What are the essential tools for blogging and online conversation in 2009? Social Signal friend and advisor Leda Dederich recently asked me for an update to the post I wrote on this topic four years ago. Happily, SoSi staffer Karen Fung recently wrote an excellent post that ran through the specific tools I reviewed in 2005. But I thought I’d step back and offer an answer to the underlying question: what tools do I need to participate effectively in the thriving world of social media?

    Do you need a blog?

    Four years ago, blogging was the premiere way to publish content or engage in online conversation. Today, there are many easy and lightweight ways to express yourself online and converse with old or new friends. While a blog is still a terrific way to have a more informal organizational voice, or to create your own niche site on the web, you may find it easier or more rewarding to engage through some other established channel. Here are some options to consider:

  1. Facebook Post frequent status updates and notes on Facebook, and voilá, you have something not-un-bloglike. It’s free, it takes no configuration or setup work, and your friends are much more likely to stop by and see what you’ve written. The downside: Facebook makes some pretty interesting claims on your posts, and you can’t do much to customize how it works.
  2. Twitter If you’re primarily interested in sharing news or engaging in online conversation, Twitter may be easier, more effective and more fun than blogging. You can post really quickly and frequently (how long does it take to write a 140-character message?) and you can reach specific people (via mentions or direct messages). The downside: You can’t write the next New Yorker-worthy essay in 140 characters, and even if you do, your friends may or may not see it given how quickly Twitter conversation unfolds.
  3. Niche communities Instead of posting all your thoughts in one place, why not post them in the context where they’re most relevant? Join a handful of online communities or social networks that correspond to your various professional and personal interests, and you can enjoy all the benefits of personal expression — in exactly the context where they’ll find interested readers. You might blog about your family life on CafeMom, share your political rants on DailyKos, and write about your business adventures on the Intuit business community site. The downside: Your online relationships will be very role-based; people will likely know you with your mom hat on, or your activist hat on, but not both. If you want to write about topics that cross over your various roles — or don’t fit into any of them — you don’t have a home for it. My solution to these problems is to treat alexandrasamuel.com as an aggregator for my posts on a variety of sites; that way I have both niche conversations and a one-stop, anything-goes presence.
  4. LinkedIn Answering questions on LinkedIn isn’t the same as blogging, but it is a great way of establishing your topic-specific expertise in front of a large and relevant audience. I monitor LinkedIn questions in my fields of expertise using iGoogle (see below) so that I can answer questions while they’re fresh — which means my answers are higher up and get seen by more people. Then I post my LinkedIn answers back to the Social Signal blog using old-fashioned cut and paste.
  5. Flickr, YouTube, 12seconds et al. Not everyone expresses themselves best in words. Maybe you’re more of a talker, or a photographer, or a video person. Create an account on a multimedia site, and post your outpourings there.
  6. So, you still want to blog: platforms

  7. Tumblr Four years ago I recommended Blogger as my newbie option and WordPress as my choice for more advanced bloggers. Today, I recommend Tumblr as a great blog for folks who want something easy-to-use, especially if they plan on uploading lots of photo or images (Tumblr has great upload tools, and is very user-friendly). I used Tumblr to set up a simple personal blog for family posts.
  8. WordPress is still my choice for higher-end blogs, but now even a newbie can use it: WordPress.com offers turn-key blogs and make it easy to get up and running and do a decent amount of customization, even if your tech skills are very basic. Better yet, if you think your blog could grow over time, you have the option of moving your hosted WordPress.com blog to another webhost where you’ll have more control over your configuration. From there, WordPress can support you in expanding from a basic blog to something a little more nuanced, or even let you grow into a fairly complex and elaborate website by using WordPress as a content management system. I use WordPress, hosted on DreamHost, for alexandrasamuel.com.
  9. Drupal My 2005 post pre-dated our immersion into Drupal, a content-management system that includes a powerful blogging platform and many interesting ways of aggregating and republishing RSS feeds. Within a year, we created several Drupal sites: telecentre.org (now on Ning), NetSquared and our own Social Signal site. Today, many of the blogs I contribute to are on Drupal — not only ours, but those of ChangeEverything, NetSquared, and happyfrog. I wouldn’t recommend Drupal as a platform if all you want to do is set up a blog (though there are many pure-blog sites that run on Drupal), but if you’re creating a more extensive presence in which blogging is a key part — or if you want to create a blog with multiple contributors — Drupal is a great choice.
  10. Tools for bloggers

  11. Amazon associates program If your blog includes references, reviews or recommendations for books, music, electronics or just about any other kind of product, Amazon’s associates program gives you a potential revenue stream. Set up an associate ID and use it to generate links to the items you discuss in your blog; if people click through and buy them, you get a small kick-back. I’ve yet to make a penny off the program — after years of linking, I’ve only had a few click-throughs — but I like the option of creating links that show the products I’m referring to in my blog.
  12. iStockphoto Many of the images you see on Social Signal began life on iStockphoto, a low-cost source of online images. Sure, you could snag images for free on Google Image seach, but when you do, you stand a good chance of infringing on somebody’s copyright. Buy your snaps on iStockphoto, where $1 gets you a good-enough-for-the-web photo, and you know that your photo is cleared for online use.
  13. Skitch If you blog, you likely include images or screenshots in your posts on a semi-regular basis. Skitch is my tool of choice for getting those online; it lets you do quick screen grabs (including grabs of images you’ve downloaded or created) and then upload them to a web server that makes it easy to drop them into a blog post. Mac users only, I’m afraid.
  14. Zemanta Another friend to the frequent blogger is Zemanta, which you can install on your blog or run as a Firefox extension. It uses your draft post to generate suggested links, automatically hyperlink relevant keywords (if you choose) and insert links to related material into the bottom of your post. If you hook it up to your Amazon associates account it will also turn relevant product mentions into Amazon links with your associate ID.
  15. Evernote Writing for multiple blogs or networks means keeping a running list of potential blog posts, notes, and drafts. For a long time my prospective posts lived in VoodooPad; now I keep them in Evernote, where they’re accessible via web and on my iPhone.
  16. Blog reading and aggregation

    Many of the tools I recommended in 2005 were focused on tracking the fast-growing world of blogs. Today, less of my attention is focused on reading individual blogs, and more of it goes to specific social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

  17. RSS I’m still a huge fan of RSS, but I hardly ever use it to read blogs. Now that so many web sites publish RSS feeds — everything from blogs to news sites to task managers — RSS has become less about news and more about getting the information I want, where I want it. And where do I want it?….
  18. iGoogle My personalized Google homepage — a.k.a. iGoogle — has replaced Bloglines and Google Reader in my affections. Yes, I still maintain a Google Reader account (I imported my Bloglines feeds into Google eons ago) but once I subscribed to a few hundred feeds, I found the mountain of unread posts of Google Reader to be so daunting that I stopped visiting. Instead, I set up an iGoogle homepage that is my browser’s default page — that means that whenever I launch a new browser window, I see the latest posts on my iGoogle page. It’s titles only, but it’s enough to keep me up-to-date on top news stories, and about anything that gets posted online about me, Rob, or Social Signal. I’ll post a more detailed look at my iGoogle setup soon.
  19. Google Blog Search Until recently, Technorati was still my tool of choice for searching blogs and social networks, and subscribing to search-based RSS feeds. But Technorati has missed a lot of what I’m looking for, so I’ve switched to Google’s Blog Search instead. I also recommend the RSS feeds in Google news for tracking mentions in print or broadcast media.
  20. Twitter These days, at least 75% of my blog-reading is driven by links I stumble across on Twitter. The people I follow offer a consistently interesting and relevant selection of links — far more than I have time to read. Twitter is also a great source of inspiration for blog posts I write myself, whether it’s a matter of responding to an interesting Twitter thread, or expanding on one of my own Tweets. You can find more tips on specific Twitter tools here.
  21. delicious Even in the era of Twitter, delicious remains a key part of my online experience. It’s still my tool of choice for storing anything I might want to refer to again, and with its now-large user base, it’s often my next stop when a Google search yields a sea of meaningless results. Search the words “social media marketing” in Google, and you get a mix of Wikipedia entries and SEO-engineered hits; look up social+media+marketing on delicious, and you see only the links that someone actually found worthwhile.

Then and now

It’s not a coincidence that my 2005 post was tool-focused. Them were the early days of social media — in fact the phrase had yet to be coined! — and finding useful, user-friendly tools was key to engaging in the still-new world of online conversation.

I still love testing and reviewing social media tools, and I’m not above the occasional impassioned debate over the relative merits of different blogging platforms. But 2009 offers many more tools, most of them far more user-friendly than what was around four years ago. It’s no longer about finding tools that let you engage online; it’s about making choices that let you engage meaningfully.

And meaningful engagement gets harder — and easier — all the time. Harder in that the volume of conversation, and increasing expectations of connectivity, places more and more demand on our time and attention. Harder in that a world of 500+ buddy lists muddies our thinking about what friendship means, and which relationships are important. Harder because as we post more and more often, our posts contribute less and less — unless we take the time to think about what we’re saying, who we’re saying it to, and why we’re saying it.

That’s the part that tools can make easier, if we use them thoughtfully and with care. No wonder this post refers to almost twice as many tools as I recommended four years ago; it takes a more powerful toolbox to keep my time and attention focused and organized. But each and every one of the tools I’ve mentioned has helped me spend my time online in a more deliberate and effective way, for the purpose that matters most to me: connecting with real people.

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