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Archive for the ‘Web2’ Category

Blogging: the three main options and platforms for hosting a blog

17 Jun

The issue of where to host a blog is fairly complicated for people new to the medium – particularly the differences between wordpress.org and wordpress.com. I often have to write a condensed version of the advice below in emails to people as follow-ups to blogging workshops, so I thought I’d put it all in one blog post in case others find it useful too.

CC Image by Orin Zebest – click to view original on Flickr

Why does the platform matter?

Every blogging option comes with its own advantages and drawbacks. On a basic level they run on a sliding scale from quick, logistically easy, and ugly / annoying to use at one end, to more complicated, faffy, and nice to look at / simple to use at the other. Often the more basic solution starts off okay and then becomes problematic later on, but you can migrate blogs to new platforms without too much fuss, so if you set up a wordpress.com blog on a whim and it turned into something significant and valuable, so now you want to upgrade to wordpress.org to get rid the weight-loss ads which have started appearing on your posts, then fear not, you can do exactly that.

All blogging platforms have some things in common. They all have a basic word processor interface for typing in posts, they all give you stats on how many people are reading your posts, they all give you ready-made options to help readers subscribe to, search, and share what you’re blogging. All allow you to pay for a URL and so call your site the slightly more credible-looking yourname.com rather than yourname.wordpress.com or similar.

You could show all of them to someone in the year 2000 and their jaw would drop open at the sheer POWER and SIMPLICITY of what you can do in 2014 FOR FREE and with no knowledge of code / building websites. They’re ace. They’re an opportunity.

I have not included Typepad in this list because it’s a paid for service – it’s very good but, having tried it out, I don’t believe it represents the kind of step up from the free options below which would warrant a monthly cash investment.

Blogger

Blogger.com is a Google product. It is sometimes frustrating and pernickety to use, and is the least aesthetically pleasing option. It looks dated, both to the author and the reader. However, it is free – and at the time of writing, you get no adverts on your blog posts unless you choose to put them there yourself.

Setting up a Blogger account is the most straightforward – if you have a Google account, you effectively have a Blogger account whether you’ve made use of it or not. Just go to blogger.com, log-in, and click create blog (further instructions here). I use Blogger to power my Library Marketing Toolkit website – I chose it because it is free, doesn’t require the logistical hassle of self-hosting, and won’t display unwanted ads. It took ages of tinkering to make the site look relatively nice though, and it still looks pretty 90s.

A blogger.com site

A blogger.com site

Blogger is quickish, powerful and a relatively straightforward way to build a website – you don’t HAVE to use it as a blog, even. 10 years ago this would be the greatest most useful thing ever – it’s only because there are easier and more attractive options now that we don’t now celebrate its glory.

I recommend Blogger to people who are dipping their toe into blogging but aren’t yet sure it’ll be a major part of their professional lives, and who need the credibility that comes with not having ads. If you don’t mind the potential ads on your posts, then option two, wordpress.com, is a better bet.

WordPress.com

WordPress.com is, like Blogger, free and easy to use. WordPress hosts the blog for you, so there’s no need to self-host the website. Compared to Blogger, it is basically easier to use, less frustrating, more flexible, more fresh and modern and nice looking, and great.

The only major downside is that after a certain popularity threshold (I’m afraid I’ve not been able to pin down exactly where this threshold is) you get ads on your posts, which you can’t control or turn off. As I say, if this isn’t a problem for you, go for this option, it’s great. A second more minor downside compared to Blogger: at the moment you can’t use Google analytics with it, and there are occasional issues around embedding dynamic content.

I used wordpress.com to power the Buy India a Library site – it was ridiculously simple to create that, literally in less than an hour, and without needing any knowledge of HTML etc. I also used it for my band’s website, below – again, this took a tiny amount of time considering it looks nice and works well.

Website created in under an hour using wordpress.com

Website created in under an hour using wordpress.com

WordPress.org

In many ways wordpress.org is the gold standard option – it affords the most flexibility and the most control. You can set your site up any way you like using a greater number of free themes, or by paying for a ‘premium’ theme, or by designing your own – this thewikiman site is a wordpress.org blog, with a theme I created, writing the HTML.

Two other things there are much more of with wordpress.org than with .com or Blogger are analytics – you can get hugely detailed statistics about who is visiting your site, for how long, when they’re from, what makes them leave and so on- and plugins, which is to say the little widgets which appear in the column down the right-hand side. Whether it’s Twitter and Facebook sharing buttons, or embedding a Twitter feed or YouTube account, or being able to print these posts to PDF, or displaying the most commented upon posts – all of these are plugins which I didn’t create myself, but which already existed and I just applied them to this blog. And you never get ads, or indeed anything, placed on your blog, which you don’t put there yourself.

There is only one downside: HASSLE. It is a hassle to use wordpress.org because it is ‘self-hosted’. So while Blogger and WordPress.com blogs sit on the blogger.com and wordpress.com sites without you having to do anything, you need a host server for a wordpress.org blog, onto which you have to install wordpress software. It is possible to find free hosting, but it will put so many limitations on its not worth having – so that means paying for hosting, and paying for the domain name. In my case it’s £96 per year for the hosting, and £20 for the domain name. I used to have a cheaper hosting package, but I used up all the bandwidth before the end of each month (due to the amount of people visiting this site) so had to upgrade – although now I hardly blog anymore, I should probably look at going back to a cheaper package.

WordPress recommends these hosting companies, but personally I recommend Clook very highly indeed. Great service, good prices, wordpress.org can be installed automatically without any technical know-how, and the tech support is completely fabulous. I once tweeted in passing about how my blog was down due to server maintenance, and Clook saw the tweet, looked into it, saw there was a problem with my blog specifically, fixed it, and THEN tweeted me back to say it was sorted! All without asking me any questions or telling me to stand by while they investigated; I hadn’t even logged a request with technical support online or actually solicited their assistance. They’re ace.

The other hassle is maintenance. WordPress.com blogs get everything taken care of by WordPress – the .org version you have to upkeep yourself, installing updates (which is a simple, automatic process) of both the software itself and your plugins.

In my view all of this is worth it for this, my main site – but not for any other projects I’m involved with thus far. If you don’t mind the fact that you have to be more proactive in set-up and maintenance, and can afford hosting, it’s the best option by far, in my view.

How this blog-post looks in edit view -  a wordpress.org site

How this blog-post looks in edit view – a wordpress.org site

(Bonus option: Tumblr)

Tumblr began as a short-form blogging platform, somewhere between a traditional blog and the instant communication of Twitter. People can use it however they want, but personally I think you need to be on Tumblr for a reason - it’s not a direct equivalent to the options listed above, but something a little different. (The BL’s mechanical curator is my favourite reason for a tumblr so far…)

Tumblr is a self-contained community in the way the others are not. There is a ready-made group of people for you to join in with, and by far the fastest growing group of users – because it massively popular with a younger demographic, Tumblr continues to grow incredibly rapidly. But you need a Tumblr account to comment on a Tumblr post, so it’s not the ideal medium for reaching and interacting with as wide a group of people as possible. By all means set up a Tumblr if you have something offbeat which suits the ‘brief and often’ nature of the medium, but if you’re setting up, for example, an academic blog, I would recommend choosing wordpress or blogger.

So! There you go. I hope someone finds this helpful. Any questions, leave me a comment.

Good luck.

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Twitter tips for improvers

10 Jun

Here’s a new set of slides I’ve just uploaded to my Library’s slideshare account:

 

I think the key to good feedback in a workshop is probably 10% about the content, 10% about the delivery, and 80% about whether it is pitched at the level the participants expect and require. That’s probably an exaggeration but you get my point. I’ve blogged on here before about how I run sessions around Web 2.0 and academia for the Researcher Development Team at York, and in the last couple I’ve really felt for a small number of participants who were at a stage beyond the level I was pitching at. The workshops are introductions so participants literally set up, for example, a Twitter account from scratch – so anyone who is already past that point but wants to know about content and tone, is doing far too much thumb-twiddling for my liking, until later in the session.

With all that in mind, as of next academic year we’re reworking the workshops, and in each case I’ll run one ‘A beginner’s guide to’ type session and one ‘Improvers’ type session, so people can get exactly what they need out of the workshops. We didn’t have time to arrange that for this terms’ workshops, so I produced the slides above to send on to participants of my introductory workshop, for those who wanted to go further. In January when the next set of workshops run (I don’t do any in the Autumn term, because AUTUMN TERM), I’ll flesh this out into a proper interactive 1.5 hour session.

Have I left anything important out? One of the things I love about Slideshare is that you can update and reupload slides over the same URL, so you don’t lose that continuity (and your statistics). So if there’s anything you’d add to this, let me know in a comment, and I can eventually make a new and improved version to put online in place of this one.

My advice to Tweeters: ignore advice to Tweeters…

If there is a slide in the deck above that could be considered in some way controversial, it’s this one:

 Slide 16 from http://www.slideshare.net/UniofYorkLibrary/twitter-for-improvers

I think guides for tweeting well are most important for organisations – it’s key that companies, businesses and public bodies get this stuff right, and they often don’t. For individuals though, I’m increasingly of the mind that unless you specifically want Twitter to DO something for you which it currently isn’t doing (and the slides above are aimed at researchers who specifically want to grow their network in order to find more value in it), it’s not worth reading ‘how to tweet’ guides (of the kind I used to write myself) and trying to change how you approach it. There’s plenty of good advice to be had in these, but it’s not necessary to follow any of it – apart from not being unpleasant or otherwise making people bad about themselves. If you want to tweet about your lunch every day, why should you stop doing that just to retain followers? I think it’s better to be yourself and have a group of followers who are prepared to put with that, for better or for worse…

Number of followers isn’t an end in itself. A smaller group of engaged followers who want to interact with YOU is far better than a huge group for whom you have to put on any kind of show. So while when writing in print it’s important to adopt a style appropriate for the medium, I consider Twitter to be much closer to spoken communication. As long as you’re prepared to deal with the consequences, why not just be yourself?

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Libraries, Beacons, and the Internet of Things

27 Feb

A while ago I tweeted this helpful graphic:

I know what you're thinking - it will be climate change that renders the debate on the future of libraries moot, not the singularity! And you're quite right, of course.

I know what you’re thinking – it will be climate change that renders the debate on the future of libraries moot, not the singularity! And you’re quite right, of course.

 

The Internet of Things will, hopefully, be a big deal in libraries. Some of the technology associated with it feels very far-away in terms of the resources it would take to implement it, but we’ve seen how these things work – what starts off as unattainable fantasy becomes cheaply available reality soon enough.

But what does it mean, though? I mean really mean, for libraries? I found this UX article on beacons very helpful in giving me an overview of the technology, and this post is an extrapolation of the ideas it presents, into a library context.

What is The Internet of Things?

In short, the Internet of Things refers to when objects are able to connect with each other online, because they can be uniquely identified.

We’re actually very familiar with this in Libraries, because we use RFID. You put the book in the cradle, and that book (due to its RFID tag) speaks to the issue-machine, which then informs the library management system that the book has been issued to your account. It’s the internet, but interacting with a Thing! Brilliant.

What are beacons?

Beacons are wireless devices which use Bluetooth (but an especially low-energy version which doesn’t drain battery) to broadcast to other Bluetooth objects around them. You may have seen wearable technology like Jawbone or Fitbit, which monitor your physical activity – these use beacons to ‘talk’ to your phone, allowing you to get information via your phone’s screen.

In physical terms, you can already get commercially available beacons – for example from Estimote – which are discreet physical objects (as opposed to something integrated into a Fitbit wrist-band) to put in physical locations, allowing smartphones to interact with them according to parameters you define.

Give me some examples of what Libraries could do

Here are some ideas to enhance the library user experience:

  1. Locate items from my books list. Most library catalogues have a ‘favourite’ function, where you can add items to a list. Imagine you make your list of books at home using this feature, then come into a library fully hooked up to the Internet of Things – as you walk in, you’re presented with a map and directions to each of the available items. You’d know before you got past the foyer if any books had already been borrowed, and you’d even be able to find them if they were misshelved.
    ..
    Wait, come back! I’ve got better ones, look…
    .
  2. A self-guided virtual tour. Set up beacons at key points around the Library, and send users off on a tour. When they get to each location their phone plays them videos, or audio, and gives them more information on how to get the most from that area. Combine this with augmented reality to really knock people’s socks off.
    .
  3. An enriched Special Collections experience. When you’re near the glass case displaying the rare and precious illuminated manuscript that you can’t touch, your phone or tablet can show you the whole document in digital format. It could even play you audio of expert analysis by the Special Collections librarian.
    .
  4. Contactless fine payment. The Internet of Things knows how much you owe, and has the capability to let you pay it without you having to queue for a till or a card-reader.
    .
  5. Availability of machines. Some library apps already show you which PCs are in use and which are actually free within the Library building, which users find invaluable. Beacons could easily extend this to printers (and 3D printers), scanners, study rooms, blu-ray players etc etc – all quick to check from your phone as you enter the Library.
    .
  6. More details on items. In the same way you can put a QR Code on a DVD box which takes the user to the imdb entry on the film in question, or on a music score to take the user to an MP3 of the piece, you could give any manner of contextual information on items in your collection via the Internet of Things. If a user is in the vicinity of an item, she or he will be able to get information on it online via their phone.
    .

My brain is not particularly wired to invention. When someone else lays out ideas I can spark off them, but I can very rarely think up anything from scratch – so with that in mind, the list above is quite small, and I’d be VERY interested to hear what you think we could do with this technology, via a comment…

 

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Can you use Twitter for Academic teaching? Yes, here are some examples

17 Feb

I have read, and contributed to, an awful lot of writing online about Twitter in HE. Social networks in general and Twitter in particular are increasingly accepted as a valuable part of the academic world. If you want to know about how to use Twitter for communication, for building reputation, for research, then Google will provide you with endless hours of reading.

However, using Twitter in teaching seems to be far more tricky and ambiguous. There are a lot more people asking ‘Can we use Twitter in academic teaching, and if so, how?’ then answering that question. Interestingly, there’s a lot more info out there in using it in the school classroom than on using it in the University seminar room, lab, or lecture theatre.

With that in mind, and to make the most of a real edtech zietgeist happening at the University of York at the moment, I put together a 1.5 hour workshop for academics, as part of a series I’m doing for the Learning & Teaching Forum. I really enjoyed putting this together because I learnt a lot, and spoke to a lot of academics doing really interesting things with tweets.

The biggest issue in this area seems to be that you can’t make students sign up for the platform, so how do you make sure no one is excluded if you’re providing key info via Twitter (without you having to duplicate everything)? The first answer is embedding a Twitter stream in the VLE – there is a full guide on how to do that (with BlackBoard) in the handout which accompanied the session (embedded below). The second answer is projecting a hashtag onto the walls during teaching. Chemistry at York is, for some reason, always at the front of the curve with social media, and one of the things Simon Lancaster does is have a back-channel running on big screens during lab-sessions, using Tweetbeam, so that students who don’t wish to sign up for Twitter can still get the benefit of seeing other students’ tweets (and also pictures shared by Simon). I really liked this idea – I liked the ceding of control, the high risk of it, and I like the fact that the students don’t abuse the trust, and take the opportunity instead to contribute enthusiastically and productively.

Anyhow, here are the slides from the workshop – I hope if you’re reading this you find them useful. If you’re an academic and want to chip in via the comments with how you utilise Twitter, that would be great; if you’re an information professional and you also run these sorts of workshops, I’d love to hear from you too.

 

 

Using Twitter in Academic Teaching by University of York Information

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