Getting Started in Online Communication

I will be one of three people leading a workshop on Friday for faculty who are interested in developing their public voice. In particular we will discuss writing op-eds and articles for newspapers, and online communication such as blogging.

My part is to offer technical advice for using social media and blogs, and below is the hand-out that I am developing for that session. What do you think? What should I change or add?

Getting Started in Online Communication

2013 Cothran Seminar
Bryan Bibb

Preliminaries

Questions to Ask

  • Where is your current audience or expertise, and how can it be expanded or "leveraged?"
  • What are your resources and constraints? How much time, energy, and technical knowledge do you have, and how will you operate within any limitations?
  • What are your priorities? What would "success" look like?
  • What is your time-horizon? Set short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals.
  • How important is it to have a site that reflects your identity and personality vs. simply a platform for posting text to an audience?

Strategies

  • Make sure you have backups of all your content. What if the site disappeared or experienced a major failure?
  • If your site allows comments, plan to moderate the discussion and interact with the audience. Comment on other sites as well.
  • The life-blood of online communication is linking. Posts should be annotated with links to supporting information and other perspectives.
  • Register one or more domain names for your site, to bring all of your online identity under one umbrella. The best registrar for domain names, in my opinion, is Hover.com. Basic .com .net and .org domains are $15 per year.

Recommendations

  • Develop a site in your own name on a platform over which you have some control.
  • Using your own domain name will let you change platforms if necessary with less disruption.
  • Part of your site should be a tagged, searchable archive of past material.
  • Use social media promiscuously for networking and collaboration.
  • Experiment with the new generation of blogging tools that emphasize easy, clean writing and presentation of written words.

Social Media

Many of us use social media to keep in contact with family, Furman colleagues, and former students. Increasingly, however, these platforms are being used by scholars to connect and communicate with each other.

Academia.edu

  • Academia.edu is a social network of sorts for academic authors.
  • You can "follow" the work of others and be "followed" by them. Posts are tagged according to sub-specialty, so it is possible to discover work by people you not know.
  • You can post unpublished or published work to which you have rights. Publishers often give authors permission to post an article or chapter after a period of time.
  • The analytics are robust. You can see how often your papers have been downloaded, and from where.
  • Pros:
    • Easy to use and powerful.
    • A good place to post PDFs so that you have a link to share.
    • Ego-building.
  • Cons:
    • Ego-busting.
    • Like all social media, they control the platform.

Facebook

  • Privacy settings allow you to mark posts for a narrow group, or more broadly.
  • Facebook Notes can be used for long-form blog posts and set as accessible to the public.
  • This is the most extreme example of disappearing into someone else's platform. It is difficult to migrate content from Facebook to other services.
  • There is also a real possibility of undesirable cross-fertilization of one's audiences. Do you want professional colleagues to see your personal photos, or your high-school friends to comment on your scholarship?
  • Pros:
    • Easy to use.
    • Large potential audience.
    • You're probably already on it.
  • Cons:
    • Facebook controls the platform and everything on it.
    • Cat pictures and ex-girlfriends.

Twitter

  • Twitter is wildly popular as a way to keep up with a large number of people and institutions.
  • It is a low-friction way of sharing links among a group of colleagues.
  • Twitter posts are ephemeral. They continue to exist, but they are hard to find after they scroll past the first page of tweets. Twitter communication is "conversation" not "correspondence."
  • Powerful "discovery" tool in the moment.
  • Pros:
    • Easy and sometimes exciting to use.
    • Good mobile integration.
  • Cons:
    • 140 character limit makes discussion difficult.
    • Twitter controls the platform and now restricts 3rd party utilities.
    • Difficult to find old tweets.

Google+

  • Seems to be used more often by technologists and educators with a technological bent.
  • Google has streamlined its services (bye bye Reader) to encourage people to use G+, with limited success.
  • Pros:
    • Circles?
  • Cons:
    • Confusing.
    • Not as widely used as other services.

Blogging Platforms

Tumblr

  • Tumblr.com is a "tumble log," designed for the easy and quick sharing of information, media, and links.
  • The Tumblr posting interface includes special post-types that make it easy to share different kinds of links and text attractively. These types are: Text, Photo, Quote, Link, Chat, Audio, and Video.
  • There is a lively social network of Tumblr users who "reblog" content that they like. This is a good way to get exposure if there is a natural sub-community on Tumblr in your field.
  • Pros:
    • Easy posting.
    • Possible to use your own domain name.
  • Cons:
    • Not as good for long-form articles.
    • Not considered to be as "professional" as other options.

Wordpress

  • Wordpress.com is the most important free blogging platform on the internet. It is possible to install Wordpress on your own server, but most non-experts will be happier using the free wordpress.com service.
  • Wordpress sites can have "posts," which are dated blog entries, or "pages," undated documents that can be arranged in a hierarchy like a regular website. This lets you have a section with timely updates and a section of "static" informational content.
  • The posting interface is "WYSIWYG," very powerful, and no more difficult than using Microsoft Word.
  • Pros:
    • Easy posting.
    • Possible to use your own domain name for $18/year.
  • Cons:
    • Managing custom themes or plugins can be technically challenging.
    • Wordpress.com is more limited than a Wordpress installation on your own server.

Squarespace

  • Squarespace.com is the place to start if you want to put together a site that goes beyond the normal "blog" structure.
  • Especially powerful for image galleries, integrating feeds from different social media sites, static pages, podcast feeds, and commercial sites.
  • Costs $10/month and up depending on bandwidth and storage space. You can try the service for 2 weeks before providing payment details.
  • Pros:
    • Powerful and beautiful site builder.
    • Multimedia and html features that go well beyond blogging engines.
    • Easy to create content once the site is designed.
    • Easy import and export of blog posts.
    • Easy to use your own domain name.
  • Cons:
    • Requires more time and energy to set up.
    • Costs money.
    • It's your site design, but still their platform. In other words, you cannot take your site to another web hosting provider. If you want to stop using Squarespace, you can export content and posts but not the whole page.

Other services to watch

Disqus

  • Several sites do not have commenting built into their engine, but support the Disqus.com service.
  • Essentially, Disqus adds commenting and moderation to your blog. It allows users to login through Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, or Google, which means that they do not need an account on your site.
  • Disqus can send an email when a comment is posted, and let you approve or delete it with an email reply. Very handy.

Medium

  • Medium.com is more of a publisher than a platform. Authors post material to Medium in the hopes of finding readers. If a post gets highlighted or widely shared at Medium, it can drive traffic to the author's other work, sites, books, products, etc.
  • Authors grant Medium a non-exclusive right to use their writing however they wish. As one writer put it: "I give them words, and they give me a voice." Authors still retain primary copyright, as best as I can tell.
  • At this point, it is dominated by tech writers and technological topics. That is the normal pattern. The same used to be true of Twitter.

Quora

  • Quora.com is a social platform for Questions and Answers. Questions that are posted arrive in "feeds" related to specific topics.
  • Anyone can answer a question, but good questions can be voted up by other users.
  • A new feature is Quora Blogs, through which writers can write posts that will be seen by users who subscribe to the relevant feed. Quora has a large user base, and so this is potentially a large audience for new bloggers.
  • The Quora ToS says, "You retain ownership of all Content you submit, post, display, or otherwise make available on the Service." Like Medium, however, you grant them a universal license to use your material on the site.

New Minimalist Platforms

  • These sites are all new-comers to the Blogging scene.
    • They promise easy set-up, simple posting, and responsive design for desktop and mobile browsers.
    • The danger of any of these is that they may go away at some point. This is another reason to have your own domain. If you have to change platforms, you can recreate your exact site structure elsewhere.
    • Many of these support "Markdown" writing, which is a simplified way to create web documents without knowing any html code. Markdown is especially useful when composing on the iPad. [I write everything in Markdown, including this document.]
  • Postagon.com offers a clean writing and publishing interface, and the ability to post via email.
  • Roon.io focuses on making the writing and posting process simple. It is free with upcoming optional paid upgrades.
  • Ghost is a recent Kickstarter project. It has Markdown editing at its center. When the project goes live soon, users will be able to install the Ghost web application on their own server or sign up for a hosted plan.
  • Posthaven.com was founded by the developer of Posterous, an excellent blogging platform that was bought by Twitter last year and subsequently disappeared, angering users. Posthaven is $5/month and promises that it will "last forever."
  • Postach.io is a blogging service based on Evernote, advertised as "The Easiest Blog, Ever." If you use Evernote to keep track of your writing or other information, it is very simple to write and publish to postash.io from within Evernote.
  • There is good information in this recent post: http://thenextweb.com/apps/2013/08/16/best-blogging-services/.

What About Furman?

  • Furman offers a Wordpress install that faculty may use for professional blogging.
  • Another option for a personal site is Furman's Confluence Wiki.
  • IT Services can help you create an account and get your site up and running.
  • One caveat: read the Blog and Wiki Use Policy on the IT Services page. Furman sites are subject to rules prohibiting any "intimidating, hostile, or offensive" content, or anything that promotes activities that are illegal or commercial, including links to pages that contain such material.
  • "Information Technology Services reserves the right to remove, at any time, at its sole discretion, any content posted on the blog or wiki services that it deems in violation of university policy or local, state or federal law."
  • "Information Technology Services reserves the right to change, at any time, at its sole discretion, the provisions of the blog and wiki services."
  • I would not host my content, personal or professional, on a site controlled by university administration. Certain kinds of sites may be a good fit, however, so keep this option in mind.