Category Archives: Tips for Living Life Online

Lessons on living life online safely, effectively and with as much fun as possible!

Playing With a New Gadget

Welcome back to Learning for Life Online, the Boston Public Library’s self-directed learning program about online life. We’re starting up again after a brief hiatus by getting back to basics.

Courtesy of Imamon on Flickr, Creative Commons licensed
When you’re trying to live life online, it’s important to know how to play with a new online tool. It’s also important to know how to start using and playing with the gadgets that connect us to those online tools. Some gadgets are so easy to use that it’s no problem, and others require a little more work.

Here are some suggestions for getting started with a brand new gadget:

  1. Read the manual, but don’t try to read it all at once. Start with the list of What’s in the Box and the Getting Started or Quick Start sections. Go slowly, and look up any words that aren’t familiar. Read as much of the manual as you can before you turn your gadget on.
  2. Push the buttons Follow along with the manual, step by step. Learn what each button and setting does when you press it, one by one.
  3. Do the ‘driving’ yourself. If you let another family member or friend ‘set up’ your gadget for you, you won’t understand how it works. Try to at least get the basics, so you can troubleshoot any problems yourself. Do ask someone to go through it with you, if that helps, but push your own buttons.
  4. Be patient with yourself. You’re learning a new skill and a new tool. Don’t rush, and take breaks when you need to. The more time you take now, the more you’ll know from now on.
  5. Have fun! This isn’t school, and you aren’t getting graded. Learning how a new gadget works gives you the freedom to play, and gives you the power to make it do what you want it to (rather than the other way around).

Remember, like online tools, similar gadgets often work in similar ways. The Power button always turns it on and off. The volume controls will be the same everywhere, as will Play and Stop. Menu button will almost always get you back to your main menu of choices. Yes, some of these gadgets have a lot of buttons, but the basics tend to look and work the same way on all of them. If you knew how to operate a cassette Walkman, an iPod or other mp3 player will feel very similar.

Help & Resources

There are too many kinds of gadgets out there to list, so here’s a few good ideas for finding help about your gadget online:

  • Go straight to the company’s website. Type the full website address in at the top of your browser and hit Enter. Then, look for a link on that says Product Information, Support, Help, or Troubleshooting. Click on it, read the screen, and click the appropriate link.
  • Use a search engine to find information. Type in the full name of the gadget and the word ‘support’ or ‘help,’ then click Search. Lots of results will come up – look for ones from the company that made your gadget first, then try others. The first page of results will have the most popular links, which might be most helpful (if they’ve helped other people).
  • Ask someone else who owns one. A friend, a family member, someone you know from work or school. Even if they don’t know the answer to your question, the two of you might be able to sit down together and figure it out. That answer might be useful to them one day, too.
  • Use a search engine to find discussion forums about your gadget; search for the name of your gadget the word ‘forum’ or ‘discussion.’ This is a little more advanced, usually, because the conversations on these forums are often technical.

Tips for Safe Online Shopping

Whether you’re supporting small businesses, creating custom gifts or buying ebooks, music or anything else, it’s important to keep yourself and your personal information safe. Fortunately, it’s not all that hard to do.

Easy Steps

  • Almost all online purchases require using a credit card. For added safety, use one credit card just for online purchases. Set a very low purchase limit (say, $200) to minimize risk. You could also buy a cash card from Visa or American Express to use for very small purchases.
     
  • Do not use your debit card/bank card unless you absolutely have to. This protects your bank account.
     
  • Work with well-known companies. Real-world stores also have online ordering – you know they’re legitimate businesses. Other safe bets are Amazon, Zappos (shoes, bags, clothing & more) and Audible for downloadable audiobooks.
     
  • S is for Security: When you’re buying from a website and you click on Check Out, look for the letters “https://” in the website’s address. That “s” means that it’s more secure for your personal information. You can also look for a little padlock on the page or near the website address.
    httpsPadlock
     
     
  • Don’t click on links in email. Visit the store’s website directly and then enter in any catalog or discount codes at checkout.
     
  • Know the full cost of what you’re buying, including shipping and handling charges, fees and tax (if applicable). What looks like a deal might not be after you add it all up.
     
  • Read the details for cost, shipping, delivery dates, and any other steps along the way. Take your time and understand what you’re doing.
     
  • Read the return policy. Some stores like Zappos and Lands End have excellent return policies.
     
  • Never give out bank information, Social Security numbers or your birthdate. No legitimate business will ever ask for these – they don’t when you stand at the cash register, do they?
     
  • Don’t use a public computer for making purchases. Someone might be looking at your screen as you type in your credit card number, or might have done something to the computer to record what you type.
     
  • Keep records of your online transactions & check your statements. Save the emailed receipts from the sellers and check your credit card statement online more often than once a month. This will help in case something does go wrong.

Next Steps

  • Protect your computer from malicious software from fake vendors. Install anti-virus software and keep it updated – new viruses come up all the time.
     
  • When you buy from smaller companies, look for a physical address, customer service phone number and lots of information on the “About” page. Lots of details improves the chances that it’s a real business and not a scam.
     
  • Use a third-party payment service for your online buying. PayPal is the most well-known and trusted of these. Create an account with PayPal, store your credit card information there, then use your PayPal account to make purchases at other sites. This way, you don’t have to give your credit card number to all those smaller sites – just to PayPal.
     

Help & Resources

Make it Personal – Creating Custom Gifts Online

Last week, we took a side trip into supporting small, independent artisans and business folk online. This week, we’ll continue to gift-giving theme and look at ways to create personalized objects of all sorts.

What Is It?

It used to be that if you wanted to personalize a t-shirt or mug, you had to use expensive silk-screening to do it. Custom-printed holiday cards were only for the well-off, and publishing your own photobook wasn’t even an option. Now, electronic text, digital images and online business transactions have made highly-customizable cards and gifts easy and relatively inexpensive. We are all creators of content, and now we can share it more broadly than ever.

Remember SmugMug from our online photo post? Use their printing service to showcase your favorite photos through prints, puzzles, photomugs and other personalizable gifts. You can even print professional-looking photo books through SmugMug using Blurb, a photo-publishing platform. CafePress and Zazzle also offer custom-printing using your own designs and images.

Lulu (mentioned last week and in one of our ebook posts) will also let you print photo books, as well as calendars and text-based books. Rather than a simple “family letter” in the holiday card, send a photobook of the year in review. Share memories from a child’s year as a calendar for the next, or print your own poetry or family stories and send them to everyone.

Moo initially made their name by offering minicards – trendy mini-sized calling cards with individualized designs or photos – but now stand out by letting you create sets of cards or stickers with a different image on every one. Think of the possibilities!

If custom printing is more your speed, you’ve got a wide array of sources to choose from. VistaPrint or Next Day Flyers will take any text you input (or upload) and print it on business cards, stationery, greeting cards, sticky note pads and more. MakeStickers.com works on a similar platform to make custom stickers just for you.

There are many, many more options out there for creating unique, personalized gifts and cards out there. Just use your favorite browser to search for “custom [whatever you want to make]” and see what’s there.

Next week, we’ll have a short post on good ideas for safely purchasing items online, and then in December we’ll get back to our regular pattern of a new kind of tool each week. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

Supporting Small Businesses, Online

This fall, we’ve seen a lot in the news about the need to support smaller local businesses and stop buying from large, impersonal corporations. Not everyone can occupy a downtown area, but there are things anyone can do, even online.

What Is It?

It’s easy for small, independent businesses to create a website and sell their productions online (like bunny slippers), but there are services that bring together hundreds of sellers and makes it simple for us to buy from them. Rather with struggling with their own sites or giant multipurpose clearinghouses, sellers can just set up an online shop and go. The service handles the website maintenance, the purchase transaction and possibly even the printing, and the sellers can focus on creating neat stuff.

Etsy is a “marketplace for buying & selling all things handmade,” and it gives artisans a place of their own on the internet. Creators put up their wares for sale, Etsy handles the money transactions, and then the crafters ship the products. Check out a few examples to see what’s available: Fancy Tiger craft supply, Grandma Flies a Broom vintage & antiques, Tiny Warbler children’s toys, Rocky Top Studio photography prints & cards, Have It Sweet confections, and many more.

Lulu.com is a self-publishing business and marketplace for creatives of all sorts. They use Lulu’s tools to format their content and turn it from electronic files into print, CD, DVD, calendars and reports, then sell their items directly through Lulu. The old “vanity press” is a thing of the past, and self-publishing is a way of the future.

CafePress and Zazzle offer a similar service for folks who want to sell merchandise to promote a band, company, event, online comic strip or anything they can think of. T-shirts, mugs, calendars, CD covers and gifts of all sorts are available.

Threadless takes a slightly different twist. Artists and designers upload their submissions and Threadless members take a week to vote on the designs. When an idea wins, it’s printed onto a T-shirt, bag, iPhone case, and more. Often edgy, Threadless t-shirts are perfect for the eclectic freethinker in your life. A related site is Society 6, showcasing artists from around the world and offering their art as prints, device cases and shirts.

New to the scene, Spoonflower makes quilters and fabric crafters around the country swoon. You can upload an image or design to their site and they will custom-print fabric for you. They also sell fabric designed by others, for whatever project suits your fancy.

Try It Out

Take a look at a few of the sites above and find a few things that interest you. You can use your favorite search engine to go looking for things you might want to buy. When you find a site, read the “About Us” section to learn more about the business you’re buying from. You’ll be surprised how many small, mom & pop type stores are now online and doing well.

Next week, we’ll look at some personalizable gift resources, and share some tips and tricks for safely purchasing items online. Stay tuned…

Copyright vs. Creative Commons licenses

This week on Learning for Life Online, we’ll take a quick look at the idea of copyright, and how the idea of protecting your creative work has been changed by the internet.

What is Copyright?

In the United States, copyright exists to keep people from copying someone else’s work and either claiming it as their own work or making money from selling or licensing that work. There are exceptions for fair use for commentary, criticism, and research and educational purposes, but in general if something is protected by copyright, you can’t copy or reuse that content. Copyright was intended to protect the ability of writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative professionals to make a living doing what they do.

The U.S. Copyright Office has a great Frequently Asked Questions page to explain the basics; you can also read the entirety of U.S. Copyright Law online. Students and teachers can learn more about copyright and education from the Library of Congress.

What is Public Domain

Creative works that are not under copyright are in the public domain. This means that it is okay to use or reuse any part or whole of that work however you’d like. Most texts or images created before 1923 in the United States are in the public domain and are freely available, but there are many rules about what is and isn’t in the public domain.

What is Creative Commons?

Making text, audio, video and photos available on the Internet has made it easier for creative professionals to share their work, and it also makes it easier to copy and reuse that work. Creative Commons is an organization created to find ways to let creative professionals maintain ownership of their work and give permission for others to use or remix that work in specific ways. They do this by writing up Creative Commons licenses – legal documents that spell out what other people can and can’t do with content. A creator putting their work up on the internet can choose which Creative Commons (CC) license they want to use, and link to it from wherever they’ve put their content. Then, if someone else wants to use that content, they can click through and read the license to know what’s okay.

To understand what CC licenses will and won’t allow, there are a few terms that need explaining. Flickr provides some good definitions:

  • Attribution means: You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work – and derivative works based upon it – but only if they give you credit.
  • Noncommercial means: You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work – and derivative works based upon it – but for noncommercial purposes only.
  • No Derivative Works means: You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.
  • Share Alike means: You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that you released your work under.

You can also watch and hear what Creative Commons means to creators in their own words. For more, check out an entire page of videos that explain Creative Commons and the Creative Commons Frequently Asked Questions page.

Why Does It Matter?

Why does all this matter?
Because ignoring copyright – using someone else’s protected work without their permission – is wrong and illegal in the U.S.
Because getting permission from creative professionals who want to give it should be easy and obvious, to encourage sharing and remixing whenever it’s allowed.
Because some excellent things come from sharing and remixing content online: music mashups combining different songs, video mashups that bring together different television and film snippets (for instance, an alternate ending to Back to the Future), tools like Tumblr and Scoop.It, and more.
Because as you learn how to live a life online, understanding these two points of view make it easy to be a respectful, ethical, law-abiding online resident. Whether you create content, reuse it, or simply enjoy it where it is, it helps to keep everyone on the same page – virtual or not.

Help & Resources

The Only Constant is Change

We’ll be taking a short break from ebooks this week to talk about one of the skills necessary for living life online: being comfortable with change.

“Nothing but change endures.” Whether we know this quote from Heraclitus or Isaac Asimov, it still rings true…and nowhere more so than online. Everything we’ve seen about online life so far – the flexibility, the social nature, the connection to technology, the possibility for innovation – are things that encourage change, and occasionally require it. Even more than with cars or electronics, the internet makes rapid and continuous change not only possible, but relatively easy to do.

For those of us used to a world made of bricks and mortar, this kind of change can be surprising and uncomfortable. When you visit a store every day, you don’t expect to walk up one morning to a completely different storefront with doors in new places, a new way of ordering, changed packaging, and brand-new (and maybe younger and faster) employees. You walk in the door and realize you don’t know where anything is, don’t know where to find what you want or how to even begin looking for it, and you feel that the staff don’t understand why you’re confused. In these brick and mortar stores, you can usually see the changes as they happen: the scaffolding and construction, the “big change coming” signs, employees saying goodbye to their regulars before they leave.

And yet, that’s precisely what it can feel like to have an online service you use all the time change its website overnight. You wake up one morning and everything you finally have gotten comfortable with has changed….again. It can be frustrating, can make you feel like you don’t know how this stuff works after all, can cause you to throw up your hands and walk away from the machine.

Don’t.

Don’t walk away, and don’t give up.

Take a deep breath, remember that you do know what you’re doing, and go back to basics. In our very first post on Learning for Life Online, we talked about playing with new online tools. These same skills are what will help you now.

  • Read the screen and see if the site has a link to a list or a video about “What’s new!, or maybe a new help section to walk you through the changes.
  • Once you’ve found that list of what’s new, push the button and watch the video or click on the link to the new features list. Then, try out one new thing at a time and see how it works.
  • Take your time and don’t be afraid. Yes, things have changed, but rarely does a website or service change absolutely everything all at once. You’ll recognize what’s familiar from the previous version and can focus on how it works differently now.
  • And a new one: don’t panic. It took you time to learn the old features, and it’ll take some time to learn the new ones, but probably not as much time as you think it will. All those changes will probably make the site easier to use and help you do what you want to do, so give them a chance.

Also, don’t believe the myth that the “younger kids who’ve been doing this forever” are any more comfortable with change than you are. They aren’t, and every time a service they use and have customized to be just the way they want it to be changes, they complain and get frustrated just as much as the rest of us. And then, like the rest of us, they get used to the changes and keep on going.

So, why have we taken time to talk about being comfortable with change this week? Because several major websites/services have announced updates and new features in the past two weeks that will have an effect on millions of people.

Facebook changes a little, then a lot

In late September of 2011, Facebook users woke up to yet another series of changes: their Most Recent feed choice was replaced by a Top Stories feed that missed half of what they wanted to see, their lists of friends and acquaintances were different, the login and stuff on the left side of the screen had moved around again, and there were different choices and settings that needed to be updated. That morning, most Facebook posts seemed to be about how much they hated the new look and feel, but that anger died down by mid-day and now, two weeks later, it’s all but gone. (For some history, the same thing happened in 2009.)

What many Facebook users didn’t realize is that these changes were the first step towards a much, much larger change, coming later in October. You can watch the full announcement and demonstration of the new Facebook Timeline, but in short, it’s a visual way to display all of your posts, photos & videos, apps, and anything else you want to share on Facebook. You can customize the look and there are new features that let you “curate the story of your life.” Mashable.com has several articles summing up the little changes and the big ones to come.

Amazon Kindle ebooks finally available through your local library

Ever since public libraries began to offer downloadable ebooks through their online branches, users have been asking, “…but can I get some books for my Kindle?” For a very long time, the answer was No, but last week, that changed. Now, Amazon Kindle users can check out library ebooks if their local library uses the Overdrive ebook and digital audiobook service. Once you find a book in your library’s ebook collection (check out the Boston Public Library’s for example), you check it out using that system and then seamless move over to your Kindle account to download it. This is a huge change because now the millions of Kindle ebook users can now check out library books. Awesome.

Boston Public Library’s online catalog gets personalized

Earlier in 2011, the Boston Public Library got a new online catalog, and overall the response has been really positive. Just today, the company who manages that online catalog updated the page you see when you first log in, to make it easier to see the important information (what’s checked out & when it’s due) and recommendations and ratings made by the people you follow. Check out this short video about all the changes to the online catalog for more information.

Summing Up

One of the greatest strengths of life online is that it’s easy to update and improve on the services and tools that we use there. However, this means that those services and tools will change, and we must change with them….or find new tools. Change isn’t always easy, but it doesn’t have to be hard or scary or frustrating. We can learn to roll with changes and maybe find that the new, improved thing is actually better. But you’ll never know if you don’t give it a chance.

Help & Resources

Buying and Downloading….Anything, Really

In the next few weeks, we’ll switch from talking about online audio & video to discussing ebooks – a topic getting more popular every day. To bridge the gap between them, let’s look at how you can buy and any kind of media online. For a refresher, go back and read the LLO post on what downloading is.

Note: In this lesson, we’re going to focus on buying and downloading to a computer (either PC or Mac). Our upcoming lesson on ebooks will include buying directly from your ereader device.

The Basics

You might be looking for music in iTunes or Amazon, getting an ebook from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or purchasing directly from a band or an author using a site like Bandcamp or Lulu. The source really doesn’t matter, since buying from most of these services follow the same basic steps:

  1. Find the item you’d like to buy
  2. Click on “Buy Now” or “Purchase” or “Download,” or whatever button is the page
  3. Create an account with that service, if required. Enter your email address and choose a password that you’ll remember. Look for any ticky boxes that you can uncheck to choose not to receive special promotions or email from this service.
  4. Enter your billing information: credit card number, billing address, etc.
    Many of these tools will let you pay using PayPal or another online payment service. If you have a PayPal account, great! Use that and you won’t have keep entering your billing information. However, it’s not necessary – you can usually just pay with a credit card.

    Safety & Security Tip: If you are concerned, get a credit card to use just for online purchases. You can set a very low purchase limit – $200, say – to minimize any risk. This is especially good for buying from smaller, less well-known companies. You could also buy a Visa cash card or something similar, to use for very small purchases.

  5. Complete the order – you’ll usually get a receipt emailed to you
  6. Download
    If prompted, click on a “Download” link to start the actual downloading process. This might also start automatically.
    At this point, you’ll probably be asked to save the file(s) somewhere on your computer. You can save it to the Downloads folder or to your Desktop, or to a folder you’ve set up for media downloads. Sometimes, the downloader will suggest the right place for the file, but sometimes you’ll need to change the save location to the correct folder. Don’t be too worried by this – you can usually go back and fix things later if they aren’t quite right.
  7. Enjoy!
    Once you’ve downloaded the files, you should just be able to double-click on them to play or read them in the appropriate program. Sometimes you will need to save the files to that program (such as moving music files over to iTunes or your music library software). Just find the files you saved and drag it over the program folder, or whatever folder that program stores its files in. Drop the files into the program folder and you’re done.

Don’t worry – this is one of those things that’s confusing the first time you do it, but gets easier with practice. The most important step is to remember where you downloaded the files to. As long as you know where those are, you can sort out any problems later.

iTunes

iTunes is probably the easiest service to buy from, because it really does do everything for you. Simply open up iTunes on your computer, visit the iTune Store, find the items you want, click on “Buy,” enter your iTunes account information, and then iTunes does the rest. It will automatically save the files to the right places, and you can play them as soon as they’ve downloaded.

Amazon

Amazon is the next easiest service to buy from, because it does nearly everything automatically. Just visit the Amazon website, find whatever it is you want to purchase, click on the orange “Buy” button and enter your account information. The one difference is that Amazon asks you to set up the Amazon Downloader, a program that manages all your Amazon music downloads for you. The Downloader will save the files to the right place, especially if you use iTunes as your music library, and then you can play your audio from iTunes with no problems.

Amazon’s ebooks are designed to be read on their Kindle ereader, but you can also get a Kindle app to read them on a computer. Follow the instructions on the page to learn more about using this service.

eBooks & Audiobooks

Barnes & Noble
Audible (audiobooks only; now owned by Amazon)
Kobo Books (ebooks only)
eBooks.com (ebooks only)
Archive.org – a free site that works the same way as the paid sites

These sites all work similarly to Amazon, but without the Downloader or a Kindle app to help you manage your files.

Direct From the Creator

Many musicians, bands, authors and other creators will sell their work directly from their own website, usually using a service like:

Music & Audio
CDBaby
Bandcamp
Digstation
ReverbNation (also added to our list of music library services and internet radio sources)

Self-Publishing for Authors, Poets & Photographers
Lulu
Blurb
XLibris

All of these services also work similarly to Amazon, though you do need to move the files around yourself.

Help & Resources

Upload, Download, Attach, Save

Moving files around on the web has become something we do all the time, whether we know what we’re doing or not: sending and receiving documents by email, applying for jobs online, sharing photos and music, and buying audio and video online. But what’s the difference between uploading, downloading, attaching and saving?

Uploading just means moving a file from the computer you are working on up to the web. Usually, the button you would click to upload a file says Upload, but it might also ask you to Browse (look around on) your computer to find a file to upload. You might upload a resume file to a job application site, upload a song file to a music sharing site, upload a photo file to Flickr or Facebook, or upload a video file to YouTube.

Downloading is the opposite of uploading: you move a file from the web down to the computer you’re working on. Again, the button usually says Download or asks you to Browse to look for a file. Downloading is also what happens when you borrow an electronic item from the library, buy music or videos from Amazon or iTunes, or save a photo from your web-based email or Facebook onto your computer.

An attachment is a file that you attach to an email message in order to send both the message and the file at the same time. The icon for an attachment is a paper clip, and that’s just what you’re doing: paper-clipping another document to the message you’ve got and sending them both along together. Most kinds of files can be attached to an email message: documents, photos, audio and video. You can also receive attachments in email from other people, which you can download onto your computer. Safety note: Do not open attachments you’re not expecting from people you don’t know or email addresses you don’t recognize. These attachments are one way that viruses get around and infect computers, and can cause you a major headache.

Saving a file means storing it on your computer or a storage device permanently. You can save a letter you’re typing, save a presentation you’ve created or save a photo from your camera onto your computer or to a USB drive. Unlike uploading, downloading or attaching, when you save a file your computer doesn’t need to be connected to the web. In fact, you need to save a document or a presentation to your computer or a USB drive before you can upload or attach it anywhere else.

Help & Resources

Playing with online tools

Just like any other tool, the best way to learn a new online service or website is to play with it. Push the buttons, click the links, enter some information – it’s by using a tool that we figure out how it works and how it might be useful to us.

Here are some guidelines to work with:

  1. Read the screen. Most times, all the information you need about using a site is right on the screen. Even if the page is cluttered, take your time and read from top to bottom and left to right. If something big jumps out at you, read that first and then start at the top left. No, you many not know what all the words mean now, but you’ll figure it out by using the site and looking up a few things later. Keep a notebook or paper handy to write down words to look up later.
     
  2. Push the buttons. Just reading the screen alone won’t teach you anything about how the tool works. Carefully, deliberately, push a button or click a link and see what happens. Did the page change? Did a new box or choice show up? Did you go back to a page you’d been on before? Take a moment and read the new screen to see how it relates to the previous one. Work your way through different pages and options one by one.
     
  3. Take your time. If you’re learning a new tool, find 15 minutes or a half hour to slowly work through it. Don’t rush, and don’t click blindly — that won’t help you learn.
     
  4. Don’t be afraid. You can’t really break anything on the internet. Even when you accidentally delete an email, there’s often an Undo option right there, so you can change your mind. You also can’t share any information that you don’t type in, so don’t worry too much about your privacy. It’s by slowly learning a tool that you also learn how to use it safely and well.
     
  5. Do the ‘driving’ yourself. Watching someone else navigate through a site is good, but doing the clicking yourself is much better for learning. Work with a partner if you’d like – someone else who’s learning – and take turns at the keyboard and mouse. You’ll both benefit from the workout.

When you get a new car, phone, or refrigerator, you use what you know about how these things work and figure out what the buttons on this model does. It’s the same with online tools. Once you’ve seen how one works, you’ll learn the next one more quickly, and the one after that even faster still. The goal of Learning for Life Online is to make using those first few tools a little less intimidating, and then to introduce you to the best of the rest that’s out there waiting to be found.