Tag Archives: Blogs

WordPress MU 2.9.1

We’ve just upgraded to the latest version of WordPress MU – the system that powered blogs.edgehill.ac.uk. You can see that latest features in this video:

http://wordpress.tv/2009/12/21/introducing-wordpress-2-9-%E2%80%93-carmen/

That video was embedded using one of the coolest new features in WordPress 2.9.1 – oEmbed. oEmbed is a way of websites sharing information about how content should be included in a page. Instead of having to copy any paste complicated HTML such as this:

<object width="425" height="339">
<param name="movie" value="http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/swf/flvplayer/player_flv_maxi.swf"></param>
<param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param>
<param name="flashvars" value="configxml=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.edgehill.ac.uk%2Fvideo%2F psychology%2Fxml%2Fembed"></param>
<embed src="http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/swf/flvplayer/player_flv_maxi.swf" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="339" flashvars="configxml=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.edgehill.ac.uk%2Fvideo%2F psychology%2Fxml%2Fembed"></embed>
</object>

We can instead just paste the URL onto a blank line in the post. oEmbed is supported right now by many popular websites such as Flickr and YouTube. We’ve also added oEmbed support to our own video streaming platform. Since we’re not one of the popular video sharing sites embedding our videos doesn’t work out of the box with WordPress but we’ve enabled it for our site. Here’s what it will look like:

http://www.edgehill.ac.uk/video/psychology

Implementing oEmbed was fairly easy so keep an eye out for it on other content we publish.

125 by 125

Do you ever have really great ideas that on second thoughts are incredibly stupid?  Yeah, I have them all the time but usually I’m sensible enough not to tell anyone about them.  A month ago I was caught out by an email from Corporate Marketing Communications and Student Recruitment asking what people are doing for the anniversary celebrations.  I had a flash of inspiration and fired off a reply:

I’ll do something with Twitter or a blog for 125, maybe similar to the 365 projects that people do – one photo per day for 125 days.

It was that quick.  Fast forward 30 days and I’m starting to think that was a really, really stupid suggestion.  Writing 25 posts across the whole team has been difficult enough so what am I playing at committing to posting every day for four months?!

If I’m going to have any chance of making this work I’m going to a) need help and b) make it simple, so give me your ideas, people!  My initial thought was to raid the archives, take a load of photos and just post them rather than having to write lots for each day – that way I could spend an hour or two every couple of weeks and schedule ahead.  I could also broaden it out and persuade other people to blog or highlights from some of the 125 events happening on campus.

Picking things that might be of interest is also important – I’m not doing this for myself – so what would you like to see?  Post your comments below!

A load of “Gobbledigook” from an online form

You have Spam!

Web content editors, designers and developers have all worked hard to make their website interesting, attractive and functional.

A lot of time and money is spent promoting the website. People find the website talk about it and link to it from their website, blog, wiki, bulletin board ect.

Search engines then trawl through the internet looking for links and keywords (among other things). The more links the search engine finds the more interesting the target website must be (all these people linking to it, it must be good)

The search engine goes away tots up all the scores. The one with the most incoming links is the winner. They will be at the top of the search engine ranking for that month (Its not really that simple but I think this is basically what the spammers tell their clients).

The Gobbledigook you receive from the form submission always contains links to websites. The spammer is not trying to get you to click the link. Spammer wanted a link published on a website by filling in a form that would update the blog, wiki ect. Spammer is trying to get as many links as possible pointing at the clients website, increasing the site’s search engine ranking. The results can then lead to the site being listed ahead of other sites for certain searches, increasing the number of potential visitors and paying customers.

How is it done?

A computer programme is used this searches for publicly accessible forms. Once a form is found it adds content into all text fields, a non existent email address into the email field and HTML containing a link into the text area field usually comment, content or message field.

All websites that accept content via a form are at risk of receiving spam via their forms.

Solutions

Disallowing multiple consecutive submissions
Spammers often reply to their own comments. Checking that the users IP address is not replying to a user of the same IP address would help reduce the spam flooding our in boxes.
This however proves problematic when multiple users, behind the same proxy, wish to submit the same form which is quite often the case here.

Blocking by keyword
Spammers have to use relevant and readable keywords so the search engines can index them effectively
Spam could be reduced by blocking the keywords they use simply banning names of casino games, popular pharmaceuticals and certain body enhancements.

Drawback the list could be quite extensive and would have to be maintained.

CAPTCHA
Is a method used to display an automatically generated image of a combination of numbers and letters. The user then enters the letters in to a text field to validate the form.
A computer programme can not read the image and the form will not validate.

Drawbacks sometimes difficult to read and the form needs to be refreshed or submitted several times before you get a readable image.
This system can prove difficult or impossible for the visually impaired who rely on screen readers. Providing an audio version of the characters can resolve this.

CSS
Use CSS to hide a text field. A programme will find the field enter data our validation checks the field if it contains data the submit fails.

Drawback if a screen reader is used it will find the form filed and ask for data the form will then fail validation.

Distributed Solutions
Originally developed for use on blogs but now most form data can be submitted to one of the services.
When a user submits a form the content is sent to one of the services. The content is then filtered. The service looks for links and keywords it also compares the content against a database of known spam content already submitted. The content is then given a score and sent back to your server. The server then accepts,flags or rejects the content based on the values you set.
Akismet, Defensio, Mollom are some of the web based distributed services.

Drawback Valid users can be blocked. If a user is wrongly flagged as being a spammer it can be difficult for that user to post data to websites using the same service.

Google Wave is coming soon! – Part I

Google Wave was launched on the 28th May, 2009 at the ‘Google’s I/O Developer conference’ in San Francisco. It has been developed by a team working in Sydney, Australia. Which consist of two brothers, Jens and Lars Rasmussen and has Stephanie Hannon as the lead project manager, all of whom were previously involved in Google Maps.

What it is Google Wave?

It is a new platform for communication and collaboration on the web in real time coming later this year. I can’t wait!

It is based on a “Wave”, a different way to communicate by integrating many of the tools we are currently using such as email, maps, videos, photos, blogs and chats in just one interface. So, we can create a wave and invite our collaborators to join the conversation by giving them access to send simple messages and edit the wave directly. Truly Impressive.

It combines some of people’s favourite aspects of email, instant messaging, wikis, blogs, chats, projects and social networks. There’s even a twitter client (Twave robot) – you can tweet into and out of a wave!

Google Wave interface

The following are few of the cool features from the demo:

  • Real Time: Drop photos onto a wave and see the thumbnails appear on the other person’s machine before the full upload is finished. Just watch the demo to view this
  • Embeddability: The waves can be embedded in any blog or site
  • Drag and Drop: Wave lets you drag and drop files directly onto its interface
  • googlewave1editdoc

  • Open Source, Applications and extensions: With open APIs developers will be able to create different applications for the waves. There will be plenty volunteers.
    The API has been used to build a bunch of cool extensions such as:
    • Bloggy, a blog client, lets you make a blog post as a wave
    • Linky is a link-recognition engine that is clever enough to recognize that the link you just entered is a YouTube video
    • Buggy, a bug-reporting tool that can also be a participant in a wave
    • Bidder, You can turn a wave into your own eBay
  • Wiki Functionality: anything within the Google Wave can be edited by other members
  • Playback: We will able to reproduce any part of the wave to keep track of what is being said or done and to see how it evolved
  • Translation: Wave has the capacity of autocorrecting and translating in real time, which allows collaborative work among people that don’t share the same language
  • Spell Checker: an extension called Spelly which uses the entire corpus of the web as its dictionary

googlewave4spelling

Google Wave is promising to change the scope in: Education, e-learning, collaborative projects, companies and organizations, as it can be the most popular tool to create Personal Learning Environment or Personal Learning Networks.

Could Google Wave really redefine web communication? We’re going to have to wait a while though to find out, as this product is still under development. Right now it’s only available to a select group of developers who attended Google I/O conference and have an account to create their own Wave servers. I’m sure there will a lot of articles on the web keeping us informed of the development process, pros and cons.

If you want to find out more about Google Wave, allow yourself some time to watch the full demo, then you will be able to understand why people are extremely excited.


Happy 2nd Birthday Web Services Blog

Happy Birthday

Today is the second birthday of the Web Services blog! Is it really a year since the last birthday and two years since Alison’s first post?!  Yes, it really is.

The frequency of posts has dropped off in the last year – we’ve crept up to 201 posts – but we’ve still covered a lot. Here’s a few of the bigger topics:

So a busy year, and that barely compares to what’s coming up.  We’re in the middle of redeveloping Faculty and Department websites, starting with the Department of Magic.  In the last few months we have given GO a facelift, ready for new features and integration of the staff intranet.

Interesting times ahead, so keep reading for the next year in the life of the Web Services blog.

Get the most of your twitter experience

I know there are a lot of sites and blogs talking about the twitter phenomenon and I don’t intend to turn our Web Services blog into a Twitter blog. Just take a look at this sites and tools for getting the most out of your twitter experience:


Twitter Tools to optimize your twitter service:

twhirl desktop application
Twhirl: one of the most popular desktop applications, which allow you to synchronize to multiple services like Twitter, laconi.ca, Friendfeed and Seesmic. It’s worth it to take a look. Love it!

Twitterdeck: is a real-time desktop that allows users to monitor that information in a single concise view. TweetDeck currently integrates services from Twitter, Twitscoop, 12seconds, Stocktwits and now Facebook .

Twitpic: this service allows you share photos on Twitter from you mobile phone.

Twitterrific: Mac’s desktop application, recommended for iPhone.

There are more sites related to Twitter that allow you know more about interacting with the services, the users, statistics and much more:

  • FutureTweets: a free service that lets you schedule your Twitter messages.
  • Search.twitter: search that explores Twitter services allowing you to find subjects of interest.
  • Twitterratio: is the ratio of your followers to friends (or people who you follow). It is measured with the TFF Ratio (Twitter Follower-Friend Ratio). The higher the ratio, the more Twitter heat you pack. Try it!
  • Twitag: Twitag is a #tag finder, that facilitates and organizes the most recent content tagged by users.
  • Tweetrush: a service that aims to provide estimated stats on Twitter usage over a period of time. I need to tweet more.
  • TwitPickr: publish your photos from TwitPic directly in to your Flickr account.

I thing this is enough to give you more control over your experience using Twitter. Enjoy it!

Janeth

Twitter Part 3: Into the real world

TwitterAfter a short break from blogging while we finished off the redesigned website I’m back with the third and probably final part of my guide to Twitter.

It’s a fast moving world and since the last post, Twitter have stopped delivery of SMS to UK mobiles:

Let’s start with the bad news. Beginning today, Twitter is no longer delivering outbound SMS over our UK number. If you have been receiving SMS updates from Twitter via +44 762 480 1423, you’ll notice that they’ve stopped and you may want to explore some of the alternatives we’re suggesting.

Despite the title of the post, there is no good news for UK users! You can still send updates by SMS, which is quite useful for those “oh my God, I just saw a monkey run down the street” moments, but no longer can you make it seem like you’ve got friends by activating a stream of messages to your phone.

They suggest some alternatives which all rely on having data on your phone that’s not over priced – maybe it’s time to look into an iPhone after all! There’s also been a flurry of announcements from third parties who are readying to launch services to deliver tweets by SMS. These services appear to be around the 7p per message mark which IMHO is too expensive – I know first hand how much texts cost in bulk and this is a significant markup!

There’s a variety of other issues around this – these services will probably require you hand over your username and password which should be a practice that’s discouraged and Twitter don’t have any way of grouping or categorising your contacts. If I was going to pay to receive notifications I’d want more control over how many messages I receive from which people including the ability to differentiate between direct messages, @-messages and “noise”.

Anyway, back to the point of this post – how Twitter can impact on the real world. I’m going to cover a few examples of how Twitter has gone beyond virtual interactions.

Engaging with your community

One of the first things that brought home to me that services like Twitter have real uses was unrequested support from my ISP, PlusNet. I tweeted about some trouble I was having with my connection and within a few hours someone responded saying they were following up my problem. And I’m not the only one who’s found this:

Many other companies actively search for references to their products and services on Twitter as well as more generally online. Done well, it can be very good PR as well as improving the experience of users – everyone can see that you’re actively trying to solve problems.

Asking for help

Once you’ve built up a bit of a following, it’s time to start using them! Asking questions or inviting feedback about ideas can give you very quick results. It can also be a good way to expand your network – followers of followers will see the @-replies and maybe if it’s interesting will follow up the original question.

Conferences

One of the best uses of twitter I’ve found is acting as a supplementary back-channel for conferences. Either live blogging the event or just making contact with other participants, Twitter can connect people online in a physical location. At IWMW a significant number of people were Twittering – you can see the full list of posts referencing #iwmw2008 or @iwmw2008 through search.twitter.com.

I’d planned to write a bit more on the topic but I’ve broken the golden rule of blogging:

Never leave a post in draft for more than 48 hours

One final thing I will add is a note about sustainability. There’s a lot of questions about the reliability of Twitter (the feared “fail whale”), users outside US/Canada/India have complained about the switch off of SMS, and it’s a relatively closed system. So many people suggest alternatives – Jaiku (now owned by Google), identi.ca which claims to be an open, decentralised system and a variety of “life straming” services which build on the simple microblogging offered by Twitter but all have one key thing missing – people. No other services can match the range of contacts that can be found there and that’s what makes it so appealing.

Twitter Part 2: Bringing order to chaos

TwitterLast time I covered getting started with Twitter, building your network of contacts and interacting with others. This time I’m going to discuss some ways to manage your Twitter subscriptions and discover tweets about topics you’re interested in.

The easiest way to use Twitter is to login to the website to read and post messages. The web interface provides a way to see replies, search for people and send and receive direct messages. This works fine for general use but you have to remember to check for new messages on a regular basis. It would be better if messages came to you, which is exactly what you can do with an SMS gateway.

This frree service, operated by Twitter themselves, lets you link a mobile phone number to your account and have messages sent directly to your phone by text message. You can choose to have only selected users’ messages sent by SMS, restrict the hours of the day messages are delivered and you can even send messages to Twitter by SMS. There’s a limit of 250 messages per week so if you follow more than a handful of people you’ll want to limit which users you’re subscribed to.

SMS isn’t the a perfect solution though – it can be quite intrusive and best reserved for people who you’re really interested in. Twitter used to allow you to connect your account to an Instant Messaging system such as Live Messenger or an XMPP-compatible service (which include Google Talk and our own go.talk). Unfortunately in the struggle to cope with growing numbers, Instant Messaging gateways have been turned off. Fear not, because there’s an even better way to work with Twitter!

TwhirlTwhirl is one of many applications designed specifically for managing your Twitter accounts. There are many such programs for different operating systems and even some more advanced mobile phones. Generally though, they plug into the Twitter API and offer access to most of the features available through the Twitter website and often many more.

The Twhirl window is a bit like a combination of the friend list and message windows from a normal IM program. New messages appear at the top and you can post messages. Username, hashtags and messages are hyperlinked to give you more information and offer access to functions without over cluttering the interface.

I mentioned hashtags, so what are they? Hashtags are keywords put into messages starting with a hash (#) and used to identify a topic for that message. The major drive behind the adoption of them was the Hashtags.org website which required you follow the hashtags user in order for your tweets to be shown on the website. It’s still worth doing this but there’s a better way of tracking hashtags which isn’t reliant on opting in.

Usage of the hashtag syntax is very common but certainly not universal. It’s useful for keeping track of certain topics and allowing your followers to pick out at an instant what it relates to. One of the most common uses is in conferences where the hashtag creates a way of finding other people twittering. At the Institutional Web Management Workshop the tag #iwmw2008 was used and in some ways this was more useful than the official live blog service. I’m going to come back to conferences next time as the use of Twitter in the Real World deserves more attention.

For someone new to Twitter, the idea of hashtags might seem a little odd – why wouldn’t you just search for the topic you’re interested in rather than relying on an obscure opt-in service? The search box at the top of the Twitter site would (mis-) lead you to think you could bang in some keywords and get back useful results! No? Of course not – the search system on the main site is next to useless!

Fortunately the clever people at Summize had the solution and have developed a real-time search engine for Twitter messages. This is really neat work (far more impressive than Twitter itself IMHO) – so neat in fact that last month Summize was bought by Twitter and integrated to become search.twitter.com. Twitter Search is fantastically easy to use yet very powerful.

At its most simple, put keywords in and it’ll give you results back but you can also use it to search for replies, hashtags, limited by date and much more. The service is really quick and it even has some Ajax goodness which tells you when there’s new results matching your search without having to keep reloading the page. Best of all, if you’re a feed-nut, you can subscribe to any query as an RSS feed so you’ll not miss a tweet!

Twitter Search is a great way of finding people or topics of interest and next time I’ll cover some real world ways to use it!

Twitter Part 1: What are you doing?

I’ve been threatening promising to blog again about Twitter. I’ve posted before introducing Twitter so this time I’ll go into a bit more detail about some uses that maybe aren’t immediately apparent.

When I was writing this I thought I’ll ask my followers for a bit of help:

Drafting a blog post about Twitter for @edgehill Web Services blog. Can anyone suggest good “getting started” pages to link to?

Within minutes a few suggestions came in to show Twitter in Plain English by Common Craft:

I included this last time I blogged about Twitter but it shows really clearly how to get started – just sign up, search for a few people, start “following” them and answer the question “What are you doing?”

Another suggestion led me to a great series of posts over on Search Engine Guide by Jennifer Laycock titled From Twits to Tweeple, Why I Embraced Twitter and You Should Too which introduces Twitter and is much more instructional than I’m going to be so check that out as well.

Here’s my thoughts on getting started with Twitter:

Dive right in. I think it’s important to start tweeting right away. You could try to grow your network first, “lurking” while you get to know people, but as ProBlogger Darren Rowse puts it:

Your Tweets are your best advertisement for people to follow you – if you don’t have any (or many) what reason do people have to follow you?

Follow the leader. When you first sign up for Twitter, the empty list can be a bit underwhelming so you need to do something about that and start following people. You might already know a couple of people who use Twitter (me for example!), or search for people you think might use it. This can be a bit hit and miss so you might want to grow your own network. Start by looking at who your friends follow. Likewise, if someone starts following you, then follow them back (providing they don’t look like spammers – thousands of “friends” but few followers). Soon you should start getting a steady stream of tweets from your friends.

Get interactive. Twitter is more than just about posting your status and watching what other people say, it’s more conversational than that. Pretty soon you’ll start to notice tweets cotaining @ signs. These are messages aimed at a particular user and show up in a special area for that user. To aim one at me, for example you’d include @MikeNolan – it doesn’t matter where in the message it goes. These are often called “replies” and they link to the last tweet from the target user, but often messages don’t relate to that message.

Replies are public so they’re a great way of finding people who are of interest – look out for people your friends are talking to. Twitter can also send direct messages which are private, but this is only possible if you both follow each other.

A quick aside on the nature of “friendship”… I came across this amusing tweet:

Twitter says I have close to 200 friends. Yet not one of you slack ass [expletive removed] has shown up to help us move. Some “friends” you are!

That’s enough to get you going with Twitter. Next time I’m going to go into more detail about using Twitter in different situations.