Category Archives: Basics

Core skills and tools for life online.

Twitter – The Basics

Learning for Life Online tool #3:
The Learning for Life Online Twitter feed

What Is It?

Twitter is the most well-known example of what’s called microblogging – short updates of text, photos, audio or video are pushed out to anyone following your feed on the web, through email, or via their cell phone or PDA. Facebook updates are so short they might be considered the same kind of thing, and serve much the same purpose.

How Is It Useful?

Microblogging lets you quickly update and coordinate with many followers using a single post. For a personal feed, you can let your friends know what you’re up to and share snippets of your life. Companies use Twitter to send out information about their services and products (like Whole Foods) and to offer customer service and advice (Best Buy and Dell, for example).

Searching Twitter can be a great way to find out information and see the buzz about a new restaurant or movie. Just type in the name of the thing you’re looking for into the search bar at the top of the page and away you go. Try a search on a new tech gadget, hot news topic, famous restaurant or summer blockbuster.

You can follow feeds from celebrities, authors, publishers, famous weathermen and even news from the White House. Locally, the Boston Police Department and Boston Fire Department send out alerts and ask for information using Twitter. Boston Food Finds is a feed about all things food in Boston.

Hashtags – words or phrases prefixed with a hash symbol (#) – started as a quick way to link related posts together (try out #womenssoccer). Posters use these to coordinate posts from a large number of Twitter users (for instances, at library conferences) and occasionally as a commentary on their own post. You can search for hashtags in the main search bar to see what is being tagged with that phrase, or you can look at the “Top Trending” topics on the side of the screen.

Try It Out

If you’d like to sign up for a Twitter account, just visit the site, sign up and start posting. Follow anyone you know personally and find a few companies or famous people to follow. Be sure to look for “the official Twitter account of…” in the description to know you’ve got the real deal.

If you don’t want to sign up, start off with a search for the Boston Public Library or a certain kid wizard. Then try searching for anything that strikes your interest.

To get a feel for the possibilities of microblogging, check out a few feeds:

Help & Resources

Facebook – The Basics

Learning for Life Online tool #2:
The Learning for Life Online Facebook page

Ah, Facebook. It seems like everyone is Facebookin’ these days, from the high schooler across the aisle to your mother (it’s the only way to keep track of everyone any more, right?). But what is it, really, and how is it useful to you?

What Is It?

Facebook is a social network – a place where people go to stay connected to friends, family, coworkers and aquaintances online. To create an account on Facebook, go to the main page and fill in the information under the words Sign Up. You will need an email address before you begin; you can quickly set up a free account with GMail or Yahoo!Mail if you don’t have an address yet.

How Is It Useful?

If your family and friends are already on Facebook, then it’s another place to tell them what you’re up to. You can easily share updates, videos, neat web sites, or photos. It’s a great way to invite people to events, and you can use the chat and message features to talk a little more directly to individuals.

People are using Facebook to reconnect with old school friends and past coworkers. They’re also “liking” their favorite places, musicians, famous people & TV shows to get the latest news.

Facebook (or any social network) is no substitute for getting to know people in person, but it can help to keep folks connected even when they’re far apart.

Try It Out

If you don’t want to create a Facebook account right now, you can still see what it looks like. Check out the Boston Public Library Facebook page or the Learning for Life Online page and click around to see what’s there.

If you do want to jump right in, go to Facebook and get going. In upcoming Learning for Life Online posts, we’ll walk through more of Facebook’s features, including the privacy settings and photo albums. In the meanwhile, talk to a friend or relative who’s been on Facebook if you get stuck anywhere. You probably know a few.

Help & Resources

Blogs and Commenting

Learning for Life Online tool #1:
The Learning for Life Online blog (and website)

What Is It?

So, what is a blog, anyway? Blog is a contraction of web and log, and a web log is a series of posts (articles) displayed on a website in reverse chronological order, with the most recent at the top. That’s it — nothing too fancy. This post that you’re reading right now is part of the Learning for Life Online blog.

How Is It Useful?

Originally developed as online diaries, blogs have become a way to share information about almost anything in a format that’s easy to read and follow. Blogs are more useful and interesting than websites because readers can add comments that create a conversation between the original poster and anyone reading along. Blog posts are easily shared by copying and pasting the web address, by sharing directly through social media like Facebook and Twitter, and by subscribing to a blog’s feed (a stream of new blog posts is sent directly to your email or to a service like Google Reader).

In fact, a blog is such a good format for sharing information online that many websites now use many of their features on all of their pages. Newspapers are a great example, where every article encourages comments and sharing. In fact, some websites started off as just a blog and have added other pages as they’ve grown.

Try It Out

There is a blog out there for every topic you can think of: recipes, diy fashion, gadgets, book reviews, opinions and more. Use a search tool like Google, Bing or Yahoo to find blogs on topics you’re interested in. Make sure to look for posts with dates on them to know you’ve found a true blog.

Reading a blog is as easy as finding one and scrolling down the entries. However, some definitions may make things easier:

  • The Home link will get you back to the main page of the blog, where the most recent entries are. You can also click on the title of the blog to get you there.
  • The About page usually describes the who the author is or what the blog is about.
  • Categories or tags are ways to organize a blog’s content by topic. Think of categories as chapters in a book and the tags as posty notes on individual pages — quick ways to find something you were looking for. Click on a category or tag link on the side of the blog to read more entries about those topics.
  • Subscribe will sign you up to have the latest posts on a blog sent directly to you by email or RSS.

Commenting on a blog post or article is as easy as typing in the comment box below the post, but you may also need to prove that you’re a real person by typing in a reply to a captcha. Be patient with these; captchas protect blogs from automated spam comments that may be obscene, selling something, or linking readers to a malicious site.

Starting a blog is as easy as signing up with a blog platform like WordPress or TypePad and writing your first post. Before you do, consider who you want to write for, what you want to write about, and how much time you have for keeping your blog fresh and interesting. Try reading and commenting for a while before you commit to maintaining a blog. In a future Learning for Life Online lesson, we’ll highlight some Best Practices for Blogging.

Easy, right?

Help & Resources

Wikipedia article about blogs
Common Craft video explaining blogs
Technorati, an excellent place to find blogs to read

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.