In a previous article I was babbling about subscribing to RSS feeds in order to reduce information overload. But let’s look at it from the other side now. Webmasters use RSS feeds to keep customers up-to-date. Customers use a feed reader to grab the raw XML from their favorite sites, and the feed reader formats it so that it is easy to skim.
How does that work? Do I have to remember to update the RSS feed every time I update my site? Well, yes! That’s the point! However, it doesn’t have to be that difficult. Nobody has to hand-code Web sites any more, though some of us still do. As a hobby. Yes, I know, geekess. Read on…
So now you’ve decided you want to be on that Web thing, too. There are lots of ways to share your information on the Web. I’m going to talk about four of them: blogs, content-management systems (CMS), bulletin boards (BBS, “board,'” or forum), and wikis.
A blog is a Web-log, a sort of a diary or journal. The software has a Web-based interface and is pretty much transparent to the user. The user logs in to a regular Web page and types what she wants to say. The blog software formats her Pearls of Wisdom and presents them to the reader in a pleasing format. Very nice. The blog software also creates an RSS feed automatically. Whether you use a blogging site or maintain your own page depends on your technical level and how much mojo you’ll get from hosting it on your own domain. Hosted blogging accounts can be set up quickly and require no maintenance. The data can be hosted on the host’s site or it can be published on yours via File Transfer Protocol (FTP). This is a quick-and-easy way to find out whether you get what you want out of blogging. Blogger is a popular general-purpose blogging host, now owned by Google. It gives you the option of exporting your blog to your own Web page if you have one. LiveJournal is probably the most popular host. It is centered around personal diaries, and is used to create a community. TypePad is another popular hosted Weblogging service. If you are technically inclined, you may decide to use blogging software. This also allows you greater control over the look-and-feel of your blog, and gives you the ability to customize. WordPress is a free, state-of-the-art personal blogging tool. It is easy-to-use. Themes and plugins are available to customize WordPress and give it more features. Movable Type is another popular Weblog platform for businesses and organizations.
A CMS is similar to blog software, except that it manages entire Web sites rather than just your Dear Diary. It offers more features and better flexibility in formatting the pages. Again, data entry is Web-based: authors log in to the software and start typing. CMS software also creates RSS feeds. If you’re interested in creating a Web site or portal rather than just an online diary, a CMS may be the way to go. SubDreamer is an easy-to-use CMS. It has a WYSIWIG editor and also provides an image manager. The best part for me is that it will integrate an existing forum, preserving membership information and re-skinning the forum to match. The only drawback is that it costs money. Mambo is a free CMS. It’s more feature-rich but consequentially slightly more difficult to use. Skins and plugins are available. Did I mention that it’s free? Joomla is a spin-off of Mambo. They are still almost identical. PHP-Nuke is another CMS, an oldie-but-goodie. Because it has been around a while, there are many, many addons available. The latest version costs a nominal fee of $10 but I believe you can get a previous version for free. Heck, I donate at least that much for free software if they have a PayPal button and I use the software a lot.
A BBS or Forum is just what you’d think it is, a CMS of sorts that helps to create an on-line community. Members log in, find a topic or conversation that interests them, and leave messages. Again, you can choose between using on-line forum site or using forum software. The forum software takes care of registration, private messages between members, and permissions. A BBS requires a bit more maintenance because access is usually more public. Delphi Forums is a popular on-line forum host. Again, if you are technically inclined, there are many forum software packages available. phpBB is totally free. It is easy-to-install, easy-to-use, and requires little maintenance. Invision Power Board is another popular forum application. Themes and plugins are available. However, it is rather expensive at $70 per year or $185 for a perpetual license. VBulletin is a popular forums package suitable for medium-to-large size sites. The price includes tech support including installation.
I’m still trying to get my brain around the concept of a wiki. A Wiki is a collaborative system. Multiple authors contribute information, which is categorized and cross-referenced. The presentation is clean and simple, and it is waaaaaaay too easy to get lost surfing in one. The cross-referencing makes it fairly easy to find exactly what you are looking for, assuming you came in on a related topic. It also frees you from the site authors’ internal concept of how the information should be organized. If you’d like to participate, find one of the many wikis in your field of interest and try it out. I’m rather partial to the humorous Encyclopedia Dramatica. Wikipedia is a great general-purpose encyclopedia site. If you have the technical knowledge to start a wiki on a specialized topic, there are several easy-to-install, easy-to-maintain applications. MediaWiki is the engine behind Wikipedia. It is free, and is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). MediaWiki is an extremely powerful, feature-rich wiki implementation. It requires PHP and a MySQL database. Tikiwiki is another free wiki system. It has many excellent features and is easy to use. Apache::MiniWiki is a small wiki implementation that doesn’t require MySQL. It isn’t as full-featured at MediaWiki or Tikiwiki, but you can run it on any Apache server with mod_perl.
If you have something – anything – to say, by all means start a Web site. It doesn’t have to be momentous or Earth-shattering, but it’s a good idea to write things that others are likely to read. (I don’t follow my own advice.) You don’t have to get a domain name and servers and expensive software – at least not to start out – as there are a number of excellent free services.
So what are you waiting for?