The Power of Twitter and RSS
(or, How to Make Coosa50.org Work for You)

by Chris Brightwell on May 1, 2009

Since launching this website more than a year ago, we’ve been focused squarely on finding ways to make this the best information resource possible for members, candidates, visitors, and friends.  For the most part, I feel like we’ve accomplished that.  We still have a few gaps to fill in (ex: Forms and Publications), but I feel that we’ve come a long way in the last year and that this is one of the best lodge websites on the ‘net.

However, among all of the sophisticated technology under the hood of this website, there are two features here that are vastly under-utilized: Our extensive use of RSS feeds and our integration with Twitter.  These are technologies that I use everyday, and thoroughly understand, but they’re also technologies that I take for granted.  With that, I want to take some time to help you understand these features and find ways to put them to work for you.

The first technology that is under-utilized here is our RSS feed. RSS (or “Really Simple Syndication”) is a technology that allows us to publish our updated content (we use it mainly for news updates) in a standardized format.  This is a useful way for content providers (that’s us) to make information more accessible to our users (that’s you).

The basic idea is this:  When I (or anyone else) add a news update to this website, we’re hoping that people will come by in the next day or so and read it.  There’s no way for us to send emails or anything to everyone who visits to let them know that we’ve posted a news update.  If our users start subscribing to our RSS feed, however, they’ll see the news item in their RSS reader (of which there are many) as soon as it’s published.  This will help greatly reduce the delay between us posting something and you reading it.

(Yes, we do have an email distribution system that we’ve been testing, but it’s not perfect.  It requires someone to login, write the email, and send it.  It also requires everyone we know to keep an up-to-date email address in our database, allowing us to actually get the message to you.  Using RSS is simpler, faster, and more automatic.)

This isn’t a feature exclusive to our site, either.   Most of the popular sites on the net (from CNN.com and FoxNews.com to Flickr, YouTube, and more) utilize this technology to share content with their users as quickly and easily as possible.  Just look for the standard RSS icon (it looks like this: RSS Icon) and you’ll know that you’re on a site that uses the same technology to make its content available to you.

What does this mean?  In short, it means that you can stop visiting a dozen sites every day to get the latest news and information, but instead read the headlines and articles from those sites all in one place: in your RSS reader.  Most users find that they spend less time to read more information and stay more up-to-date than they ever thought possible.

The good news is that most of you already have a very capable RSS client (also called an “RSS reader” or “RSS aggregator”) on your computer.  The latest versions of Internet Explorer, Outlook, Firefox, Apple Mail, and Gmail all have built-in RSS readers.

Here are some links with information on common RSS clients:

There are literally dozens of other RSS clients available.  For a basic comparison of RSS clients, please review this article on Wikipedia.

If your particular RSS client needs our RSS URI (or URL), this is it: http://feeds2.feedburner.com/coosalodge

The other technology that is under-utilized here is our Twitter network. Twitter is a “micro-blogging” network which allows users to send short messages, of 140 characters or less, to their followers (other Twitter users).  We automatically publish our news headlines to our Twitter feed, but we’ll be able to use it in the future to share information on breaking news, weather forecasts, meeting information, and more.

Twitter seems to be the latest tech buzzword, but we’ve been using it here on Coosa50.org since August 2008.  For the younger members of our audience (think “under 25”), Twitter is pretty intuitive. For some of us, it’s as simple as saying, “Twitter is like SMS (or cell phone text messaging) for the internet.”

For the rest of us, it takes a little bit of explaining.

The basic premise is pretty simple:  You sign up for an account, connect to your friends (you follow them, they follow you), and you answer a simple question:  “What are you doing?”.  You can also respond directly to your friends, send private messages, post photos, share links, and all sorts of other things.  The basic idea, however, is still as simple as sending and receiving short messages (called “tweets”) of 140 characters or less.

To get started, head over to twitter.com, sign up for an account, and follow us (via @coosalodge).  While you’re there, you might want to also follow @1bsa and @gacscoutexec.

For a good introduction to Twitter, visit this link: “What is Twitter?”.

Currently, we use Twitter for basic things like sharing links to new or updated website content (news entries, updated forms, etc.) or rebroadcasting council-wide announcements.  We’re not doing much with it, but we have dreams of using it for so much more.

One of the most powerful features of Twitter, however, is the ability to have some or all of your friends’ updates sent to your cell phone.  All you have to do is take a few minutes to register and verify your cell phone number, then you use the Twitter website to determine which users’ updates should be sent to your phone.

This then allows us to share short bursts of information with you, almost instantaneously.  For example:

  • Suppose we’re at NOAC and severe weather is moving in.  We’d hope that the NOAC staff is ready to distribute that sort of information, but we would be able to send a short Twitter message (ex. “Tornado Watch for the NOAC area until 4pm.  Stay safe!”) to our contingent and keep them informed.
  • Perhaps, instead, we have some late-breaking news for Conclave or an Ordeal, but it’s 5pm and we can safely assume that most folks are on the road, en route to camp.  In addition to posting that information to the website, we’d be able to send out a short message to Twitter (which would forward it to your phone) while you’re on your way.  This might save you a trip back into town, for example.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Twitter is another example of how our youth are communicating with each other.  They generally don’t talk on the phone or send email.  Instead, they use sites like Facebook and Twitter, they use lots of SMS messages (sometimes thousands in a single month), and they use services like AOL Instant Messenger (or “AIM”).

At the end of the day, here’s the idea: As a lodge, we have a presence on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.  We use RSS to syndicate our news, which makes it easier for you to receive.  We do this (and much more) to make this site and its content more useful and more accessible to you and your unit, but we also do it because we know that the face of communication on the internet is changing.

If you have any questions, want to share any comments, or know of a unique and useful technology that we aren’t embracing, please feel free to send me an email (chris@coosashows.net) or leave a comment on this entry.

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