. More advanced tools, such as MapBuilder, can be used to create richer, but more complex, map mash-ups where data or other content is plotted on a map, sometimes automatically, as can be seen on the now famous Chicago Crime Map.

I am often surprised how many people use the maps I've created. My St. Albans wi-fi map,
for example, has been viewed nearly 78,000 times in less than six
months and at least two or three visitors a day follow the link from my
google map to my blog.

Below is a map I created to display the location of each of the 10 Big Green Challenge finalist communities:

View Larger Map

Here's how you can make your own:

  1. Create a google account
  2. Go to Google Maps
  3. Click "My Maps"
  4. Click Create Map
  5. Name your map and give it a description (don't forget to link to your website if you have one)
  6. Add points to your map by dragging and dropping the pin to the correct location
  7. Save your map
  8. Click on the link icon at the top right corner of your map and get the embed code
  9. Embed the html code for your map into your blog or website

That's all you need to do to get started making basic google maps
which, despite their simplicity, are often a powerful and compelling
way to tell the story of what you or your organisation is achieving in
the real world.

This post is part of a series of guests posts about using social
media to create a distributed web presence. My previous posts have
discussed the benefits of using the whole web as your canvas and putting photos online. In next week's post I'll show you how to put video online.

Part Four: Sharing Videos Online

This is the fourth in a series guest posts I'm making here to help
groups and individuals spread their ideas and information more widely using social media. Previous posts in the series have discussed photo sharing and making google maps. In this post I'll introduce video sharing.

If you're looking for a post that covers advanced video editing then
this probably isn't the post for you as it's more about sharing videos
online than it is about shooting and editing videos. Most of the
numerous videos I've published online over the years have been
unedited, single take clips recorded on a camera phone or ordinary
digital stills camera.

Don't get me wrong – a proper, dedicated digital video camera will
almost always help you achieve better audio and video quality but I
tend only to use mine to capture longer videos of important moments,
such as birthdays and other events, with the intention of eventually
getting around to editing them complete with titles, transitions, etc.
For anything else, the camera in my pocket is the camera I end up using
the most and, for me, that's historically been a mobile phone.
It's probably worth noting that the gap between the quality of a
dedicated video camera and the portability of a mobile device has been
bridged by the tiny, hard-drive based flip camera which some of the Big Green Challenge finalists are using.

YouTube is probably the place where most people have their first
encounter with video sharing online. Registration is free and it's
simple to upload and share a video, particularly as YouTube has created
a section for user created how-to's and help videos should you find any part of the process unclear.

There are, of course, other video sharing services. These include Vimeo, which has a really slick interface allowing people to leave comments at points within a video rather than just beneath it,, Viddler and others. Flickr, most well known for photosharing and appearing in my post here on that topic, also allows the upload of short video clips. NowPublic,
which describes itself as a news site created by it's users, would be a
good choice for anyone with content which could be described as "newsy"
– including activism – because it draws an audience that would engage
with that sort of content.

All the services above are free and work in basically the same way –
anyone can view videos (and other content) but to post comment users
usually have to register. Once registered, users can begin uploading,
describing (using titles or tags), then sharing their content. Some
might be surprised that I'm not going to give this process the step by
step treatment here but most of the services I've listed provide their
own easy to follow video tutorials which I'm unlikely to be able to

So what is the key to successful video sharing online?

  1. Choose the right service to reach your target audience – YouTube
    has mass appeal but Vimeo, NowPublic and others are more likely to
    reach certain niche audiences.
  2. Consider publishing your video under a creative commons license which allows others to use your video for their own purposes.
  3. Make sure you allow others to use the embed code to display your video on their blogs, myspace pages, facebook profiles, etc
  4. Always link from the videos you post online back to your website so
    that people who stumble across your video content can follow the link
    back to find out more about you.

I hope that, by following the tips above, that you gain a lot more from creating and posting video online.

This post is part of a series of guest posts about social media I'm
publishing here on the Big Green Challenge Blog. The next post, which
will follow in a few days, will be about using mobile phones to
document and publish your story using mobile enabled services such as
qik, twitter and wordpress.

Part Five: Taking the Internet Everywhere

This post is part of a series of guest posts I've been writing here
on the Big Green Challenge blog to help individuals and organisations
get more out of using the internet, in particular social media tools and services, to create and share content and ideas with a wider audience. Previous posts in the series have discussed photo sharing, making google maps and video sharing.

Not so long ago, if someone wanted to use the internet they'd have
to physically plug an ethernet cable into a router or dial in over a
phoneline. Nowadays, many people have wifi in their offices or homes –
and, increasingly, wifi access is being offered at a small charge or
free by businesses and in public places – enabling them to move around,
untethered, from room to room whilst using the internet.

The next big thing, and the topic of this post, is the ability to
access and share content on the go, wherever you happen to be and
whenever you want, using mobile broadband.

Mobile broadband comes in several flavours, one of which is a 3G
dongle. I recently purchased one of these small devices that plugs into
my laptop's USB port and gives me high speed access to the internet,
and have found it particularly useful when I want to do some work on
the train. Most of the Big Green Challenge Finalists have projects that
involve getting out and doing things within their community and a
laptop giving them internet access wherever they are could almost
certainly come in handy. You might be surprised that mobile broadband
has really come down in price – I bought my dongle for £30 and it's pay
as you go tariff starts at £2 a day.

If you're interested in learning more, a friend of mine, journalist Adam Tinworth, recently wrote a helpful review of his experience of installing and using a 3g dongle.

The other type of mobile broadband is to use a mobile phone to
access the internet. Some will remember the introduction many years ago
of WAP which allowed stripped down, text only versions of websites to
be viewed on a mobile phone screen. Things have moved on a lot since
then, with some current mobiles providing a browser based internet
experience that looks and acts just like that on a desktop or laptop
computer. So anything you might be able to accomplish on the web –
searching for content, booking a train ticket, sending an email – is
now possible using just a mobile phone with a data connection.

Many current mobile phones also allow users to install applications,
just like on a computer, that make it possible to capture and share
content online including text, blog posts, geo-location, photos and
videos. In fact, it's now possible to actually stream live video from
some mobile phones to the web – effectively giving individuals much of
the live broadcasting capability previously enjoyed only by major news

In my next guest post here, I'll discuss some of the applications
and services that turn mobile phones into powerful tools for capturing
moments and creating and sharing content online.

Part Six: Live and Direct With Your Mobile

In this week's guest post about using social media I'll be
discussing how mobile phones can be used as powerful tools for
capturing moments and for creating and sharing content online.

Most current mobile phones come with a reasonable quality camera
built in and the ability to add and run applications over the phone
network. Because I carry my phone with my wherever I go, I often find
myself capturing moments, places, people and things that I never would
have previously – and because my phone is connected to the internet
using a standard called 3g, I can instantly upload and share my photos
and videos online without needing to connect to my computer.

There are many different mobile phones, networks and mobile enabled
services to choose from and the ones I mention here might not be, for
you, the best or least expensive so do look around. It's also worth
noting that, unless you have an unlimited data plan, uploading or
streaming from your mobile can be very expensive and there are horror
stories abound about people who have used data intensive mobile
applications whilst abroad – it's best to check with your network
provider before getting started.

In January, a passenger on a ferry across the Hudson River in New York used his mobile phone to take a now iconic photo of a partially submerged plane in the water and upload it to TwitPic, alerting his friends
on Twitter in the process. The now iconic image of a partially
submerged plane in the Hudson River, taken by a passenger on the iPhone
and uploaded using TwitPic, is a great example of the utility of having
a network enabled camera with you at all times.

As I've traveled to meet each of the Big Green Challenge finalists,
I've used twitter and twitpic to update my friends as to my movements
and, through doing so, have picked up all sorts of local knowledge
that's either smoothed my way on public transportation or helped me
locate free wifi access, a few good coffees and to avoid at least one
bad meal. That's genuinely useful.

Another service I've used widely is Zonetag, a photo uploader created by Yahoo Research Labs, which uploads geo-tagged photographs to Flickr, the photo-sharing service I discussed in an earlier post here. There are other uploaders out there – shozu is a popular one – so it's worth trying a few to see which works best for your needs.

You can also shoot and stream live video from a mobile handset using services such as Qik and Flixwagon.
I personally use the former but, as far as I can see, both offer pretty
much the same core functionality – to stream video live and to see
comments from people who are watching remotely. Although consumer
servies, news organisations, including the BBC, have started using
these services.

Last year, I used a mobile phone to capture and live stream
BBC News Technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, streaming a
mobile interview with Jim Buckmaster, the CEO of online listings
service Craigslist:

In addition to services that allow users to create and upload images
and videos, most major blogging and social networking platforms have
created applications that work on a range of mobile phones and – better
still – most of these applications are free or very inexpensive.

I hope you found this quick overview of mobile services interesting
and useful. Please do leave a comment if you've worked one of these
tools into what you're doing online or as an organisation.

In next week's blog post on social media I'll be talking about blogging, both as a type of service or tool and as a technique.

Part Seven: Key Techniques for Successful Blogging

Over the past few weeks, I've published a number of posts here to
help organisations and individuals to get started using social media
tools and services to inform and engage. This post will discuss blogs,
both as a tool and a technique, for pulling it all together.

My previous posts discussed various ways of creating and publishing
content of various types, and making it available on services where
audiences are pro-actively seeking out and consuming that type of
content – so, for example, using the photo-sharing service Flickr for photos and the video-sharing service YouTube for video. Here's an index to those posts:

  1. Introduction: social media and the whole web as your canvas
  2. Reaching new audiences with photo-sharing
  3. Sharing your videos online
  4. Getting started making google maps
  5. Taking the internet everywhere
  6. Live and direct with your mobile

The approach I've suggested, using the whole web as your canvas, is
a clever way of getting your ideas in front of new audiences. My view
is that it's more important that people consume and interact with my
content, wherever that content is, than to put all my eggs in one
basket by creating a single, destination website that is viewed only by
those who are already engaged.

A blog, which is essentially an easy to use, template based content
management system where posts, sometimes called entries, are typically
arranged in reverse chronological order. Because they allow content to
be pulled in or embedded from elsewhere, including many of the services
I've previously discussed in this series of posts, blogs can be used to
pull all your web based content together in one place so that, once
people do find a photo or video or other piece of content out on the
web, you have a central place to link them into should they wish to
know more.

In my previous role as Head of Blogging at the BBC,
I used to run one day workshops to help bloggers and other editorial
and production staff learn how to use their blog. Almost the entire day
was taken up with discussion of technique and creating content rather
than step by step instructions on how to actually create a blog or post
an entry. I continue to believe that understanding blogging as a
technique, rather than as a tool, is the best way to approach blog
training. None of it's hard, but getting the techniqueright is by far
more important.

There are a number of free or low cost tools which can be used to create a blog including WordPress, which is the platform used by this blog, Blogger and Typepad.
Once registered, users can very easily create a new blog. All that's
normally required is a name for the blog and, once that's been decided,
there are usually a number of predefined design templates to choose
from. Look and feel is controlled independently of content so, in most
instances, the design can be changed at the click of the button at any
time without affecting the actual content of the blog.

Once you've set up a blog, you'll probably want to create your
"about" page where you tell readers who you are and what you're aiming
to achieve. You might also want to add contact details.

Next, you may want to add links to other websites or blogs – your
organisation, your pages on other social media services, other people
or groups saying interesting things, etc. In WordPress, you do this by
going into the dashboard and adding a links widget. In blogger this
functionality is called a blogroll and in typepad is called a typelist.
Linking is one of the most important things a blogger can do. Not only
does it introduce your readers to other sites they might be interested
in, but it also alerts – because most bloggers look at statistics
showing how many visitors they've had and where those visitors have
come from – other bloggers to you existance of your blog. I refer to a
link tap because it's a bit like tapping someone on the shoulder to let
them know you're there.

Once you've added an about page and links, you will probably want to
create your first blog post. A lot of people find it difficult to get
started but there is an easy way to do so. Rather than creating an
entire post from scratch, you might want to start off by writing "link
wrap" posts that describe something you've read elsewhere online, quote
a small section of that text, and point out why you think it's
interesting. You'll also want to make sure you link to the source. The
value you add in doing this is two-fold. Firstly, you're introducing
your audience to content you think they might be interested in and,
secondly, by summarising or pointing to interesting sections of that
content, you're editorialising that link. The person or organisation
who created the content originally will also benefit because users will
click through to view the source. Also, because the algorythm used by
google and other search sites often gives pages with more links greater
authority, your link directly impacts the findability of that page for
people who search for it later.

Most blogs allow users to comment on posts. There are pros and cons
to the different methods of comment moderation. I'm not a solicitor,
but have published a post elsewhere introducing some
of the issues. If you do allow comments, you might want to create and
publish details of your moderation policy, including your rules, so
that users know exactly what's expected of them.

A lot of bloggers talk about the importance of joining the
conversation. You can do this by using the comments that come into your
blog as points of discussion in subsequent posts. You may also want to
post comments on posts on other blogs, particularly if you link to and
discuss those posts. There's no reason why you shouldn't include a link
to your own post, so long as it's relevant, in your comments elsewhere
but do make sure you're linking to something that genuinely adds to the
conversation rather than spamming the blog with irrelevant, and
probably unwanted, links in a bid just to get some traffic.

Another way of participating in the conversation is to link
prolifically from your own posts as a way of illustrating points and to
alert the bloggers who created the content you link to of the existence
of your posts. Because you'll want to stay abreast of the conversation
– the linking, quoting, and commenting across a number of topical blogs
– you'll need to use tools such as an RSS reader, which will be
discussed in my next post here, and "buzz tracking" tools such as technorati to find and keep track of what people are saying within your niche and about your posts.

Technorati is a blog search tools. It usually picks up new posts
faster than google or other traditional search engines because most
blog platforms send technorati a notification, called a "ping", each
time an update is made. Technorati is useful for finding, based on
keyword searches, blogs and posts about specific topics but the reason
it's used by most serious bloggers is because, if you input the URL of
your blog, you can instantly see all the blog posts that link to your
blog. Armed with this knowledge, you can go out and see what others
have posted, and participate in the conversation your blog is part of
wherever it's taking place.

When you create a blog post, you'll usually want to give it a title,
create the body of the post, and then categorise or tag it so that
readers can more easily find what they are looking for. When you name
your blog and title your posts, as well as when you use categories and
tags, you'll want to think very carefully about the words you use, and
ensure that they are terms people are likely to search for. One of my
blogs, about St. Albans
where I live, actually appears higher in the google results for St.
Albans than one of the two local newspapers, precisely because I've
used St. Albans in the name of the blog, in the title of most posts,
and in each of the categories I use. It also helps that I link out to
all the other St. Albans based bloggers I could find and many of them
have reciprocated with links back to me, again reinforcing within the
google algorythm the understanding that my blog is not only about St.
Albans but is highly regarded as a source of good information by other

Actually using the blogging tool you choose is the easy part. Find a
blogging platform you like and play around a bit, learning to use the
various options and tools, before you start heavily promoting it.
You're bound to make a few mistakes early on, but get your technique
right and you'll be 3/4 of the way towards successful blogging.

This post is part of a series of guests post I'm making here to
introduce some of the social media tools and techniques people and
organisations can use to inform and connect with audiences and
stakeholders. In my next post, I'll discuss using RSS to help find and
keep track of intersting content that you can quote from, link to, and
build upon.

Part Eight: Using RSS to Keep Track of the Conversation

If you are interested in regularly consuming content from a
particular website, or want keep track of keyword searches without
having to input them time and time again, the topic of my guest post
this week, RSS (Really Simple Syndication), may very well be of interest to you.

Most people view web based content through a browser such as Firefox
or Internet Explorer. If readers don't want to miss newly published
content, they have to remember to frequently check each site they want
to follow. Sometimes there is new content, other times there isn't – a colleague
of mine likens it to chickens walking around in circles pecking at
whatever is on the ground in front of them, an analogy he makes to
point out that this is almost certainly not the most efficient or
affective way of finding, keeping track of and consuming new content.

A more efficient way is to put yourself at the centre of the flow of
information by subscribing to RSS feeds, sometimes called "web feeds",
of the websites and other content sources you're interested in
monitoring. An RSS feed looks like a stripped down version of a website
– the design and formatting isn't normally visible in the feed, only
the text, images and other content elements. As an example, here's what
the RSS feed (will open in a new window) for this, the Big Green Challenge Blog, looks like.

RSS Button
RSS Button

times, where content is available as an RSS feed, a distinctive orange
button (as seen to left) can be found on the page. Other times, an RSS
logo appears next to the URL in the address bar at the top of a browser.

Subscribing to an RSS feed is like ordering a subscription to a
magazine or newspaper although, in the case of RSS, it's nearly always
free. Everytime new content is published, a copy is sent out to all
subscribers, meaning those with a subscription needn't ever miss

In order to subscribe to an RSS feed, you'll first need to sign up
for an RSS reader. The two web based readers I'm most familiar with, Bloglines and Google Reader, are both free and easy to use.

To subscribe to an RSS feed, users can click on the RSS button found
on a page or in their browser's address window, which should open a new
page showing the address of the RSS feed to be subscribed to and,
often, a pull down menu of different RSS readers so that the
subscription can be made with just one click. The other way to
subscribe to an RSS feed is to copy the URL of the page or feed you
want to subscribe to and paste it into the "add feed" form within your
chosen RSS reader.

Once subscribed to a feed, each time there is new content it will
appear in your reader. Most readers also allow users to mark content as
read or unread, to share content with others, and to bookmark any
content they might want to return to later.

It's not just content sites that offer RSS feeds – many social media
and search sites also do. So, for example, if you're interested in
getting an alert every time a user on twitter mentions the name of your
organisation, you simply input that search once and subscribe to the feed. You can also subscribe to feeds from, to mention just a few, flickr tags and technorati
blog searches – meaning that everytime posts a photo or blog post about
the topic you've defined in your original search, you're alerted to
that content.

If you'd like to learn more about RSS, there's an excellent, easy to follow video on the Common Craft Show that's well worth viewing.

RSS isn't just useful for subscribing to web feeds, it's also the
delivery mechanism used by many social tools and social networks to
share content. So, for example, when I author a blog post on one of my own blogs, it uses RSS to alert a service called twitterfeed
that I've done so. Twitterfeed then fires out a twitter tweet with the
title and link of that post. The RSS feed of my blog also feeds into facebook and linked-in so that my contacts on those services can see what I've written. I also used to use another service, talkr,
which took my RSS feed and created a computer generated audio file of
the content. This made it possible for me to offer a podcast of my blog
on Apple's iTunes Store without ever having to actually record a thing myself.

It's also possible to aggregate and remix RSS feeds using services such as xfruits and Yahoo Pipes
to create custom feeds of content, for example all news stories from
ten different UK based news sources which mention "Big Green Challenge"
or any other keyword you define.

RSS is a really powerful tool in that it helps users to better
organise the flow of content around them and, for those creating
content, offers an extremely flexible stream of content for use by
other people and services.

Why mention it here, in a series of guest posts about social media?
Because not only do most blogs and social tools offer RSS output, it's
also – in my books at least – an indispensible tool for helping
bloggers to keep track of the conversations their contributions are
part of. Finding, subscribing and reading what others are saying is the
first step towards making successful contributions yourself. Quoting
and linking to that content is the next step and, once you've gained
confidence and understanding, you can begin to add value by
contextualising those quotes and links, or voicing an opinion about
them. Joining into an already active conversation by listening and
contributing, at least initially,  with gestures such as a smile or nod
is, in most instances, far more socially acceptable than bursting into
the conversation by interrupting with strong views of your own. And
this is exactly how you can use RSS – to listen, to inform yourself, to
help you keep track of the views and contributions of others, to
provide material to link to and to, later, contextualise or comment

This is the eighth post in a series I've been publishing here on the
Big Green Challenge Blog. Other posts have looked at a range of social
tools and techniques for telling stories, finding new audiences and
engaging with stakeholders. You'll find an index on last week's post,
which provided an indepth guide to blogging.

One Comment

  1. Very useful and informative, the internet to a certain degree for someone my age is smoke and mirrors you have at least blown a bit of the smoke away thank you.

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