Responsive Web Design

Responsive Web Design is another one of those ideas that has taken the web community by storm. Responsive Web Design, a.k.a.RWD, is a set of techniques that allows a web site to present content well to all are almost all users nor matter what sort of device they use. There has long been a problem associated with making a website that is usable by both a desktop computer with a high resolution monitor and a smart phone with a very smallscreen.

Web Frustrations of a Designer

Web Frustrations of a Designer (Photo credit: dailyinvention)

Perhaps you recall the days when sites had a disclaimer on the that went like: ‘This site is best viewed with X browser‘ and how annoying it was if you used some other browser. There was a time when 80% of website visits came from one or two browsers. That is not the case now and has not been for some time. Today, it is unacceptable to NOT support the most common browsers, even though it can be expensive and time consuming to test a website design across a large cross section of browsers.

There are many common browsers today operating on a lot of different devices. According to Yahoo’s Graded Browser Support pages, “There are over 10,000 browser brands, versions, and configurations and that number is growing.” Savy large scale web operation test their sites to insure that they support the most common browsers, but I haven’t heard of anyone who tries to support an exhaustive list of all or even nearly all browser.

InfoGraphic about widths of various displays

There are more problems to solve than just screen size. CSS is used in web designs to control decorations like fonts or placement of items on the screen and javascript is used to handle dynamic features of the user interface, like popup windows or folding menus. There are also proprietary or ‘3rd party’ capabilities that may not be present in a browser, such as flash or rendering of non-html/xhtml documents.

Some browsers, such search engines, do not support javascript or CSS and are really only in search of the content. There are also ‘accessibility’ browsers such as those that provide an audio interface. In some security conscious environments, javascript may be turned off completely, but CSS is left on. For this the notion of Progressive Enhancement has become popular among web designers. The idea is that the content will be available to any browser that understands html and those that understand CSS will have styles applied to make the experience better and those that use Javascript can have the full blown user experience. There is no switching the user from one site to another according to the browser that is detected.

A responsive web design page can be resized on the fly. The text will reformat itself and the images will grow or shrink according to the screen size. If CSS, Javascript of both are not available on the browser, the content will still be accessible.

Progressive Enhancement (PE) involves a particular sequence of design. First the basic markup, geared to the lowest common denominators of browsers, is applied to the content, then ehnhancements available in common, widely used browsers, are externally linked into the page. The external linkage means that enhancements that are not used on a page are not downloaded and that makes the page load quicker.

I’ve been experimenting with the Skeleton WordPress theme in order to implement RWD on this site.

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Resource Plugin

RL2 Resource Plugin Development Process

I recently wrote a resource plugin for WordPress called rl2. I made this plugin to provide a database of community resources for a non-profit called Traditional Nutrition Guild (TNG). The idea is to provide listings of vendors, practitioners and businesses, individuals or organizations of interest to the users of the site. This plugin could be a database for any number of other applications with only slight modifications. I want to talk about the process of coming up with the plugin and the possibilities it exposes.

Wikinews - database size 2

Wikinews - database size 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea came from the web of relationships around this community organization. It has a website and a lot subscribers who are keenly interested in a particular style of nutrition. There are vendors in the community who provide relevant food and other products as well as health practitioners, educational support and cooking services. There are also other non-profits doing related work. The members of the TNG and some of the relevant businesses asked for a way to expose community resources to the membership.

In my discussions with some of the interested people of TNG, we decided that they needed a system that had categorized display of listings. A listing could be either a physical addresses, a URL or both. The users in the community needed to be able to submit the listing and each listing needed to be reviewed and approved by a moderator before being publically visible.

I investigated to see if there was a plugin that really matched the need and I couldn’t find one I was really comfortable with. I cobbled together a sort of a mashup using a forms processor to collect information and email it to an administrator who would then create a page or post. The administrators were already overloaded, so this scheme didn’t seem right.

Another idea was to modify an existing plugin. I found one called ‘interesting links’ for which modification into what TNG needed seemed plausible. I made a modified version of it that did most of what I wanted. However, I found that this plugin modified the database by creating its own tables. I recalled discussion at a WordPress meetup that indicated leaving the database structure alone was considered a good idea.

A Entity Relationship Diagram (ERD) for the pa...

A Entity Relationship Diagram (ERD) for the part of the WordPress database schema that deals with referencing files in the filesystem. For use on Wikiversity:Web application file-reference methods. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, I started over. Over the years of programming, I’ve become much more accepting of just starting over along with the notion of prototyping and mocking up things in order to learn as early as possible if I needed to start over on a design. My earliest programming was characterized by trying to sit down and come up with a ‘perfect’ design out of the gate, one that could not only do all the possible needed things, but that would anticipate future needs. I’d have huge investments of time and energy before I ever produced a single byte of code. Because of that investment, I could really loathe tossing something it out and starting over.

It took me a long time to make peace with the idea that I couldn’t see into the future and that great unanticipated ideas would often materialize as I went along; that I should
preserve some budget for those opportunities. In agile programming research I really changed my approach. The idea was to decide upfront the most essential thing(s) the
software had to do and create a pass-fail test that would tell if the software actually did that thing. Then the programmer would work out the simplest way to do that thing and write software that passed the test, and only did that one thing. I still like that and I think it applies to much more than software development.

So, I worked on the newest resource plugin. I borrowed the display from the ‘interesting links’ package and modified it. I used WordPress’s custom post types and custom taxonomies to create a new post type called an rl2_resoure. It worked beautifully. There are was a lot that I didn’t have to program at all by relying on WordPress. The administrative tools, categorization and so on were done for me. I made a user form that uses ajax for submission. The rest of the work, really, was gluing together the pieces that WordPress offers to developers.

The whole process, including the initial discussions, the throw away versions, the building the resource plugin and testing took about about a week and a half of my time. There are some more features and options to add and WordPress itself was upgraded since I put my package into the plugin repository, so I’ll be doing more work on it.

RL2 resource plugin Development Environment

My development environment consists of my laptop which runs Ubuntu studio Linux. I run Apache and MySQL on this machine. That allows me to run my pluging locally. I use the error log for lots of debugging tasks as I can tail the local Apache error log in one window, while I run my browser in another. For front-end debugging and develpment, I use Firebug on a Firefox browser.

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The WordPress Message

What’s the WordPress message?

Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase ‘The Medium is the Message“. The medium you are currently reading is WordPress or more generically, a blog. The idea that a medium has certain characteristics to it seems reasonable. If I were talking to you on a movie screen in a theater, instead of here in text on a blog, you’d probably have a much different experience, even if I used the same words.

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with h...

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with his statement that the traditional, book-oriented intellectuals had become irrelevant for the formulation of cultural rules in the electronic age. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, if I were authoring this communication for presentation on a big screen, I think I would write is differently… much differently. I would also expect a different audience, a different promotional strategy and a different business model.

The WordPress blog, as a medium, is very inexpensive to produce. Almost everyone who has a computer and internet access can write a blog. The financial barrier is extremely low and the software is easy to use. Contrast that to the barriers to producing a TV station or publishing a newspaper. Freedom of the press belongs to those who have a WordPress.

People sometimes talk about the sweeping changes created by innovations in media. McLuhan spoke of how each new medium causes something to become obsolete and retrieves something else from obsolescence. WordPress, it seems to me, might render some newspaper editorial pages obsolete. Certainly, the letter to the editor and much of opinion has been replaced along with the gate-keeping function of the editorial descision makers at newspapers.

This idea of gate-keeper is an intermediary who sits between a consumer and the un-winnowed masses of consumables. This gate keeper chooses only the ‘best’ material to proffer to that person who will consumer. The better gate-keeper also finds out what that consumer wants and passes that information back to the producers. The better gate-keeper may also go to some length to cultivate and reward better products in order to insure availability. There are other valuable things an intermediary does.

The downside of intermediaries is that, as a consumer, you have to depend on someone else to select for you and they may not always serve your particular interests well. As a producer, you may not find an intermediary who is will to give you access to consumers on a desirable basis.

In the information world, the search engine has come along and given consumers a better information selector. Having a search engine is like having your own personal newsdesk editor trying to fill your personal ‘news hole’ with absolutely whatever your momentary whim might wish for at whatever level of detail you might desire. The search engine is the new editor and producers are in fierce competition jockying for access to consumers via search engines.

The Panel on Search Engine Marketing during Q&A

The Panel on Search Engine Marketing during Q&A (Photo credit: MikeSchinkel)

There are some things that the Internet have not eliminated the need for. We still need producers, journalists gathering news and organizing its presentation. We need ways to pay for that. Perhaps we don’t need fleets of delivery trucks, printing presses or even editors.

People who own gas stations found out some time back that people do not want gas jockeys. The self serve gas station came was developed over time. Now, you have the pay-at-the-pump gas station. In this gas station evolution there are a loss of jobs and a loss of social interaction between gas jockeys and customers.

Filling Station

Filling Station (Photo credit: anyjazz65)

A WordPress blog creates a ‘newshole’. The blogger must find a way to fill that hole regularly or traffic will dry up. I have found it useful to have an ‘editorial calendar’ which is just a list of topics and suggested dates when I can  do a write up on the topic.

But there is more to a blog, or any informational art form. McLuhan also said  ‘The Medium is the Massage‘ in that it massages or stimulates the intellect or the senses. WordPress, then, is also a masseuse of the brain.

 

 

 

 

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A Gratitude Practice

I’ve been doing a gratitude practice each morning. It’s part of a series of things I do each morning. This practice comes out of the book The Magic by Rhonda Byrne and I have to tell you it is working extremely well for me. There are times when I just feel like I’m walking around in paradise and I can directly trace those feelings of well being to this gratitude practice.

This morning was one of those times. I walked out onto 2nd Avenue in the cool of the morning. There were trees in their full spring bloom, a couple of sparrows went whizzing past me and the air smelled sweet. I had the feeling of being in heaven on earth as I walked toward the car.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 31:  A street sweeper ...

NYC Street Sweeper

I got in the car and felt grateful to have a car that is good condition. I started it and prepared to move into that crazy New York City ritual called ‘Alternate Side Parking.’ In my neighborhood, each side of every street gets cleaned twice a week.  Residents who park on the street (which, in my area  is most of us who have a car) have to move their car and double park on the opposite side of the street to allow the street sweeper to come. A hefty ticket will result from doing this late or not at all.  Once the street sweeper drives past, all the drivers move their cars back to the original side of the street and compete for space.  There are never quite enough spaces in New York.

Car Radio of Analog Era

Car Radio

Well, as I started driving in my car this morning, I turned on the radio. The news came up, there was talk of a gunman in France getting killed by police; there was talk of some teen in Florida killed by the local neighborhood watch;  there was talk of the racism inherent in the criminal justice system.  It took about 30 seconds of that to smash my illusion of being in some sort of paradise.

 Gunman

Gunman

I turned off the radio and as I sat waiting for the street sweeper, I considered how it is that the most horrific items are at the top of the news. When I was in journalism school, the quote was ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ Yep, violence, horror, frightening or angering things are the most useful items for a newscast. They rivet the attention. Anything that can get adrenaline flowing is game.

Some voice in my mind tells me I need to listen to the news so I can know what’s going on in the world, so that I can watch for large problems that might affect myself or those about whom I care.  But I know better.  The nervous distractedness that comes out of constantly cranking my adrenals disconnects me from my children, from my wife and from my own life.  Having something ‘on my mind’ takes me away from the ‘here and now.’

Français : Structure de l' adrénaline

Adrenaline

But here’s my concern: if the ‘here and now’ is, for some reason, not to my liking, getting something to distract me can be emotionally appealing.  And if my here and now gets really bad, the distraction can be soothing in a crazy way.  Adrenaline seeking can then become a habit, maybe even an addiction.

You’d think that the euphoria of the paradise I experience with this gratitude practice would be addictive, rather than some adrenaline blast taken from impersonal media. My experience is that people want movies and news and all sorts of entertainment that is violent, heartbreaking, horrifying or sexually provocative.

You know that “unalienable right” to the pursuit of happiness? Well, it seems to me that what we are after is an  unalienable right to pursue UN-happiness. So, in our collective gratitude practice should we give thanks to be getting the unhappiness we’ve have so perversely sought?

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Engaging Your Audience

Mark Block

Digital Marketing expert Mark Bloch

Internet marketing guru Mark Bloch is giving a talk on aspects of online marketing. Thursday afternoon, it’s Engaging Your Audience. To join the webinar, join lrw.net here. Then click on the webinar item in the top menu bar of lrw.net.

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Life In Electronic Communities

We live in electronic communities. In our ever changing world, the art of the magazine, the letter to an editor and the essay gave way to the blog. Grafitti gave way to Facebook‘s wall, the telegram to the Tweet.  I believe the blog will give way, as will the wall and the tweet someday.

Image representing IBM as depicted in CrunchBaseIn my lifetime, IBM got so big that it became the object of anti-trust actions by the government, then it was eclipsed by Microsoft and Microsoft became the object of anti-trust activities. Now Google and Apple are under scrutiny by anti-trust authorities.  They are eclipsing Microsoft. There is some sort of giant wheel of change rolling down through the ages. It has not stopped even for the most vast and deep pocketed of organizations.

Microsoft Corporation - 1978

Microsoft Corporation - 1978 (Photo credit: Brajeshwaras

Stills from videotape of Bill Gates' depositio...

Stills from videotape of Bill Gates' deposition at 1998 United States v. Microsoft trial. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I saw the TCP/IP, the foundational technologies of the Internet, arise out of a balkanized private networking ecology that included incompatible systems by Novel, Microsoft, IBM, Banyan and others. I saw AOL try to privatize the Internet and it seemed for a time like they would succeed. They didn’t. I see today, Facebook privatizing the Internet. I don’t believe they can sustain  it.

World War II deaths

World War II deaths (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my father’s day, a new normal had arisen among those born in the depression who fought World War II. They had the nuclear family and the single bread winner household. A general ethic held it to be a disgrace for a man to not  work. There was even a tacit discrimination favoring the man with a family to  support. That is gone. The point of work became the achievement of financial independence, AKA freedom from work. Those extended and nuclear families were appropriate in those bygone eras when ‘go forth and multiply’ was a strong human need. Now, the planetary environment seems to be endangered by our numbers. We don’t need institutions that support multiplication any more. Perhaps, we can improve the quality of our species rather than our quantity.

What does this have to do with blogging? Blogging is an art form, a literature. It is a cultural expression and a way of “mind sharing.” My sense is that the close physical community, with ties based on physical proximity are giving way to communities of common interest and values. The Internet allows these electronic communities to exist. They do lack some of the qualities of face to face interactions, but they are communities nevertheless and they are probably here to stay.

Having a couple of kids, my wife and I have often lamented the loss of that old tribalism that could help us, on a face to face basis, with our children. There is a new tribalism, however, of mailing lists, blogs, websites and the  like, where we are able to find solutions and support for so many of our needs. Increasingly , this network  is our community. Our tribe is more electronic all the time.

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Backup and Restore WordPress

English: The logo of the blogging software Wor...So, you want to know how to backup and restore WordPress. Most webhosting services do make complete backups of the entire server, but it can take a fair amount of time to reconstruct your site from the webhost backups and if you ever need to restore, you will probably want to do it quickly. The solution to that is do regular backups yourself. These backups can also be used to migrate your WordPress installation from one webhosting provider to another.

WordPress keeps much of its information in a MySQL database rather than in files, though you need to backup both the database and the files. For example, the text of your posts are all in the database. Much of this database information is stored as ‘serialized’ php objects. For a straight
database backup (and restore), you can use a database manager program to execute a database dump. phpMyAdmin is an example of such a program that is often available on your webhosting service.

Image representing cPanel Inc as depicted in C...

A database ‘dump’, despite its shabby name, is a series of executable database programming statements. phpmyadmin can execture these statments to recreate the database structures and data if you need to restore your site. When you run phpmyadmin to make a backup, you’ll use the ‘export’ function. There are a number of options that you’ll need to set in order to create a database when you restore you WordPress site.In order to get a database dump in phpMyAdmin, you need to know the name of the database used by your mysql installation. You will also need to know the password and userid for loging into phpMyAdmin. If you don’t know these, ask your webhosting service for them.

In phpMyAdmin, you first switch into the database used by WordPress, and then go to the ‘Export’ menu. On the systems I have encountered, the ‘quick’ options for the phpMyAdmin export have not needed to be changed. So, you would click on the Export functionn’s ‘go’ button and that would create and download an ‘SQL‘ file to store on your local computer. This is your database backup.

To restore your database, use the phpMyAdmin ‘import’ function. Just use the browse box to locate and upload the SQL file you saved in the previous step.

There are also some files associated with your site, including WordPress program files, themes, plugins and uploads. A backup of these item is made separately from the database backup. You may use an ftp client or the like to download those files directly to your local hard drive.

I use a file manager that comes with my hosting account that is accessible from cPanel. Using that file manager, I ‘compress’ the ‘public_html’ folder in my webhosting account. This creates a ‘zip’ or ‘tar.gz’ archive in my home directory on the webhosting server. Then I use the file manager to download that file to my local hard-drive.

To restore, I upload the archive to my home directory on the webhosting server and ‘extract’ the archive. That will recreate my public_html folder from the archive.

These backups are ‘complete’ backups as opposed to incremental backups that your webhosting service might do. Your complete backup can restore your site very quickly, while it may take the webhosting service some time to restore from its backups.

You should also be aware that there are several plugins that handle backup and restore tasks. I’ll cover some of those in later articles. I’ll also cover migrating your WordPress site.

 

 

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WordPress and Authority

One of the ‘uses’ of a blog for the blogger is to establish his or her expertise on a particular topicWordPress and Authority do go together well.  I reveal what I know, what I am learning and you can form some sort of judgement of my expertise.  Authority contains the word author.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that expertise and authority are often the same thing, except expertise may exist in a person without anyone else knowing about it.  But authority occurs when others believe a person has this expertise.  Authority also implies power, but I am not speaking of power here.

Young people have no respect for authority now...

Young people have no respect for authority nowadays (Photo credit: Alexandre Dulaunoy)

It is possible to ‘borrow’ authority and it is possible to express inherent authority.  Borrowed authority can come from authority granting institutionslike schools, licensing bodies or hierarchical organizations.  For example, a degree from a University is an attempt to transfer authority from a faculty to a person who has been granted the degree.  A church can bestow authority on a person by way of ordainment.  Borrowed authority is also granted by democracies, monarchs, dictators, tyrants, warlords and crime syndicates.

A person who has inherent authority is like the person who assumes leadership at the scene of an emergency. No one grants that authority. Sometimes people just obey it for lack of other options and at other times people just don’t think to question whomever acts like the authority.

Another meaning to the word authority has to do with the validity or truthfulness of a statement. An article might use borrowed authority in the form of references and quotes. A person reading the article might be more comfortable since the article is not merely a bald assertion, but seems to be corroborated by the referred-to authorities.

Starting in the 1950s Carl Rogers brought Pers...

Image via Wikipedia

Carl Rogers in his first book, On Becoming A Person (pg 23-24) said:
Experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity
is my own experience. No other person’s ideas, and none of my own ideas,
are as authoritative as my experience. It is to experience that I must
return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is
in the process of becoming in me. Neither the Bible nor the prophets ~
neither Freud nor research – neither the revelations of God nor man –
can take precedence over my own direct experience. [….] My experience is
not authoritative because it is infallible. It is the basis of authority
because it can always be checked in new primary ways. In this way its
frequent error or fallibility is always open to correction.
The term “Authority Blog”, apparently coined by Chris Garrett, refers to a blog that aims to provide expertise on a particular
topic.

How does a person become an authority without borrowing? Here, I am speaking of an intellectual, social, cultural or spiritual authority and not so much power as a government might wield.

WordPress allows an indivdual to get into the discourse about a topic. It allows the person to reveal his or her experience, thinking and research on a topic and to present that in a coherent way so that others can test what is being said against their own experience or thought. Those “others” can post comments attached to the WordPress articles, they post related material on their own blogs or sites or they can do both.

In the beginning of this article, I put out the idea that expertise and  authority differ. Authority is a perception of others, while expertise can be harbored without anyone else knowing about it. So, it is for others to decide if a person is an authority on some topic, while it is that person’s role to accumulate experience and thought from which expertise can be built.

Thus, it appears that the greatest obstacle to authority is within. I suspect that this is true for many people and if you are one of those, like me, who faces self-doubt, my suggestion is that you write a WordPress blog and leave it open to comments. That’s how I see WordPress and Authority. What is your thinking?

SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA - DECEMBER 10: An act...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

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Try Out Zemanta for WordPress – Your Bloggin Assistant

English: The logo of the blogging software Wor...

Zemanta for WordPress? Have you ever tried to attract traffic to your site by manipulating keywords to lift your location in search engines, putting in links to other relevant sites to improve your credibility and to attract reverse links. Have you looked for relevant images you can use with an article.. images that you can clearly use without violating someone’s license. Well a plugin called Zemanta can help.

The Zemanta for WordPress plugin sits in a sidebar on your ‘edit post’ page where it seems to watch you type. As you do, it searches some databases of articles, links and images to come up with recommendations relevant to the article as you type. There is a ton of detail work that Zemanta takes out of your way. I find that I can write and research much more efficiently using Zemanta.

Zemanta first entered the WordPress plugin repository in 2008 and since it has undergone many revisions as it developed in to what it is today. Now, it is really taking off. It is so useful that it is apparently to be included in WordPress.com. Few of the plugins in the WordPress.org repository make it into WordPress.com. For me the Zemanta for WordPress ability to locate of relevant articles helps me get a better idea of the dialogue that goes on among those who write about the particular topics that interest me. I like to ability to read the related articles that Zemanta finds and to use that in a way to participate in the dialogue. I believe that strengthens my own grasp of the topic.

Not every article is included in the Zemanta database. There is a lot of reliance on FreeBase, a sort of machine readable version of Wikipedia. That, plus the inclusion of images mostly with public licensing can create a bias toward open sources. That really doesn’t bother me as I am totally an open source freak already, but it might bother others who are not.

That said, Zemanta for WordPress does not prevent you from bringing in attributions or images form any source you want. You can place your own flickr archive and your own blog into the list of resources that Zemanta searches. You can also specify your own affiliation with Amazon.com so that any books you discuss can have your affiliate id attached to the outbound links.  As Zemanta continues to develop, perhaps there will be a more generalised affiliation tool that allows other affiliations to be tagged with appropriate data.

In order to install Zemanta for WordPress on a self-hosted WordPress site,  you need only navigate in your dashboard to Plugins->Add New. In the search box type in Zemanta and when the search is done, you can click on install. There are good instructions in the settings pages for setting up Zemanta.

I’m interested in hearing your experiences with Zemanta or with other ways to enhance the marketing or reach of your blog.

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Facebook Integration

With Facebook Integration, your WordPress content can be driven to your Facebook page. I like the notion espoused by Neil Matthews on Wp Dude. The idea is that WordPress is your home base while Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+ and other social media sites that you do not own are outposts. You want to focus your efforts on building the value of your home base and use the outposts to meet people.

Social media can be the ultimate time consumer. So, if you are like me, you’ll want to focus your time because there never seems to be enough of it and it can  be a real boon to write a blog post and have it pushed right out to your other social media accounts. There are several plugins that accomplish this task.

Those plugins that seem to get the most raves, are each aimed at individual social media.  For example, Simple Facebook Connect handles Facebook to WordPress connectivity very well, but doesn’t do anything for for LinkedIn or Twitter.

In this article I am going to focus on connecting your WordPress site to Facebook. In later articles, I’ll get into other social media.

I recommend the Simple Facebook Connect plugin.  In order to use this plugin, you’ll need to navigate to plugins->add new in your admin page and enter Simple Facebook Connect into the search box and then install and activate Simple Facebook Connect.  Note that this plugin require WordPress 2.9 or higher.

You will also need a Facebook account and you’ll need to create an application in Facebook. There are instructions on how to do this in the plugin’s option page. You’ll need to go through the options and decide which ones you’d like to implement on your site. I like to publish from my WordPress site to Facebook. If you elect to support this option, there will
be a button that will appear on the bottom right of your post editing screen that allows you to publish to Facebook.

I also like the Facebook like button widget. It is as simple as dragging the  widget to your sidebar and then entering the URL of your Facebook page.

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