I’m doing a live Q&A session with lynda.com on Facebook this coming Wednesday December 12 from 11am to 1pm Pacific Time. It’ll be an Ask Me Anything of sorts (as long as it’s vaguely related to WordPress) and it is a bit of an experiment so we’ll see how it goes. You can either submit your questions ahead of time through the lynda.com Facebook page or through Twitter @lyndadotcom or you can show up on the day and partake in the festivities.
It all started with a simple yet befuddling question: “Can you create a WordPress site that sends SMS messages to users when things change?” My initial thought was that this could easily become the most annoying website in the world, but upon closer inspection it was a stroke of pure genius.
To ring in 2012 I’m bringing something completely different to WordCamp Victoria. If you’ve seen my live talks previously you know they are usually either neck deep in live code or conceptual presentations on theoretical ideas. This time will be different:
My talk, entitled “Can WordPress really do that? A case study of vierderduer.no” will be focussed around one of the most interesting and challenging WordPress projects I’ve ever been involved in, the building of a site called “Vi er der du er” (“We are where you are”) for Norwegian bank SpareBank1. I was brought on as an outside contractor by Netlife Research, one of the largest and most well renowned web dev houses in Norway, to make their crazy ideas and designs into a real-life site. I say crazy because this is a site that does things so far out of the ordinary even I have a hard time figuring out how we got where we are today.
What makes the site so interesting is that it uses Facebook Likes as a voting system to help raise money for organizations. The more likes an organization gets, the more money the bank gives them. And along the way the organization gets SMS messages telling them about the status of their application and how much money they have raised.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This site has so many hidden features and backend customizations I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover them all in a measly one hour. But I’ll try.
The talk (which I have yet to prepare) will be a nice break from my regular stuffing-code-down-your-throat approach. I’ll talk about how the site came about, the many challenges and solutions implemented and how you can take my hard learned lessons and use them to make your custom WordPress themes more effective and easier to manage. More importantly though I’ll spend the hour helping you break free of the well established preconceptions about what WordPress can and cannot do. If you ask me there is no limit. And in this talk I’ll prove it.
So, if you haven’t already bought a ticket, head on over to the WordCamp Victoria site and grab yours. See you there!
Making WordPress sites work better isn’t always about doing advanced theme hacks and messing around with PHP and CSS code. In many cases it’s just a matter of finding a new or clever use of a plugin or even a function already built in. On this 7th Day of WordPress we’ll take a look at just such a case: Creating brand awareness through social linking with a page redirect plugin.
Your social links point away from you
I actually got this idea after seeing a tweet by fellow Vancouverite John Bollwitt. Sadly I didn’t save the tweet at the time, and I can’t remember the exact wording, but I’m sure he won’t mind the paraphrasing. It went something like this: “I don’t understand why companies don’t brand their social links with links such as www.yourdomain.com/facebook. It’s a wasted oportunity.” (John said it better). When I saw the tweet I immediately thought well, it’s because people don’t know how to do that.
The core of the problem, as pointed out by John, is that when we link to our own presences on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and so on, we drive people away from our own sites and towards something else. And even if you manage to snag consistent names and tags throughout like we did for the 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon (12x12yvr all around) for all the social networks, you are still left pointing people to links like www.facebook.com/12x12yvr. A better option would be if you could turn it on its head and point them to www.12x12yvr.com/facebook etc. And you can, you just need to know how.
301 Redirects used in new ways
The web, as you know, is nothing but a huge list of address pointers pointing in different directions. These links are what binds the web together and there are a lot of different types of links out there. But a link isn’t always a link, and not all links work the same way. A “normal” link is one that points to a specific page or query on a hosted site somewhere. But there are other types of links, of which the 301 link (or more specifically 301 redirect) is of importance to us. The 301 redirect is a permanent redirect that takes the browser query and jumps it to a different defined link immediately. So for example when you type in “http://www.12x12yvr.com/twitter” in your address bar, the browser immediately jumps to “http://www.twitter.com/12x12yvr” without causing a fuss. If you were to do this using a more basic HTML redirect within a page the browser might stop it from happening.
These redirects, the 301 being permanent while the 302 and 307 are temporary, are designed to do things like direct people visiting old links to the correct places on new sites. But there is no reason they can’t be used for other purposes, and with the entry of social networks galore these redirects are coming to the forefront as an important tool.
Question is how do you do this in WordPress. After all, when you make a page in WordPress with a specific title like “Twitter” and you have your permalinks in order, the browser will land on that page. So how do we solve the problem?
Quick Page/Post Redirect to the rescue
I hate how it sounds, but there’s a plugin for that, called Quick Page / Post Redirect Plugin. This plugin integrates with WordPress to allow you to create custom 301, 302 and 307 redirects for all your pages and posts. As a result you can personalize and brand the online experience even when people leave your site. Take the 12×12 Twitter link as an example:
After installing the plugin I simply created a new Page called “Twitter” and scrolled down until I found the Quick Page/Post Redirect tab. In the tab (as seen above) you can set each post or page URL to be an active redirect, tell the browser to open the redirect in a new window, add nofollow to the link so search engines don’t start indexing all of Twitter or Facebook on your behalf and decide whether or not you want to show the Redirect URL in the link.
Once you’ve decided on your settings you can insert your Redirect URL in the field below. This can be anything from a relative or root-relative link, a query or an absolute link – your choice. Once that’s defined all you have left to do is set the type of redirect. By default it’s set to 302 which is a temporary redirect, but for social links to Twitter, Facebook and the likes the correct setting here is 301 – permanent.
With the settings in order, the URL defined and the redirect set to 301, all that’s left is to publish the page and with that you have your own customized social media link ready for advertisement. Simple, easy and incredibly effective.
This tutorial is part of the 24 Days of WordPress series. If you want to learn more about WordPress and Expression Web check out the Sams Teach Yourself Microsoft Expression Web in 24 Hours series (version 2, 3 and 4), Lynda.com’s WordPress 3.0 Essential Training course and Microsoft Expression Web 4 LiveLessons.
Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean it must be wrong.
The above video, called Social Media Revolution is spreading like wildfire through social media circles and is being used by social media advocates as futher proof that social media is be all and end all of news, marketing and the internet in general. And there is truth, at least statistically, in the message the video brings: Social media technologies, be it blogs, forums, social networks like Facebook or micro-blogging systems like Twitter are changing the way we find, ingest and understand information and the world. It’s not exactly ground breaking news to people who spend their living and working days tethered to the world wide web but it provides a sobering picture of a new and emerging reality in which people turn away from established news and media outlets as their primary source for information and understanding of current events.
I find this profoundly disturbing.
When we were kids my parents spent a lot of time teaching my brothers and I that critical thinking should always lie at the core of any decision. They hammered home the sentiment that just because you don’t agree with something doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And it’s stuck with me through the years. I guess that’s why I’m so alarmed by what I’m seeing in the societal discourse in general and social media in particular. Anyone looking in from the outside will agree that the so-called open discussion and flow of information that permiates through the internet these days has little to do with critical thinking and more to do with opinionated rethoric, deliberate disinformation and outright lies. And this is the new and glourious foundation we are supposed to build our future society on? If so, it’s not one I want to be a part of!
Trading news for opinion
Earlier this year someone told me “In a couple of years mainstream media will be dead and people will get all their news from social media”. I have to say I agree, at least in part. No matter what happens I’m hard pressed to agree that all mainstream media outlets will buckle and disappear any time in the forseable future. But we are already seeing a shift in societal behavior away from established media outlets and toward social media as the chosen go-to news source. What people fail to realize (or choose to ignore) is that this shift means a shift from objective accountable news reports toward subjective and often heavily biassed opinion pieces. The trouble is that unless people are aware whether their source presents agenda-driven subjective opioions or fair and balanced reporting, the former can easily be mistaken for the latter. And when that happens, truth, reality and objective reason goes out the window.
Just because you say it does(n’t) make it so
The current health care debate in the USA is a perfect example of just how dangerous this trend has become: As of right now the majority of information floating around social media networks and blogs regarding the health care reform is what journalists and rethoric experts alike would describe as conjecture, hyperbole, spin and good old fashioned rubbish. In fact you’d be hard pressed to find any truly balanced and unbiassed reporting on the topic even in the mainstream media. But this is because just like everyone else, the media organizations have jumed on the social media bandwaggon without really taking the time to look at what that means for objective reporting. And because in the USA there is no fairness doctrine so the news outlets are free to present biassed and unbalanced reporting as fact without danger of reprisals.
Ironically it is this very tendency of the mainstream media in the US to be biassed that started the Social Media Revolution for real: People were fed up with being served what was more often than not biassed reporting and decided that they would be better proponents of the truth than the media outlets were. And this, combined with the relative anonymity of the internet, meant that anyone and everyone could become a reporter, an opinion maker, a true participant in the social discourse without fear of reprisals. The problem with this theory is two fold: Unlike journalists, bloggers and other social media contributors have no vested interest in staying on the straight and narrow so to speak. Whereas a journalist who publishes an opinion as fact or distorts the truth to the point where it borders on a lie runs the risk of losing her job, a blogger that does the same runs little to no risk. At the same time because of the very nature of social media – an information exchange where everyone participates on an equal footing – there is nothing that prevents social, political or corporate entities from presenting their own distorted versions of reality as truth to the masses as fact, often under false alisases or through independent agents, thus changing the public discourse on false premises.
I follow a lot of random people on Twitter and I keep seeing postings saying things like “Socialized health care kills people” and “The Canadian health care system is a failure”. These postings often link to blog posts where in the extreme socialized health care is compared to Nazi death camps and Stalinistic gulags. Any reasonable person should agree that these statements are little more than paranoid outbursts or outrageous lies. After all, there are no death camps for the elderly in Canada or Norway. In fact most countries with socialized helath care have a higher life expectancy than the USA. But looking at the apparent number of “concerned citizens” putting their worries in hypertext one can start to wonder if there isn’t some truth behind the claims. The problem is that unlike a normal debate, on the web you don’t know who is actually talking, and you don’t know if the 1000 latest comments actually came from one person or organization rather than 1000 independent minds. But this lack of transparency is invisible and in the end people are likely to listen to what they percieve as a vocal majority. It all boils down to a simple fact: In public forums, the person that shouts the loudest usually gets her message across. And since social media by definition is completely unregulated it is easy for organized groups, political parties and corporations to flood the social media airwaves with biassed and inaccurate information drowning out the objective reality in the process.
Social Media: Tunnelvision for the Masses?
An uncomfortable and embarrassing trait of human nature is that no matter how much we claim to be fair and balanced, we hate being wrong. So much so in fact that given the oportunity we will chose to ignore any information provided to us that doesn’t fit with our current belief system. The role of mass media in society has always been to present unbiassed facts and report the objective truth about news and events. And because mass media was the only real source of information, we would get the good with the bad so to speak. And whether we liked it or now we’d be presented with facts and figures that did not match our own understanding of the world and we’d be forced to at least reflect on our own stance and realize we are not always right.
With the introduction of wide spread social media all of this changed. All of a sudden you could chose to ignore what the mainstream media said turning instead to people who were of the same mindset as yourself to give you only news and opinion that you agreed with and nothing else. With that a shift from news as it happens to news you agree with occurred. A subtle shift with serious and dangerous ramafications. When people are given the ability to filter news and opinion to hear only what they want to hear, they lose the ability to think critically. Which is bad enough. But it gets worse:
When people start trusting filtered opinion over objective reality, they become easy targets for manipulators and lose the ability to form their own understanding of the world. This is why the freedom of the press is such an important part of our society, why cross-media ownership is frowned upon and downright banned in many countries and why journalistic ethics commisions exist. But none of this applies to social media and as a result people, organizations and corporations with hidden agendas, evil intentions and broken moral compasses are able to present their distorted world view as fact with noone except other social media contributors standing against them. And as we’ve seen with the health care debate, the global warming debate and many others, in the end it’s the people with the most money that usually win simply because they have the means to keep the pressure up and quash the opposition.
That is why, whenever I hear people talk of social media as a revolution that will save the world and make it a better place, my critical mind cringes. It’s not what the social media evangelists want to hear, but like my parents said: Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean it must be wrong.
For further reading on the topic of dissent and social media check out Raul Pacheco’s post on the same topic entitled On the value of dissenting opinions.