Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Basic tools for online business collaboration

The technology of the Internet, especially all the freely available tools like Twitter and Gmail, are a key part of any business that relies in any way on the Internet, and that involves two or more people to make the business run.

If you're thinking of being an online entrepreneur, or even if you are thinking of working with other people to develop an idea that may one day become a business, you'd be smart to have a handful of tools that are ready to use so that when the idea hits, or when you find one or more collaborators, you can immediately get down to business.

Why go to the trouble of getting these collaboration tools?
Quite simply, these tools allow you to use the Internet to freely share information (as in without restriction and also without cost) with a group of people without letting outsiders see what you are doing or thinking. While you can certainly use email to trade ideas and messages back and forth, the tools mentioned in this article make it easier to share other things like documents, photos, and media files.

What every business needs
Most businesses, even businesses that don't have a product or service ready just yet, will have a few basic needs, namely the ability to communicate amongst the people working in the business; the ability to create, edit, and share documents; and the ability to communicate with the outside world.

ACTION STEP - get Gmail
Probably the smartest thing to do is to get a Gmail account. If you already have an account, get another one that'll be used strictly for your business. In fact, if you don't stop right now and take a few minutes to get your new Gmail account, stop reading this article because otherwise you are wasting your time.

AFTER ACTION EXPLANATION - Why is Gmail important?
There are a lot of reasons to use Gmail, but maybe the most important is that Gmail is run by Google, and when you get a Gmail account, you get access to dozens of other useful free Google tools. Some, like Google Docs (described below) are immediately useful, and others may come into play later. Another important reason to get a new Gmail account, even if you already have one, is that it is good to keep your personal affairs separate from your business affairs, especially email.

After you get your new Gmail account
Your first steps after getting your Gmail will getting your other basic tools. for all of your other business related accounts that are necessary. The following are the minimum set of basic tools you should have, and why they are useful:

  • Google Docs: This is like an online Microsoft Office, allowing your to create and edit word processing documents, spreadsheets, and presentation slides. Just as important, you can allow one or more people edit those documents, even simultaneously.You can also export Google Docs in formats that work with Microsoft Office.
  • Twitter: Before you start using it for work related collaboration, you can use Twitter to get update in real time on events of wide interest to individuals or the news media. For business, it can be one of your best free marketing tools.
  • Bitly: This is a tool that allows you to shorten URLs, and more importantly track how many times someone clicks on the link. This can be used to measure aspects of your marketing efforts, and to measure what topics if of interest to your audience.
  • Dropbox: This is an online storage application that allows you to share files with people who are not your collaborators, including your audience.

What about web sites?
Web sites are still an important part of any business strategy, but at the beginning of any collaboration, it may be too early to think about getting a web site. However, by getting a Gmail account, you also get a freee Blogger account, which you can use to create a very basic web site.

What about Facebook and LinkedIn?
Both of these social media sites may be useful later on for promoting your idea or project. Since they are both connected to an individual, you may want to go ahead and one or both for your own reasons, but you don't need them to collaborate online.

What should I do now?
If you actually followed the advice earlier in the article and created a new Gmail account, use that account to sign up for Twitter, Bitly, and Drobox. After that, get your collaborators on board with the idea of using these tools. If you don't have collaborators, start looking.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Listening to music online

Using my computer. I go through three different music-listening apps pretty seamlessly; Spotify, iTunes and Grooveshark. Of the three I would say that Grooveshark is my favorite to use.

There are a couple reasons for this. Part of its cache comes from the fact that it is a somewhat forgotten medium from the last generation of mp3 listening/downloading platforms--including Pandora (still going strong), Songza, and the lesser known Dogpile. The other is that Grooveshark started out with an ambitious goal, providing free streaming music on the internet with the maximum amount of individual choice. Basically a YouTube but for music.

In this sense it would be a mix of Pandora, which based its image around the fact that there is a seemingly unending supply of songs that can be played on a custom radio station, and iTunes, which gave you the kind of comprehensive selection that no physical record store could promise. With Grooveshark all the music is at your fingertips. Since all music is uploaded by users (which hover around the tens of millions) you end up with a free for all of music that even iTunes cannot compete with.

As a result you get to find obscure artists, obscure albums by popular artists, popular artists and artists that refuse to have their music for sale in a digital market place or music-streaming service (Frank Zappa is a particularly notable artist whose music has shirked the grasp of juggernauts like iTunes and Spotify).

However, this idealistic marketplace has its obvious down sides. For awhile, the group of University of Florida students who started this company were able to do exactly what they wanted. Living an ultra realized version of the start up fantasy life that so many entrepreneurially minded techies would dream of.

There was the fact that they were actually making revenue, but there was also the essence that these were true techies, people like hackers, shaking the system with an innovative approach to marketing and internet commerce. However, the company, as a result of its vision, has run into continued legal troubles.

Not surprisingly, and very impressively, they have been able to surmount orders from major record labels, including EMI, and continue to provide free music in a way that no other service can.

To me it is surprising that more people aren't using it. Surely this repels a certain number of people averse to listening to artists without compensating them, even so it seems like sites YouTube have already democratized the media consumption experience and gotten people used to the fact that you don't have to do the things they way we used to and that in fact, yes, we can do something outlandish like listen to a full album, watch a full television episode, even watch a rare interview between two luminaries; all of these would be impossible without the advent of the knowledge-democratizing medium known as the Web.

I, as an individual, am not particularly bothered by the fact that using Grooveshark would in the eyes of a traditional consumer constitute stealing. For one, it's so fun to use because there is so much out there (very literally any artist you can conceive of, within reason, should have something on there). Secondly, because there is so much to choose from, it makes it easy to search for related artists and discover new sounds. Thirdly, you find yourself connected to a large community of people who regularly upload and curate their collections, as well as broadcast individual music radio stations, and talk to each other through sharing music.

I commend the people behind Grooveshark immensely, because I think it is a music listening model that is perfect for the music, and most accurately reflects the way people listen to music currently. Barring anymore serious legal issues, I see a lot of good things in Grooveshark's future. From my view it seems that it has nowhere to go but up, as more people catch on to how exciting their blend of art and commerce is.

I would say the next step would be, somehow (and I can expound on this later), making Grooveshark and ideal place for independent artists and small labels to place their music. How this will work with more traditional media such as physical or digital album/single purchase we will say, but for now I'd have to say that Grooveshark is the underground king of internet music.

- Alex Curtis

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Using the cloud is not as complicated as it sounds

One thing that you can count on in the online world is the use of buzzwords and buzz phrases, which are nothing more than a kind of shorthand to explain a subject or a concept in just a few words. When used by people who both have a common understanding of what those words and phrases mean, it enhances communication. When only one side in a conversation understands the concept, or worse, if no one understands the concept and someone is just spewing hype, then real communication may be difficult.

One area where this has taken off in recent months is in the area of cloud computing. While definitions vary, one way to think of cloud computing is as follows. In the early days of personal computers, all your programs had to be in that computer, so if you wanted 10 computers with the same capability, that you had to have 10 sets of identical computer programs. With cloud computing, that capability is in some remote computer or remote computer network, and those 10 computers are sharing that capability.

Want another example? If you use Gmail or one of the other online email services, you are using cloud computing. You can log into your email account from any computer with a browser and an online connection. While Google is known for offering Gmail, Blogger, and other cloud-based services to the public, companies like Zoho offer business related services in the same way, allowing simultaneous access to the same resource, for example a database, from multiple locations around the world. Zoho Support is a service that comes with their cloud offerings, with the amount of support depending on the kind of service and the number of users in an account.

With cloud computing, the key things to remember if you are considering using any cloud service are the following:

  • Cloud computing is not a mysterious subject, and you are likely using it even now.
  • Cloud computing could be used to perform most functions traditionally performed on an individual computer or on private networks.
  • If someone is using cloud computing type buzzwords to convince you to spend your money, treat that person like a seller of used cars and do your own independent research before you reach any agreement.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Twitter’s Efficacy in Aiding Social Transformation

I talked last week about how Twitter makes life on the Internet easier. You can customize your allegiance to certain products, celebrities, and even people in your real-life, carbon-based social network. This week I’ll be a little more specific and talk about how Twitter makes social transformation, big and small, easier than ever before. In this article I’ll focus on how Twitter makes it easier to be funny and how in turn humor can lead to social change.

Twitter is easily translatable into the language of irony: brief, content heavy statements meant for immediate impact and in some cases prolonged relevance. For example, a particularly cogent tweet could, in another context, be a powerful bit of dialogue in a movie, comedy or otherwise. If you’re a stand up, you no longer have to “grind it out” on the underground circuit for years hoping that the big break will come your way.

There are a thousand potential George Carlin’s and Bill Cosby’s out there waiting to be heard who may not have ready access to a comedy club where they can test out material. Twitter in this case serves as the intermediary that open mics and road gigs used to be by necessity. Used effectively, one can acquire a sizable fan base through consistent activity on Twitter and other sites like it, as well through a process of shrewd and comprehensive personal branding.

I say this because it is also much easier to cultivate an audience of like-minded people than ever before. We don’t live in an age where artistic viability is judged solely on how broadly appealing one is, whether that’s in their comedy, or any art form they choose to practice. That is not to say of course that we should prevent someone from becoming the next John Lennon or James Brown, inspiring people with a timeless message while rocking super hard at the same time, but someone who is trying to make their way in the artistic or pop-cultural game no longer has to look to these monoliths as the only way to make a living and be influential.

Indeed, part of the revolutionary part of Twitter is that everyone can get up and reach an audience almost immediately. As they develop, they develop as a collective instead of in isolation. Being on Twitter, or any other active social networking site, is like the 21st century version of being at a speakeasy, coffee shop, or a hip socialist bookstore in the not-yet-gentrified part of town. You can make a tangible difference on the world without leaving your bedroom.

In short, the action required for social change can take many forms, big and small. With Twitter, and the Internet as a whole, relevant information is effectively organized and instantly accessible to all curious parties. That, combined with the human desire to connect to others, and humor’s power in not only easing social tension but also in speaking truth to power, make Twitter an ideal climate for cultivating both widespread civil disobedience and cathartic, brain-cleansing laughter in equal measure.

- Alex Curtis

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why Twitter makes life on the Internet easier

It goes without saying that the Internet is an invaluable resource, and Twitter is one of the most influential Internet companies (along with meta-brands like Google and Facebook) that are defining how we all relate to one another on this vastly interconnected global network. Twitter is one of these companies. It’s been at the epicenter of major political uprisings for more than two years now (Arab Spring and other movements), and rivals both YouTube and Facebook as the number one source for cultural content on the web.

That being said, Twitter is not without its faults. One issue is how hard it can be for someone to navigate their list of followers and people they follow, what groups they are a part of, what they’re friends are doing, etc. This can lead to a lot of anxiety, and as a 20-something trying to navigate myself through this crazy world, I’m not an exception.

Here are a couple reasons why you should embrace Twitter and not fear it.

It makes contacting people easier

  • Communication is brief (140 characters or less).
  • It forces you to come up with something quickly, if not concisely.
  • Twitter is compatible with essentially all other social apps.

It broadens your social network

  • On your Twitter stream, what your friends say can be directly followed by what your favorite artist, humanitarian cause, or blog has to say about their day or upcoming events.
  • It’s very easy to connect from one article to another.

You can appeal to different parts of your audience

  • Everybody relates to the Internet differently.
  • Those who do not like long articles may appreciate brief synopses, short jokes, poetry, aphorisms, etc.
  • Those who do not like its brevity will appreciate the rapid generation of new content.
  • It’s easy to adjust your friend network without fear of repercussions (most twitter accounts are public and thus viewable to anyone on the internet).

This is just a rough outline of why Twitter is such a good resource. I’ll get into a more specific analysis in my next article, where I discuss Twitter’s efficacy in aiding social transformation. But for now, if you have a Twitter account and you’re wondering how to make more use of it I would suggest doing at least one of these things.

If you have a cause you’re passionate about, follow it online and read through what they have to say. Odds are you’ll learn something you didn’t know before. After all, isn’t that what the Internet is all about?

- Alex Curtis

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bad Online Habits

Being informed is important. The Internet is widely used and journalism is spread throughout the information superhighway. There are a dozen different ways to get your content and stay engaged with current events and important social issues. This is all very fine and good. A bad habit that I can still see though is the almost dogmatic adherence to specific news organizations/journals/political blogs, etc.

The same bad habits that apply to traditional news consumption (sticking to one particular news outlet let MSNBC or Fox News) apply to the proliferation of content options on the Web. No matter how many facts are really out there, people are going to remain uninformed, to a degree.

,p>Multitasking as we all know can be distracting. This is another habit so ubiquitous that it is taken for granted as part of the 'new age' of Internet culture. For example, listening to an entire musical artist's discography while writing a paper due the next day and chatting with friends about the upcoming weekend's events can be seen as a normal evening's workload. This is surprising, even to me as someone who practices against these habits but so frequently falls into them. This is indicative of a lot of things, about the Internet and it's users, but what I see most clearly in it is a proliferation of the instant access and incredible speed at which the Internet can provide whatever anyone on it--or in it, around it--is looking for. A problem that comes up with this though, is that there is there is so much that I want and no way to choose.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Using Twitter to follow the NFL

The NFL is by far the most popular, and profitable, professional sports league in the US (except, perhaps the NCAA, but that is a discussion for a completely different venue), and because it is both popular and profitable, it can do two things with every kind of mass media, force competing media outlets to bid for the right to carry the games, and limit access to their products.

The most sought after product is their live games. If you happen to have a favorite team in your local media market, catching all the games on radio or television is easy since just about every game will be broadcast in the local market. However, if your favorite team is outside of the local market, you may only have a few opportunities to see or hear them on free broadcast media.

Of course, you can always pay for the privilege of watching them play by paying for premium cable channels like ESPN and NFL Network on cable, or for even more high priced options like NFL Sunday Ticket or NFL Red Zone.

Best smartphone option - Twitter plus sports.yahoo.com
However, if you are desperate, cheap, or broke, there are a few free options you can try that will give you at least some of the flavor of a live broadcast. If all you have is your smartphone, go to Twitter just before kickoff and find the hashtag that will work best for your team. Usually the team nickname is the easiest to use, and is much better than the city name. For example, if you are a Dallas fan, #cowboys probably works best, and #dallascowboys may also do it for you.

If you are a stats freak, you can bounce between Twitter and Yahoo, specifically sports.yahoo.com. They post updated stats from all the live games, though your Twitter stream will probably be updated more quickly than Yahoo.

On a laptop or desktop? Look for an online radio station too
Most teams have a live radio broadcast of their games that you may be able to catch online. The team's web site typically has a list of the radio stations that carry the game live. Most radio stations have online audio streaming, though some may block the stream for NFL broadcasts, especially stations in larger cities. You will often have better luck with stations in smaller towns far away from big cities. Just keep trying stations until you find one that works.

You probably only want to try this option on a laptop or desktop for several reasons. The biggest one is convenience. On a regular sized display, you can probably open two or three windows at once, or at least toggle back and forth between windows or tabs, as you check Twitter and Yahoo while listening to the radio station. Also, the radio stations typically have popups for their streaming options, and many smartphone browsers just can't handle that.