Idea Factory: Scanner Blog Network

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As part of my efforts to become more “connected” with others around me (see here, and here), I’ve been a bit more active on twitter lately @maverickstruth — trying to actually (gasp!) converse and connect with people when I’m able.

The other day, I caught this tweet from @BarbaraSher:

Scanners, let’s talk here at #R2C (Refuse to Choose and don’t make me say that again) 😉 (I’m not entirely sure I understand hashtags yet)

Suffice it to say, Barbara and others managed to understand hashtags well enough to get some conversation going. One of the first things I suggested was a blog exchange — specifically amongst those of us who have “scanner stories”. My contribution was, of course, A Scanner’s Journey.

Christy, a fellow scanner who blogs over at More than Mommy noticed the post, and came up with the interesting suggestion that maybe we ought to have a scanner “blog network” so all of us blogging scanners can connect with each other. That really piqued my interest, and so I’ve spent a bit of time figuring out the different ways that could happen.

So, without further ado … the Idea Factory of a Scanner Blog Network. Here’s some of my ideas on ways to go about creating such a network.

1. Formal Blog Network

If you’re not familiar with blog networks, a great place to start is with 9rules, a massive blog community covering a huge number of topics.

Basically, a formal blog network typically has a main page where latest posts from all the member blogs are listed in one aggregated place. Members have profiles and gain exposure from the traffic from network pages, and there is often a forum or conversation mechanism for all the people of the blog network to converse and keep up with each other.

Often blogs can be categorized into one category or another — although for scanners who write on a number of topics, this may not be all that appropriate! Some blog networks also allow people to submit their favorite or best posts to the site, for featuring and cross-posting.

Pros: This is probably best option for aggregating traffic, as it provides a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to read the writings (and ramblings) of scanners. Easiest for scanners to add their blogs — just sign up and go — and the added bonus of having a community feel with discussion areas, etc.

Cons: A fair amount of overhead to set up and maintain. Needs someone to take the lead on administrating (not hard if you know how to do it, but it really needs to be a labour of love if you’re going to do it for free!).

Options: Could do something like a lens on Squidoo to facilitate this, or if we really wanted to get fancy, set up an actual software platform to facilitate the network (WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, etc. all could work for this).

2. Informal Blog Network (Blog Rings)

Before there were blog network “hub” sites, there were blog rings. A blog ring is basically a way to connect a circle of blogs together.

Usually, each blog in the ring adds a piece of code to their website (a widget) which automatically hooks the blog into the “ring”. Visitors to one blog canthen navigate through to other blogs in the ring, eventually working their way through the whole community.

Pros: Pretty easy to set-up, you just need someone to create the ring at a place like RingSurf, and then anyone who wants to be a member of the ring can just hook into it. Knowledge of how to copy-paste HTML code is typically needed. No need for administration; once the ring is set-up, it works all on its own.

Cons: It can be difficult to keep inappropriate sites out of the ring. Usually requires basic HTML knowledge to implement on individual sites. Can’t just browse through all of the sites in the ring at once — you have to go through them one at a time, and hope that you come across something helpful/interesting.

Options: RingSurf is the defacto leader in this field; I’m not familiar with other options, but I know they’re out there.

3. Link Exchanges

The most basic form of networking, this one is incumbent on each blogger to get in touch with other bloggers, and post links to each others’ blogs on their respective websites. Basically, this is a specialized form of a blogroll, where typically only links that are reciprocated are posted.

Pros: Most blogging platforms have a built-in blogroll option, so all that an individual blogger has to do is add links to sites. There is no centralized “hub” for blogs, so no administration is needed.

Cons: Link exchanges depend on the individual bloggers asking for links from others, and then posting links on their own site. Because there’s no centralization, there’s no guarantee that all blogs in the network will be connected to each other — in fact, what usually happens is a core set of blogs are connected all over the place, and the rest are left with limited links. Can be hard to “discover” new bloggers.

Options: This is the fastest option to implement, as it only requires scanners to get in touch with each other and ask for links to be swapped. Can be done by individual bloggers, no need for a centralized set of “options”.

4. Guest Posts and/or Blog Carnivals

Often useful in connection with any of the other three options, guest posts and blog carnivals are a good way of driving visitors from one site to another.

Guest posts are exactly what they sound like — one blogger offers to write content for another blogger’s site. This is a very common practice in the blog world.

A blog carnival is an organized effort by a number of bloggers to all post on a similar topic at the same time (in the same week, for example), and then at the end, post an article linking to all of the other posts in the carnival.

Pros: Easy to combine with any of the other options, allows exposure to other scanner’s blogs quickly and easily.  Technically very easy, as it just requires doing what bloggers already do best: writing posts, and posting them.

Cons: Not really a “network” solution, more of a way to let visitors know about some of the other sites out there. Not centralized at all, and doesn’t imply permanent exposure — there’s no sidebar of links prominently displayed at all times, for example. Blog carnivals do require someone to take the lead on setting a topic, timeline, etc.

Options: Guest posts, like link exchanges, happen between individual bloggers.  Blog carnivals are usually set up using a tool like BlogCarnival.

Alright scanners, what do you think? Do any of the options above sound interesting to you? Leave a comment if you have any ideas of your own — or if you see something you like, feel free to take the idea and run with it!

Weekly Reads: Connecting Edition

Despite what you may think if you only know me from my blog, I actually am not a terribly social person. It’s not that I find it hard to make that initial connection with people, but that in the past, I just haven’t really gone beyond that. In some cases, I would go so far as to completely avoid opportunities to “get to know someone” more in-depth — whether it be making excuses to not join in on some activity or not keeping up with connections I had previously made.

For whatever reason(s), though, that has begun to change. Take this weekend for example. Normally, if you were to ask me if I had plans for the weekend, I would come up with something like “not really” or “going grocery shopping”. You know, real ‘connection’ stuff. However, this weekend, I not only went grocery shopping to the farmer’s market, but I’ve also got plans for lunch with some extended family. And later this week, I’m meeting a friend from university to catch up. So maybe I’m learning a thing or two.

It has got me thinking about ways to make connections, though. In some ways, my honesty on this blog has I think reflected on my new(ish) search for connections. Similarly, my willingness to try different things, like joining in a family lunch now and then. It will be interesting to see how this progresses.

Anyway, enough of that — now on to the links!

If you would like to pass on anything you think I might be interested in, post the link as a comment to this thread! I’m always looking for new things to explore. Note that comments on this site are moderated, especially if they contain links, so if it doesn’t show up right away, don’t worry!

Made Me Think

Tax-Free Savings Account — How Should We Use It? (from Million Dollar Journey). Canadian savers take note: you’ve probably seen all the commercials on TV from the banks trying to get you to save using their Tax-Free Savings Account (TFSA). While some people are looking at TFSAs as a way to save money for every day, the consensus amongst financial advisors seems to be that it makes more sense to use as a retirement vehicle. So how does it compare to the good old RRSP — and which should you favor when it comes time to planning your retirement?

Clear and Effective Communication in Web Design (from Smashing Magazine). “Clear and effective communication” is important whether you’re involved in web design or not; it just so happens that on the web, there seems to be a lot less of it. As a web designer, I often ran into a problem where my clients just wouldn’t care about their content — so long as the page looked good, that was it. I found this article from Smashing Magazine is a good one from both perspectives: it not only showed the value of clear and effective communication online, but it also showed how you need to be clear and effective in all your communications. Otherwise, you can’t expect others to know where you’re coming from, or where you’re going.

Gay woman fights over hospital visitation rights in Miami court (from The Miami Herald). Let’s put aside the “gay” aspect of this just for a moment. In this case, we have a woman who has power of attorney over medical treatment. She is not allowed to see the patient, nor is kept aprised of her condition. We have three children. They are not allowed to see their mother, who is dying. Does this sound right to you? Why is it that as soon as people hear or see the word “gay” or “lesbian”, simple things (like lawful Power of Attorney) are so simply disregarded? Never mind that the woman was forbidden from seeing the person she loved (and had loved, for seventeen years) on her deathbed. It’s stories like this that remind me that no matter how far we think we’ve come, we’ve still got a long way to go.

“What Next?” The Third Stage of Personal Finance (from Get Rich Slowly). So you’ve paid off your debt, have started saving at something of a higher rate than 0.02%, have set some financial goals, and are living well within your means. Now what? That’s the question that J.D. tackles in this Get Rich Slowly article. It was a good article for me to read, as I find myself bordering on this stage. This part especially resonated with me: “I’m going to write about those times it makes sense to spend — or to invest — for things that make you happy.”  In the search for frugality, let’s not lose sight that ultimately, money is a tool, and it doesn’t do you any good if you refuse to ever use it.

On Music

Auto-Tune: Why Pop Music Sounds Perfect (from Time). I remember in high school, spending time in the recording studio with our vocal jazz group. To this day, there are still some of the recordings I listen to and cringe just a little bit, because I can hear a note here and there that is just not quite on (by myself, of course!). I know that on other occasions, I didn’t miss the note, but when it comes to recording, you often just take the best overall “take” and let the small things through. Or at least, that used to be the way you’d do it. Now, technology has allowed producers to change pitch when it’s not quite right — it’s likened to “photoshop for the human voice.” Strange, but true!

Piano Medley of Mario Tunes (YouTube video). Because I was in a vocal jazz group, I acquired a taste for all sorts of jazz music — from the classics up to the newest stylings. Because I played piano for said group (I sang, too), I acquired an appreciation for jazz pianists and the work that goes in to making all of those individually wierd sounding chords sound fantastic. That’s why I liked this swing-style Mario medley. A neat twist on some familiar tunes. I especially love the “sound effects” (coins, etc.) thrown in.

When Best Practices Aren’t Best

After my big ole rant about “doing things right” the other day, I was swiftly stopped in my tracks by a comment made by Chris Brogan on his blog

Guess what? We’re all doing it wrong. Because we’re all doing it our own way, and it’s not always going to match the way you think it works best. And just like pretty much all of life, we’ll get there somehow. Thanks for sharing your opinion. Glad you got that off your chest.

What?

Hm…

Yeah, okay. I see where he’s coming from, and I see completely where I can be completely guilty of pushing my ideas of “right” onto others. It’s part of my perfectionism — something I know I struggle with, and which can have some seriously detrimental effects.

Is There Such a Thing As Best?

Part of me, though, still can’t shake the belief that there has to be some way of understanding what works best. Even if it’s not my idea, or yours — aren’t there best practices for a reason?

Let’s take an example I encounter every day at work. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a post-secondary institution, developing courseware for students. As part of my job, I interact quite frequently with Learning Designers (also called Instructional Designers) who are dedicated to making sure that the activities we prepare for students will actually help them learn something.

So, for example, if an instructor wanted to teach vocabulary by building a word search, a learning designer might suggest a crossword instead. The reason is fairly intuitive: a word search only focuses on the students’ ability to match letters from the word list to the jumble. A crossword, on the other hand, would focus on the meaning of the word (and its correct spelling).

Learning designers also work on best practices for things like learning styles — not everyone learns best by reading, some learn better by hearing, or by doing, or whatever. There is a tonne of research to support this, and it seems to imply that there are such things as “best” practices.

In my rant, I talked about things like accessibility and usability as being “best practices” for web design and development. This also makes sense intuitively, as it seems apparent that in order to reach the widest audience, we ought not automatically exclude those who (for example) use a screen-reader to browse the web.

Where Do Right Ideas Come From?

So we seem to be back at the point of contradiction that stopped me in my tracks. But then it occurred to me… let’s look again at what Brogan had to say.

And just like pretty much all of life, we’ll get there somehow.

Yep, we will certainly get “there” no matter the approach we take. In a purely literal sense, we’ll all end up dead 😉 But I think what he was getting at is that it doesn’t matter if your blog posts are too long or too short — ultimately, people will read them (or not) based on whether or not they want to read them.

The question is, is this true in all cases?

I think in a lot of cases, people come up with ideas of how to do things the “right way” based on personal experience, speculation and best-guesses. Or, they do things the “right way” because that’s the way they’ve always done it, because it seemed to work, or because that’s what they’ve heard.

In many of those cases, yes, all paths will lead to the same ultimate end. You’ll have a program that works, a blog that people read, a network of friends, or whatever. But I think at the same time, you have to discern between the end result, and the end goal.

Is the End Point Really the Same?

Consider the example of the students who are learning vocabulary via the word search or the crossword. What is the end result? In either case, the students will have an activity which reinforces that particular terms are important. Some students will still pass, others will still fail — and ultimately, the activity will get the students to the end. Same with the web example. The design will still reach people in the end, and the development will still work for getting the information across.

However, a good activity can make it easier on the students. Maybe they can just do the crossword, rather than having to also create flashcards from the list of terms in the word search. A good web design/development will make it easier for the wider audience to hear the message. They won’t need to call someone to find the phone number on your webpage; they would be able to do it themselves.

In many cases, the end point is the same, yes. But what isn’t necessarily the same is the efficiency. All paths may lead to the same outcome, but one may be substantially faster, less painful, more rewarding, etc.

Of course, this isn’t always true. Sometimes (especially when you’re doing things based on anecdotal ideas of “best”), there really isn’t all that much difference between the paths you can take. Sometimes, taking the “not-best” path has some interesting results in-and-of itself — the journey can be just as illuminating as anything.

The key, of course, is to determine what the goal is. Is the goal just to get to the end point, no matter how you get there? Is it to do it quickly and efficiently so you can go home sooner? Is it to make it easier on customers so you make more sales?

When we focus more on the why, the how becomes more clear. In some cases, it may be best to follow “best practices”. In other cases, it may just be a waste of time and effort. Knowing (and foreseeing) the difference is the challenge.