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April 7, 2011
A couple of years ago if you had asked me about that whole “social media” thing I would have told you that it was a cute little thing the non-geeks use to pass the day away. In the internet world, I am an old web dog who has been coding websites for over fifteen years so I had no need for that social stuff. When I wanted a blog, in 1998, I built it from scratch. When I wanted a family photo album, a decade ago, I programmed the database to do it. Have fun playing Farmville, folks, while I do “real” web work, okay? But then a good friend showed me how wrong I was.
Sure, I knew how much the kids (even the middle-aged ones) loved social media and how it allowed anyone to post a story, share a video or build a survey with a few mouse clicks. The number of sites out there that fall into the “social media” definition is overwhelming and seemingly everyone is collecting their favorites and spending their free hours on them every day. opens in a new windowhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_social_networking_websites
Aside from trying it out and learning the ropes I generally categorized that as something for everyone else. I program my own sites because we have an emotional and technological investment in this existing infrastructure built around an online identity we have developed for years. The information we are posting also needs to be under our control and handled the way we want it to. Clearly, social media is not for us.
My friend and programming partner on the other side of the country, Ryan Deeds, started explaining to me what I am missing by ignoring this online phenomenon. The world wants to access posts through the key blogging networks so it interfaces with the tools they use every day. They want to access pictures through the major picture databases so they can select favorites and view photos on their WiFi picture frames. For content creators, these tools have features for adding new information and backing it up that would take us countless hours to create on our own. Why create my own backup system for my SQL Server, ASP, DotNetNuke or Drupal site when these developers have already coded it for us?
Ryan brought online his own site connecting to Twitter accounts so that users could not only access the information (and continue to track them) with a click of a button, but it also allowed all of us to communicate and get to know each other better. One simple little piece of code allowed his existing website to integrate with the outside world, saving everyone from having to create yet another login or type in a silly verification code while also allowing us to discover each other. It was such a simple yet brilliant concept that I spent the entire weekend kicking myself for not thinking of it first.
With Ryan’s advice, I started playing around with Flickr, an online picture database. Then it an afternoon “Doh!” moment the light in my brain switched on. Why use my own database infrastructure and limit my editing and access to my own code when I can use Flickr and simply build their code into my own site? A couple of days later I had transformed my family website where all of the pictures are connecting to our Flickr Photostream and displaying them in through HTML and a Flash engine. Suddenly my visitors can comment on pictures, mark their favorites, access them through countless devices and we can add photos directly from my phone. Best of all, I suddenly do not need to worry about coding pages for taking various picture forms, backing up databases, connecting with an ISP that can hold all of that data since Flickr did it all for me.
Why stop there? I started to wonder about my personal blog site and why I am maintaining my own infrastructure. Why not use Blogger as the back end pointing to my own design so visitors can organize the information, pull it in an RSS feed, comment on stories and then I could maintain them with the countless tools they make available. Suddenly I can upload a blog entry, have it automatically send out a Twitter entry for me while connecting to the photos and videos I want directly from my cell phone. My audience can subscribe to my submissions, organize favorites from all the blogs they follow and comment on the items without needing to create a login or type in a verification code. All I have to give is a minimal amount of coding and an open mind.
It has been a wonderful learning experience seeing that you can continue to have your own website design but get all of the benefits of these sites with relative ease. If you have a publicly facing website with a local database of photos or where you are coding your own polls or perhaps maintaining stories or other content, it is time to consider using a social media site as your base infrastructure. All it takes is a little creative thinking and you can harness the power of these third-party tools while you continue to keep the web presence and end the day with a more vibrant and popular destination for everyone to use. Trust me, if this old web dog can make it work then you can as well.