How Social Media Can Sustain Your Friendships (from Oprah.com)

This blog post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

“I’m writing because I’m an old friend of Angel J.,” the e-mail said. “I see from your site that you know her; can you put us in touch?”

It wasn’t the first time we’d served as a point of reintroduction. Our wedding photos, posted in 2000, constituted the first searchable online appearance for many of our guests. But Angel’s face wasn’t in our wedding photos; in fact ,her face wasn’t on our site at all. What her friend had found were the medical photos of Angel’s gum reconstruction procedure. Angel thought the pictures were funny and gross, and when she showed them to us, she loved our suggestion that we put them on our website.
One lesson you might draw from this is to never give incriminating photos to someone with their own website. But the lesson I want you to draw is that it’s fantastic to have your friends write about you—to do whatever makes you visible or findable on the net. Unless you’re in witness protection or have a stalker in your past, it’s better to be findable, because findability is the easiest way to encourage continuity in your personal relationships. But, of course, any story of online (re)connection involves at least two people: the findee and the finder. Connecting, reconnecting and staying connnected require some effort on both sides.

Here’s how social media can help you stay in touch:

Be Google-able
If you Google “Alexandra Samuel,” you’ll probably find I account for nine out of 10 of the first-page results. But for years, my Google hegemony was disrupted by another Alexandra Samuel, who hovered in the number two or three spot. Her presence? A long-ago article about a ten-year-old Alexandra who was a member of the Boston Computer Club.

Little Alex didn’t do much to compromise my Googlability. “Alexandra Samuel” is an uncommon enough name, and my online presence—including the alexandrasamuel.com domain—is extensive enough that I’ve always been easy to Google. My husband wasn’t as lucky. When he first tried to register his domain, not only was robcottingham.com taken, but so were robertcottingham.com and even robertalancottingham.com! The lesson here: Don’t name your kids until you’re sure their names are available as .com domains. If your own parents weren’t that far-sighted, establish a domain and online identity using a consistent and unique variant of your name, such as JohnNorbertSmith or LauraQThompson.

Keep Your Contacts Up to Date
Most people change their phone numbers, addresses and e-mail addresses from time to time; once you’ve been out of touch long enough to miss a move or two, it can be hard to re-establish contact. Get all your current e-mail addresses into a couple of systems that will help keep your contact information up-to-date; Plaxo will automatically update your contact list with changes from anyone else who is a Plaxo user; gmail will import your contact list into other web services like Twitter and Facebook so you can stay in touch instead of losing contact.

Be Persistent
Establish one absolutely permanent e-mail address, ideally by registering your own domain name.

Create Online Groups for Your Valued Circles of Friends or Family
My dad was married four times and had nine kids in two countries—if social networking didn’t exist, we would have had to invent it just to keep everybody in touch. Sadly, my dad went his entire life without ever once having all his kids in the same room. We got close for his 75th birthday: seven out of nine kids, and eight out of nine grandchildren all got together for a big party at his farm. After the party, my sister Debbie set up a Facebook group that helped us all stay in loose, regular contact for the first time. Once Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, we had the additional complexity of figuring out how to share updates on his health status. Because we kids were raised in three different batches, we didn’t all know each other well enough to share emotionally sensitive news on his illness. So we set up a Google spreadsheet with everybody’s contact information; that way any one of us would know how to to contact someone in each of the other two batches to pass on the latest news.

I’ll admit my family is probably more complicated than most circles in which you need to share news or information, but the same principle applies: For any circle you want to maintain or stay in touch with, set up a group using Facebook, Yahoo! groups or some other standard group-messaging tool. And set up a contact list that everyone can keep up to date.

Hail All Channels
Even apparently similar tools have very different dynamics, depending on how you and your friends use them; using a range of communications tools will support a range of relationships. I’m on Twitter constantly, but because people tend to tweet publicly, it works best for friendships that consist of casual and frequent exchanges. I connect with relatively few people through instant messaging, so my messaging buddies are people I’m happy to have extended conversations with while we’re working away on other things. A Skype video chat is a nice step up from phone calls with friends I connect with a few times a year, or for phone conversations with long-distant buddies. E-mail works well for exchanging long catch-ups with friends I can’t talk with in real time due to time zones. And Facebook is nice for reconnecting with people I wouldn’t otherwise catch up with—we float into each other’s views thanks to status updates.

Go Analog
I recently made a shocking discovery about two of my friends. These are women I thought I knew well. Women who are friends, not despite my geekiness, but because of it. They carry iPhones, update their Facebook pages daily and check their e-mail every hour. And yet, both of them still regularly exchange actual pen-on-paper letters with a number of their friends. Even if you’re not prepared to do something as retro and extreme as picking up a ballpoint—I personally resort to paper only in the case of birthday cards, thank-yous and condolence notes—you can still stay in touch with your less-wired friends. Take excerpts from your family blog and turn them into a paper newsletter you send out with your holiday greeting cards. Burn your favorite videos onto a DVD and pop it in the mail. Buy a Wi-Fi-enabled digital picture frame for your parents and keep it automatically updated with photos of the grandkids that you load onto Flickr or Facebook.


Keep it Loose

Many years ago, I had a painful breakup with what was then my very closest girlfriend. As anyone who’s been through it can tell you, the end of a close friendship is every bit as painful as the end of a romantic relationship—perhaps more so, because there’s no script to tell you how to handle it. After several years of zero contact, we became Facebook friends, and I was able to appreciate the very limited contact that made possible: While our friendship is history, I can stay loosely up to date on her very full and happy life. When your friendships are strained by conflict, distance or simply the passage of time, the loose contact of social networks and e-mail can keep them on life support against the day when geography or circumstance makes reconnection possible.

Embrace Intermittence
During a recent visit to Toronto, I had a chance to see an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in years. We hadn’t broken up: We’d just gotten jobs, gotten married, gotten kids. We were busy, and we didn’t have a lot of time for phone calls or even for Facebook. And that lack of contact made me shy about reaching out. But I took a deep breath and sent an e-mail—and received an enthusiastic response to the possibility of a coffee date. Within five minutes of sitting down together, we were back to the same level of conversational intensity that had fostered our original friendship.

If you want social media to support your friendships, you need to think about both sides of the equation: how to be findable, and how to track down (and keep up with) the friends you want to find in turn. The beauty of these new tools is that they make it easier and easier to handle the logistics of maintaining friendships—you can focus on the part that matters: the emotional connection.

How do you use social media to connect with friends and family? Share your thoughts on Oprah.com.

For Oprah.com: Gifts for the geeky dad (even after Father’s Day)

Father’s Day may be behind us, but it’s not too late to show Dad what he means to you. And if the dad in your home is as geeky as the dad in our home, technology may be the best way to reconnect.

My husband is an avid digital photographer who shoots hundreds of pictures every month, filling up the hard drive on our home computer. But he enjoys shooting a lot more than organizing, so it’s hard for him to find his favorite images when he wants to show off the kids to his friends or family.

So the kids and I did the work for him. We spent a few weeks reviewing thousands of pictures and selecting the ones the kids like the best. And since the kids did the choosing, it wasn’t about composition or which pictures look cutest. It was about collecting the pictures that show everything they love about their dad: the pictures of mornings spent making pancakes together, weekend expeditions to the park and the first airplane trip he took them on.

On Father’s Day, we loaded the kid-created album onto his iPhone and iPad, putting the pictures on the devices he always has with them. For my geeky husband, a gift that combines gadgets with kid creativity is a match made in heaven.

My own dad was another story. Until just a couple of years ago, his primary computer had a black-and-white monitor and a dial-up modem—hardly the ideal environment for photo sharing. To give him a collection of photos, I got a digital picture frame and preloaded it with a year’s worth of images. He loved seeing a rotating display of his grandchildren, especially since he could see them without turning on his ancient computer.

Whether the dad in your life is a geek or a Luddite, technology can help you celebrate any day when you want to let Dad know how much he means to you.

Gift Giving
For geek dad you can’t go wrong with a gadget, especially one that reminds him of his kids. One that might be new to even a hardened gadget freak is the Jabra Halo is a Bluetooth headset for listening to music or taking calls, which I was lucky enough to receive complimentary from Jabro after my original one broke (I guess they know I am a big fan!).  Pair it with a new playlist of the favorite songs that dad has passed along to his kids: in our house that includes U2’s Pride and Simon & Garfunkel’s Feeling Groovy.

A Luddite dad will be thrilled with a gift that says, “I love you enough to unplug.” Ask your kids to put down their Game Boys and cell phones long enough to make Dad a personal gift. You can find terrific Father’s Day craft projects online. For the younger set, try Kaboose.com; teens can check out Instructables.com for nifty DIY projects like bookends made from old vinyl records.

Bonding Time
A geek dad will enjoy spending quality time with the kids—if quality time involves a pair of game controllers. Red Dead Redemption is a hot new PlayStation and Xbox game your teens can play with Dad; younger kids can enjoy playing Little Big Planet.

And there’s no kinder way to show a Luddite dad your love than with a little tech support. Young kids can use a program like KidPix or the free Tux Paint to make Dad a personalized desktop picture. Older kids can help Dad finally set up his Facebook or Twitter account or teach him how to respond to their text messages. Just think how happy Dad will be when he gets a text that says “HAVING FUN B HOME L8ER” and can respond with his own text saying “ROTFL C U IN 15 MINS.”

Down Time
If the geek dad in your house is anything like the geek dad in my house, there’s no better Father’s Day treat than a couple of hours of geek-out time at your nearest WiFi café. Use JiWire.com to find a WiFi hot spot in your neighborhood, and give Dad a gift card so he can enjoy his coffee and computer time in peace.

For the Luddite dad, give the gift of time offline. Book him a tee time using GolfPatio.com. Find the nearest yoga class on YogaFinder.com. Visit CookingSchools.com, and send him to a cooking class so he can perfect his pie crust. Whatever his hobby, you can use the Web to ensure he can enjoy a few relaxing hours to himself.

For Your Own Dad
A recent study found that Internet use reduces the risk of depression in seniors, so if your own dad is among the millions of older Americans who are now logging on, give him a cheer! Pay tribute to your geek dad by creating a Facebook album full of pictures of the two of you together; tag him in all the photos so your proud papa will show up in his friends’ news feeds.

Or help your Luddite dad enjoy the photos he’s missing online by printing those adorable photos of the grandkids onto something he can keep around the house or office. Go beyond the usual mug or mouse pad by ordering a customized jacket, sneakers or photo sculpture on Zazzle.com.

All Year Round
The best thing you can do for Dad is to make sure that June 20 isn’t the only day he feels extra special. So queue up a few dozen tweets for a geek dad that send him jokes, how-tos or simple “I love yous”; services like HootSuite.com will let you schedule a whole series of tweets to go out over the course of the next year.

You can make Luddite dad feel just as special by reminding yourself to tell him how much he means to you.  Enter an appointment in your computer’s calendar with a title like “Do something special for Dad.” Then set it to repeat once a month or even once a week.

Of course, you don’t need a computer to remind Dad that you love him. But turning your computer into a dad-loving machine is a great way to remind yourself and your kids that your time online is most meaningful when it helps you deepen your connections to the people you love.

Do you have some ideas about how to use the Web to celebrate dads? Share your thoughts below!

This blog post is adapted from a Father’s Day post that originally appeared on Oprah.com.

How to find support online during life’s big passages (for Oprah.com)

“Thinking of you lots,” I wrote on my old friend’s Facebook wall after a couple of years had gone by without a chance to reconnect. My timing was perfect, she replied. “We’re going tomorrow to meet our new son! He’s 10 months old and has been living with a foster family. I could really use some mothering advice from you!”

I responded with hearty congratulations and my best stab at useful advice. Over the next few months, we resumed the kind of regular back-and-forth, intimate exchanges that had characterized our college friendship and the years after school when we both lived in Boston. It had been a decade since we’d lived in the same city, but online conversation allowed us to reconnect through the shared experience of a major life transition: the transition to parenthood.

When I think of any significant passage in my own life, it’s inseparable from the friends I shared it with. Friends are there to share your celebrations, support you through difficult transitions, and mourn your losses. Social media enable that sharing and support in new ways, across distances that would formerly exclude people who are far away but dear to your heart.

Marriage
When we got married in 1999, we created a wedding website and gift CD for guests. My husband spent the night before our wedding burning disc after disc, and I spent the months after the wedding scanning photo after photo. These days, blogs, iTunes and digital cameras make it easy for anyone to include their friends in the celebration, and to turn this once-in-a-lifetime gathering into the birth of a shared community of friends. Create a group on Facebook or another social network so your guests can plan car pools and wedding weekend get-togethers beforehand; after the wedding, use the group to share photos, keep people in touch and ask them to share their reflections on your celebration.

Birth
If you’ve got a new parent in your circle of friends—or if you’re counting on your friends to help you through the birth of your kids—the web can help. Set up an online calendar that friends can use to sign up for days when they’ll bring meals. Keep an online grocery list so people know what supplies you need, and an online task list so people can sign up to help you out as needed. And while you’re waiting for the big day to roll around, set up an email list to blast your good news to friends (putting everyone’s email address in the BCC field so you’re not sharing addresses among your friends who don’t know each other).

Birthdays
My husband couldn’t have turned 40 without the social web, and I think he’s holding a grudge against all of social media as a result. For his 40th, we threw a huge party and invited all our friends (via email). In addition to the in-person party, I set up a virtual celebration by asking all of Rob’s friends to post memories and notes to a blog I set up for that purpose. For the actual party, I spent a week baking seven different kinds of desserts, all selected from the Epicurious website based on reader reviews. Between the severe sugar high and the deluge of loving blog posts, Rob entered his 40s with a big smile.

Use social media to organize celebrations (with online invitations, shopping lists and recipes) and to mark the event (via blog post, photo or video contributions) in a way that can include friends from any part of the world.

Illness
“A friend of mine has just been diagnosed with cancer,” a friend emailed. “Do you know a web tool that can help all of her friends coordinate visits, grocery shopping, trips to the doctor and whatever else she needs?” As it happened, I knew just the thing: Tyze, a personal networking tool I developed for the PLAN Institute. For the past 20 years, PLAN has helped families create personal support networks for adults with disabilities or other kinds of challenges; those support networks ensure not only logistical support but the kind of social connectedness that helps people lead meaningful lives. Tyze lets anyone create a support network for a friend or family member with an illness or disability: it helps the network stay in touch, schedule visits, keep track of tasks, and most crucially, share the stories that bring them closer together. Whether you use Tyze or your own combination of a blog, task manager or calendaring tool, social media can help people pull together to support a friend in crisis—not just with logistics, but with the messages of love and concern that bring you all closer together.

Death
My Dad died almost two years ago, but his Facebook page lives on as a place where our friends and family can share their memories and thoughts of him. A social media presence—whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or a personal blog—can be a way for someone to tell his or her own story as they are passing out of this world, and for friends to connect through the dying and grieving process. If you don’t like the idea of your online presence outliving you, Legacy Locker is a service that serves as a social media will: Give it the registration info for the sites you’re on and you can leave directions on how your social media profiles and content will be handled after your death.

Whatever challenge you are facing, or milestone you are celebrating, you want your friends to share it with you. Make good use of social media and you’ll have their support, no matter where they are.

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

Now on Oprah.com: Life passages online, plus an empty nest bonus

My latest blog post for Oprah.com, How to find support online, talks about ways to get support during life passages. Whether you’re celebrating milestones like the birth of a baby, a marriage or a birthday, or confronting challenges like death or illness, I’ve got some pointers on how the web can help.

Here’s one passage I didn’t tackle in the piece: what to do with your newly empty nest. We are still many years away from having an empty nest ourselves, but a number of our friends now have grown or nearly-grown kids. Here’s what I suggest to them about how to use the web to smooth the transition:

  1. Keep in touch: If you’ve never been one for video chat, this is the time to start using Skype. If you’ve avoided friending your kids on Facebook, it’s now the best way to keep in touch with them (here is a great story on how to do that gracefully). And for heaven’s sake, learn how to read your text messages so your kids can text you when they want to come home and do a load of laundry.
  2. Get out and play: Remember what it was like when you had small kids and couldn’t go out at night? Let me the voice of housebound evenings past: having kids at home is lovely, but I envy you your newfound freedom! So get out there and have some fun. Find events and concerts on Upcoming or Eventful; get recommendations for movies on Metacritic; book a dinner at the new hot restaurant on OpenTable.
  3. Make contact: Odds are good that your kids are using some kind of location service like FourSquare or Gowalla. These services ask you to “check in” when you visit a bar, theater or just about any other kind of location; a lot of young people use location services so they can find out where their friends are hanging out, and then meet up with them. If you can convince your kids to tell you which service(s) they use, and friend you on them, you’ll be able to “spontaneously” turn up when they are visiting a café or bar. Just make sure you have some ground rules for when they do and don’t want to see Mom show up at their favorite watering hole. And if your kids don’t want you to find them, you can use FourSquare or Gowalla to meet up with your grown-up buddies instead.
  4. Redecorate: Let’s get to the real benefit of your empty nest: that spare room! The sooner you repurpose it, the less likely it is that your kids will boomerang back and settle in until they turn 40. My vote is for a home theater, but you might be happier with a craft room or a gym. Whatever your dream, the web can offer you lots of great ideas on how to get it done.

Have you got other suggestions for using the web to enjoy your empty nest? Questions about how social media can support other life passages? I’d love to hear from you.

Read more of my posts for Oprah.com.

For Oprah.com: Should you get an iPad for kids?

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

At 5 a.m. on April 3, I became the fifth person—and the first woman—in line outside the Apple store in Bellevue, Washington. By the time Apple store employees started handing out coffee and cookies, we front-of-the-liners were old friends. When a store employee announced we were allowed to buy only one iPad each, and not the rumored two, I wasn’t worried: My husband raced over with our kids so he could buy the second iPad for himself.

But what about Steve, standing right behind me? We’d never met before, but he’d shared his excitement about bringing a couple of iPads back to his office full of video game developers. He looked positively panic-stricken by the news he could buy only one.

As soon as my husband and kids arrived, I flagged down one of the store employees: “Excuse me, but do my kids count toward my iPads-per-person? Because their Uncle Steve here had hoped to buy an iPad for them.”

The employee agreed that yes, my kids counted as full, iPad-worthy citizens, and that “Uncle” Steve should feel free to buy an extra iPad for them. We made our iPad purchases as a brief, fictional family: me, my husband, and my pseudo-brother-in-law Steve, who was thus able to buy his two iPads.

If you’re feeling shocked that I would lie in an Apple store—my personal equivalent to lying in church—rest assured, I have been amply and appropriately punished. Perhaps it was the kids overhearing me say that we might get them their own iPads, or it was the eager way we handed our new ones over to create a whine-free drive back across the border to Vancouver—whatever it was, the kids now seemingly have their own iPads: ours.

Oh sure, I get to take the iPad to work while they’re at school. But it’s not really a work computer. It’s more of a kick-back, lie-on-the-sofa gadget. And no sooner do I kick back with the iPad than a couple of hands—usually dirty or sticky—pry it away from me.

More than a month into our life as a two-child, two-iPad family, I’ve come to appreciate this machine as perhaps the perfect kid computer. It’s kid-sized, unlike a desktop that looms too large, or a laptop that’s too big for a little lap. It’s intuitive, especially for kids who’ve been using their parents’ iPhones for the past couple of years. And best of all, it’s tactile: Getting rid of the mouse and replacing it with a touch screen gives kids the sense of immediacy that is missing from other tech toys.

Yet I still have misgivings about handing over a $700 machine to a 4- and a 6-year-old. Quite apart from the possibility that our kids will turn the iPads into a couple of very expensive paperweights, I worry about the impact of yet another screen in our already screen-infested house. We’ve got two TVs (each hooked up to a cable box, PVR and computer), three iPhones, a Wii and a PlayStation: Do our kids really need one more device to keep them info-tained?

If you’re considering an iPad—or other device—for your kids, here are some questions to consider first:

Which on-screen activities will this replace?
The Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that the average American child consumes almost 11 hours of media per day, fitting that into about 7.5 hours of actual screen time thanks to multitasking. Unless your kid has a couple more hands than mine does, you probably can’t get them to multitask a lot more than they are now, so adding another device into the mix will see that whopping 7.5 hours extend even further to accommodate yet another distraction. In our home, we’ve tried to keep the total amount of screen time more or less constant by turning off the TV whenever we see that both kids have their noses buried in an iPad.

How will I control my kids’ use of this device?
If it were as easy to find a pen in our house as it is to find a computer, I expect our oldest kid would already have written her first novel. At this point it feels like every surface of our house is covered with some kind of computing device: a pile of game controllers on the ottoman, a couple of laptops on the dining room table, iPads on the sofa and iPhones scattered across the coffee table. While it’s reassuring to know I’m never more than 30 seconds away from finding Wikipedia’s answer to the question of whether dogs can eat dogwood trees, the ubiquity of our computing devices also makes it very hard to patrol the kids’ tech time. Our best ally has been the password protection built into the iPads, iPhones and computers: While it’s a tiny bit inconvenient to enter a password every time we want to use our own machines, it means the kids can’t play with an iPad without first asking us to unlock it. Just don’t let the kids see the password as you’re typing.

How can this device promote more family interaction?
My daughter has only recently started to read, so I was surprised to find her peering over my shoulder as I played a game of Chicktionary, an iPad word-search game that attaches letters to animated chickens. Sure enough, she found some words of her own, and Chicktionary has now turned into an activity we can enjoy together—while working on her language skills. It’s hard for two people to simultaneously play with a single phone, but it’s easy for two kids (or a kid and an adult) to share an iPad. I try to invest in devices and software that encourage the kids to play together, or that provide us with new activities we can do as a family.

How much will we spend on software?
Early in the life of my iPad, our 4-year-old son pressed “buy” on a $10 word-processing app. “I thought about it and thought about it,” he told me. “And then I downloaded it.” Touched as I was by his concern for my text-editing environment, I could foresee feeling a lot less touched if his next executive decision involved the $299 medical database now available from Lexi. You can lock your kids out of the App Store by using the Restrictions option in the iPad’s settings, but that won’t resolve the constant whining for new games. So we’ve followed the advice of Common Sense Media and told our kids that iPad purchases have to come out of their allowance, which they can use to buy iTunes Store gift cards.

Will this distract us from spending time together?
With all the worrying about how much time our kids spend onscreen, it’s easy to overlook our own screen obsession. One of the things I love about the iPad is that, unlike a laptop screen, it doesn’t put a physical barrier between me and the kids if I’m surfing the web while they’re watching TV next to me on the sofa. But precisely because it’s so unobtrusive, it’s easy for the iPad to add to my current level of distraction as a parent: If I can snuggle up beside my son while catching up on Facebook, I can pretend I’m parenting rather than geeking out. But I have heard about some parents who actually pay attention to the kids sitting next to them, possibly even interacting without the presence of a TV, computer or gaming device. Who are these parents, you ask? I’m not sure. But I bet you don’t meet them at 5 a.m. in line outside the Apple Store.

My latest for Oprah.com: Is an iPad Right for Your Family?

“I got an iPad!” my daughter announces to a friend.

“No honey, I got an iPad,” I remind her.

The argument over who the iPad belongs to is just one of the many wrinkles in our new life as The iPad Family. Self-serve movie watching, GodFinger addiction, bedtime stories that read themselves — these are just a few of the issues we’ve had to confront since the iPads joined our family.

Learn the five questions to ask before your family goes to the Apple Store in my latest post for Oprah.com, Is an iPad right for your family?

On Oprah.com: What to do on Twitter when you’re getting started

This blog post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

Twitter is a social network that lets you post short messages to share with just your friends or the world. A Twitter message—a “tweet”—is the equivalent of a Facebook status update. But you only have 140 characters to get your point across!

Even if you hate the idea of sharing your own ideas or news online, you can still enjoy Twitter as a voyeur. Lots of people check Twitter every day without posting a single update themselves. So, let’s get started!

Sign Up for an Account
My advice would be to choose the shortest username you can: Most people like to use a version of their real name. For example, my Twitter handle is “awsamuel.”

Find and Follow Twitter Users
An easy way to get started is to click Find People and then use the Find Friends option to scan for anyone in your Gmail, AOL or Yahoo address book who is already on Twitter. Just click Follow next to anyone who is already on Twitter, but don’t click Send Request for those who aren’t—you’ll just end up spamming your friends. You can also find people to follow by browsing Twitter’s suggestions or by following lists of Twitter users (more on that below). It’s fine to follow a few celebrities, but be sure to follow at least some regular people so that you’ll see how other people use Twitter.

Log In
Log in to Twitter.com to see what your friends are tweeting about anytime. Try looking at Twitter while you’re watching your favorite sports event or TV show (your friends might be watching too), if you’ve just heard about a breaking news story (people will be sharing their reactions) or just want to find something interesting to look at (people tend to share lots of links to interesting websites, videos and news stories).

Post a Tweet
Once you’ve been reading other people’s tweets for a few days or weeks, maybe it will be time to try posting a tweet yourself. There’s no right or wrong way to tweet, though some people do get obsessed with how many followers they have and post tweets that they hope will attract more followers. I recommend focusing on using Twitter to connect with the people you care about. Think about your tweets as a way of sharing whatever you want your friends to know about you. Just remember that because Twitter moves so fast, your friends may miss your tweets (people who follow hundreds of people typically see only a tiny fraction of what all those people are posting) and whatever you post will be permanently visible unless you delete it.


A Twitter Glossary

Twitter has its own lingo. Here’s a guide to help you make the most of it!

Become a Follower
These are the people you follow on Twitter—your friends, colleagues, favorite companies and organizations. You’ll see their latest status updates whenever you log in to Twitter.com or check your Twitter client. There will also be people who sign up to read your Twitter updates. You will be notified when someone is following you. If you don’t like the idea of strangers reading your updates, you can check the option to “Protect my tweets” on the account settings page.

Use a Twitter Client
A software program or website that you can use to view, organize or post tweets. Most people find Twitter much more useful and enjoyable if they use a client program like Tweetdeck, which is free for download to PC, Mac or iPhone.

Search Twitter
One way to discover what’s happening on Twitter and find exactly what interests you is to use Twitter’s built-in search engine. Just type in “Red Sox” to see who is tweeting about the big game or “prayer” to see what others have to say.

Make a Mention
A mention is a tweet that references a specific Twitter user or user’s comment by referring to their username, beginning with the @ sign. For example, you’d mention Oprah on Twitter by typing “I am so excited to check out the new @Oprah network.” Or you could send me a public message my mentioning me in your tweet: “Hi @awsamuel, I am trying out Twitter using your tips!”

Send Direct Messages
You can also send messages privately to another Twitter user, though you can’t send a direct message until that person is following you. Just begin your tweet with “D username” (no @ sign). For example, if I follow you, you can send me a direct message by typing “D awsamuel This is a private hello!”

Use Hashtags
Twitter users use hashtags (descriptive keywords that begin with the “#” sign) to categorize tweets and to follow or contribute to conversations on particular topics. You’ll see the hashtag #knit included in tweets about knitting, #oscar used by Oscar® fans exchanging observations during the Academy Awards®. The hashtags #FF and #FollowFriday are used on Fridays, when many people tweet a list of their favorite people to follow. Some conferences and public events even create a special hashtag so you can keep up with news updates and your fellow attendees.

Follow Lists
If you want to know more about a specific topic—say, organic gardening, minor league baseball or photography—Twitter lists are a great way to start. A list of Twitter users is compiled by a Twitter user, usually related to a particular topic. Some of my favorites are gastrobuzz (food), molfamily/green (green living) and anndouglas (I love her parent and parenting list). You can also follow (and unfollow) an entire Twitter list with a single click. Be sure to check out the directory of Twitter lists at Listorious.com.

Avoid Annoying Twitter Spam
Just like email, Twitter now has its share of spammers, so never click on a link from someone you don’t know. Twitter spammers use mentions to lure people in and hack their Twitter accounts. If you get a tweet that seems like spam, just ignore it; client programs like Tweetdeck may also offer you a button to trash or report it as spam.
Overall, Twitter is a fun way to keep up with friends, stay on top of current events and add a little zest to your day. How you use it and how much you use it is up to you. You can follow and stop following anyone at any time—so get out there and make Twitter what you want it to be.

On Oprah.com: How to find online inspiration and set goals online

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

The Internet has a terrible way of distracting a girl: You sit down to search job postings, and you end up in a chat room with some guy in Thailand who wants to know how you refinished your floors.

When I posted my long-term goals online in December 2004, it was a way of procrastinating the immediate goal of getting a job:

  • Be invited to a gay wedding.
  • Hire our first fabulous employee.
  • Meet Stephen Sondheim.
  • Never use the word “synergy.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of yielding to the siren song of online distraction, you can use your computer to connect to your goals—and to find the inspiration to achieve them.

That’s exactly the point of 43 Things, the website I used to record my goals. It asks a simple question, “What do you want to do with your life?” and gives you a quick way to record up to 43 answers. Five years after recording my initial goals, I’ve crossed almost two dozen off my list…including some big ones, like “start a company that lasts longer than two years,” “create a writing group” and “potty-train my son.”

I’d love to tell you that 43 Things is the tooth fairy of the Internet: Stick your to-do under a virtual pillow and wake up to a giant check mark. But no, I had to do the hard work of finding clients, fellow writers and rubber bedsheets. What 43 Things supplied was the focus, advice and support to help me do it.

We tend to think of setting goals and seeking inspiration as highly personal. But achieving our goals is not always a solitary pursuit: The encouragement and resources of a larger community can help us do something we couldn’t do alone.

Your computer can support both sides of this equation. It can be a solitary meditation room, an artist’s garret, a silent retreat or even the red carpet entrance to the party of your dreams—where your best friend, favorite musician and newfound mentor gather to offer help and cheer you on.

Here are some of the ways you can plug into inspiration on your solitary desktop or on the social Web:

  1. Create an Inspiration Playlist
    Use iTunes or your favorite MP3 manager to create a playlist of songs that inspire you. Since I’m a big Broadway nerd (yes, in addition to being a tech nerd), my playlist is full of my favorite inspiring show tunes like “No One Is Alone” (Into the Woods) and “What I Did for Love” (A Chorus Line). I listen to it when I’m working on a creative project, going for a run or just need a boost. Burn your playlist to a CD so you can have copies in your car and at work: Nobody needs to know that you wrote that terrific report while listening to “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
  2. Create an Inspiration Feed
    As fascinating as it is to read about the Fruit Loops my best friend is eating for breakfast, sometimes I want a little more fiber in my Facebook or Twitter feeds. So I’ve created a group of people to follow on Twitter strictly for their inspiration value. It includes the latest tweets from the likes of David Badash (a prolific, funny and thoughtful gay rights activist and writer), Tricycle magazine (a Buddhist publication) and Angela Raincatcher (an artist). I peek at the latest tweets from my “inspire” group throughout the day; these words of inspiration are a great counterweight to the gossip and links that otherwise overwhelm my online experience. You can do the same thing on Facebook by creating a list of your most inspiring friends and clicking on the name of that list when you’re viewing your Facebook homepage.
  3. Inspire Your Password
    Using your dog’s birthday as your email password may help you remember to pick up an extra juicy soup bone when the big day rolls around, but it’s not doing anything for your inspiration-starved soul. Take those passwords you punch in day after day after day—your email password, your Facebook log-in, even your bank PIN—and turn them into pick-me-ups. Try a password like B3Y0urs3lf or JustD01t or Trust1nU, mixing letters with numbers (4 for A, zero instead of O, 1 instead of L or I) for extra security.
  4. Bookmark Your Inspiration
    You’ve got browser bookmarks for every newsletter in your field and every after-school program in your neighborhood. That’s great for your work and your kid—but what about your heart? You can use your browser’s bookmark collection to create collections of online resources related to spirituality, creativity, mental health—whatever inspires you and keeps you on track. My inspiring bookmarks range from ideas for beating writer’s block to short meditations that inspire me.
  5. Inspire Your Desktop
    The background on your computer doesn’t have to be an ad for your computer manufacturer. Whether you’re moved by a panoramic view of the Himalayas or a close-up of Hugh Jackman’s abs, stick those inspiring ridges where you’ll see them every day: on your computer’s desktop. Starting up to the sight of Hugh’s six-pack may be just the thing to lift you out of your morning blahs.
  6. Share Your Inspirations
    “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” I had listened to this line from the musical called [title of show] 900 times before I finally had to write a blog post about how it inspired me. As I struggled to describe the impact the show had on my life and work, I uncovered new lessons in it, like how to separate yourself from how other people see you. When you share a blog post, Facebook update or YouTube video about what inspires you, you’re not only helping other people discover a new source of wisdom or courage: You’re likely to come to a new understanding of what helps you soar.

These practices won’t turn you into a digital Buddha, someone impervious to the magnetic appeal of Perez Hilton’s latest headline and Zappo’s latest sale. What they can do is rebalance the scales: to edge you away from a tech life that toggles between relentless offline productivity and mindless online distraction.

“Productivity tools” like computers and smart phones can be transformed into personal touchstones, and “buddy lists” can become support groups. Now that’s what I would have called synergy.


6 ways to prioritize your friends online (for Oprah.com)

This post was originally written for Oprah.com.

“But I don’t want to join Twitter,” my friend Leda says, fighting off my entreaties to start tweeting so we can stay in touch throughout the day. “I already feel like I spend too much time online. Don’t you feel like it just distracts you from actually connecting with people?”

Leda had a point. I’d been on Twitter for over a year, but it was only in the past few months that I’d gotten into it as a daily part of my routine. And while I loved its chattiness, I was mostly chatting with people I barely knew.

A normal human being might have solved the problem by spending less time on Twitter and more time on the phone. But many of my closest friends are on the East Coast or in Europe, so by the time I get my kids in bed, it’s too late to call. That’s how I fell into tweeting: it lets me have a (pseudo) social life during the hours of the day when I’m actually available to chat.

But that was no reason to connect with casual acquaintances more than dear friends. Inspired by my conversation with Leda, I sorted my Twitter buddies so that the people I loved most were in a special group. Then I set up my Twitter client to give special prominence to the updates from people I love—or people I could love if we had more contact. Overnight, Twitter stopped being a way to keep up with colleagues and became a way of keeping in touch with friends.

Whether your online interactions happen on Facebook, Twitter or some other platform, you can bring the same quality of intention to your online relationships. Online conversation can be a great boon to your friendships, but only if you organize your online socializing around the kinds of relationships—and that specific people—that matter to you.

Go Where Your Friends Are
As soon as I reorganized Twitter to focus my attention on my most valued relationships, I noticed how many of my dearest pals weren’t on Twitter at all: They were on Facebook. In my enthusiasm for the shiny novelty of Twitter, I’d forgotten all about Facebook—but went back to checking Facebook regularly when I realized that’s where my closest pals hung out. You wouldn’t hang out at the latest trendy bar if your friends were still gathering at the neighborhood pub; don’t get caught up in the race to join the latest hip network if it takes you away from the online communities that engage your dearest friends.

Prioritize Your BFF
Before I had kids, I spent hours on the phone every week and stayed in regular contact with half a dozen good friends. But the after-work hours that I used to spend yakking with my girlfriends are now filled with feeding, bathing and reading to my kids; I’m lucky if I can find an hour a week to talk with a friend. That’s enough time to talk with each of my close friends once every three months—or to talk with one good friend every 10 days. Focusing my phone time on my oldest and dearest friend means that when we talk, we can actually have a meaningful conversation about the latest chapter in our lives, rather than using an hour to catch up on news highlights. Social networks can make staying in touch a lot easier, but they can’t actually cram more hours into the day. If you focus your online and phone time on a couple of close friendships, you’ll have more meaningful conversations than you can sustain with a large circle.

Don’t Confuse “Friends” with Friends
“You know S., don’t you?” a colleague asked. The name was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “You’re friends on Facebook,” my husband reminded me. Make that “friends,” not friends. The fastest way to erode your commitment to the relationships that matter to you is to confuse that long list of buddies you have on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn with actual people you know and love.

Take the Move Test
A year after our daughter was born, my husband and I interviewed for a number of jobs in another city. As we contemplated moving towns, we found ourselves pulling back from our extended circle of friends. We decided to turn this instinctive withdrawal into a conscious choice and stopped making plans with anyone we didn’t expect to stay in touch with after moving. Ironically, this contributed to our decision to stay put: Once we focused our time and attention on the people we saw as lifelong friends, our social life became much more meaningful and satisfying. Whether you move every year or plan on living in one place your whole life, an imaginary move is a great way of focusing your email, chat and Facebook time on the people who you love most.

Balance Your Social Life
We were at a local restaurant for dinner with our closest couple friends, enjoying a rare evening of adult conversation while the kids stayed home. As we compared notes on our jobs, kids and sex lives (like I said, close friends), I found myself looking wistfully at the table next to hours, where four women made up a Sex and the City quartet huddled in an intimate conversation. How long had it been since I went out with a gang of women myself?

Friendship isn’t one thing. Even if you have satisfying one-on-one visits with your BFF, or a few great couples with whom you and your sweetie socialize, you may be missing group friendships. Or you may have friends who are great for a wild night out but miss that trusted confidante. Know the balance of friendship types and friendship time that makes you happy, and you’ll be better able to create that social life by cultivating current or new relationships online.

Accept Compromise
It’s Saturday night, and as my husband and I banter across Twitter, we’re joined online by friends who weigh in on our latest debate and tease us for our geekiness. If we had found a sitter, we’d be at a party across town, but once again we’re confined to quarters, where socializing via Twitter serves as the next best thing. For those times when you know what kind of social life you want, but budget, time or logistics make it impossible, the Web can be a great pinch hitter. Maybe your ideal night out is a hockey game and a trip to a bar—but you know you’ll still have to wake up at 6 with your toddler. Watch the game at home on HD while you commiserate over that rotten play via chat or Skype™. Maybe you’d like to spend more time with your BFF, but your husband finds her husband dead boring. Invite them over for a night of Wii gaming, and let the guys play Guitar Hero while you and your pal catch up.

If these tips sound like they’re more about emotional intelligence than tech know-how, you’re catching on. The secret to a satisfying social life online doesn’t lie in which network you join or how cool your profile page looks—it’s about using social networks to reflect and amplify the way you connect with your friends.

And as your BFF can already tell you, you’ve got that down cold.

On Oprah.com: 6 ways to be a better parent online

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

A few months ago, we had one of those stomach flus familiar to parents of young children everywhere. My son threw up all over his bed, and I wasn’t feeling so hot myself.

A wiser woman would do her best to forget this nightmare, but in our house, the ups and downs get immortalized on Twitter and Facebook. So when my husband headed off to a gathering of twitterers the next day, I couldn’t resist posting an update. And of course my update had to introduce a new hashtag, one of those keywords (preceded by a # sign) that people use to organize conversations on Twitter:

@robcottingham off to #vancouvertweetup while I go home to #pukefest

Rob’s response:

@awsamuel Will try to moderate drinking sufficiently to prevent hashtag convergence. #vancouvertweetup #pukefest

But Rob wasn’t the only person to respond. Our friend Jordan saw our tweets and chimed in:

@awsamuel @robcottingham It sounds as though we’re experiencing the same kind of week. Praise Pedialyte!

Pukefest may have started as a one-liner, but it turned into a lifeline. Three nights after our Twitter exchange, #pukefest claimed our daughter. The poor kid was epically sick: She threw up for hours and hours, all night long. Thanks to Jordan’s tip, we were ready with the Pedialyte, and when the puking finally stopped, we were able to get Sweetie hydrated and perked up very quickly.

If it takes a village to raise a child, that village no longer needs to be defined by the place you happen to live. Given the mobility of today’s young parents, it’s probably better if you’re not reliant on the people in your own town or city: You need a village of co-parents who can travel with you, who will be wide awake in their time zone when you’re groggily dealing with a middle-of-the-night crisis in yours.

6 ways the web can get you the village of help you need

Get Support
When we were expecting our daughter, we knew we were likely to have breastfeeding challenges. I’d had a breast reduction many years before, back in the day when the surgery almost inevitably compromised a mom’s future ability to nurse. Thanks to the Web, I discovered Breast Feeding After Reduction (BFAR), a Yahoo group for moms who’d been in the same position. Reading through the group’s archives introduced us to a book with practical tips and guidance, let us read up on the pros and cons of different supplementation approaches and helped us know the signs if our baby wasn’t getting enough milk. But with all that preparation, I was still devastated when a lactation consultant told me that no, my daughter wasn’t getting enough milk, and I had to start giving her extra milk or formula. I cried for an hour and then posted my heartbreak to the BFAR group. Within minutes, I had consoling messages from other moms who’d been there, sympathizing with my pain and cheering me on for my efforts to deal with the situation. They got me past the tears and ready to embrace feeding my baby in whatever way she needed.

Get Information
Shortly after our son was born, we had a chat with some friends who told us how they avoided using any plastic food storage, strictly for health reasons. Sounded crazy to me, but I Googled to see what scientific evidence was available for or against plastic. And I came across an extensive campaign, dating back to 1999—years before we became parents—drawing attention to the lack of scientific evidence about the safety of BPA, the plastic used in many baby bottles, including the Avent bottles we used. There was enough cause for worry that we decided to switch bottles, and I wrote an extensive blog post on about BPA and the alternative bottles we’d discovered. A year later, the BPA issue got in the headlines once again, and there was suddenly a mass exodus of parents from Avent bottles and the like. But I didn’t panic: My blog post had gotten me up-to-speed on the issue in time to get my son off the questionable bottles.

Get Inspiration
As astonishing as this may sound, we had trouble getting each of our kids to sleep through the night. We read lots of sleep books and even hired a sleep consultant, but each stage of development brought a fresh batch of sleep problems. And each time, we’d find fresh inspiration on the Web. These days, the chief tool in our bedtime arsenal comes from a great idea we found online: Give your kid a “pass” at bedtime, good for one glass of water, trip to the bathroom or whatever the latest request might be. With this tip we were able to go from 90 minutes of bedtime drama to just 10 or 15—giving us back our evenings!

Get Stuff
Another tip we read on lots of parenting sites was to provide an “attachment object,” typically a blanket or toy that your baby or child will cling to for comfort and sleep. And many parents emphasized the importance of having a backup in case the favored object goes missing. When our daughter got attached to a green elephant, we purchased a second identical elephant the next week. Little did we know that we’d also need one to keep at daycare and one to pack in her daycare earthquake kit. By that time, the elephant was long gone from our local baby store—but with some effort, we located a supply online. No matter how obscure your parenting quest, you’re likely to find your object of desire somewhere online.

Get Help
The Web is a great place to find sitters and other help, if you know where to look. I’ve generally had great success hiring off Craigslist for both home and business, partly because we make a point of conveying our character:

Do you love to bring order to chaos? We can supply the chaos. We have small kids (both in daycare) and a thriving business, so we really need another person who can help us at home. We may leave our kitchen looking like a disaster area, but we really appreciate the person who restores it to order, and the people who have worked with us at home or in our office have loved working for us.

I get lots of responses, and I’m conscientious about checking references. But no system is foolproof: One lovely young woman who came highly recommended looked after our kids several times before we came home early and found our vodka bottle on the kitchen counter…and then hidden away as soon as we turned our back. After that experience, we resorted to a subscription-based website that matches sitters with parents, and found a great sitter among the many responses. And unlike referrals from friends, you’re not competing for sitter time with people you know, so you’re less likely to come up empty on the night of the big party.

Get Expertise
We’re expertise junkies. I might as well confess that in the past five years, we’ve had a business coach, a money coach, a sales coach, a doula, a lactation consultant, a sleep coach, a professional organizer and a parenting coach. We’ve worked with some people by phone and with others in person, but it was our parenting coach—Barb Desmarais—who suggested video conferencing via Skype™. In just a few conversations, we were transformed from daunted parents of a newly argumentative toddler into a confident, relaxed Dad and a gently authoritative Mom. For five whole minutes.

Okay, so the Internet can’t turn us into superparents. But what can? As parenting coach Barb once said to us, “We are all perfect parents—until we have kids.” What the Internet can do is remind you that you are not the only parent to come up short. And in that recognition comes the self-acceptance and peer camaraderie to get the advice, support and inspiration to be the best imperfect parent you can be.