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Social Networking Primer

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Add links to interesting articles or photos you've seen. "Retweet" postings by forwarding a posting that you find interesting to your own followers. This way, you'll become a more engaged and active member of the community. And tell your friends you're tweeting, too.

Do all of the above, and you may even be able to position yourself on Twitter as a thought leader, as your expertise attracts attention. Don't use the site for spamming, though ("I sell vacuum cleaners in Orange County for low, low prices!!!").

Step 4: Make It Fun. The key to making Twitter enjoyable is to follow a collection of people whose updates you care about. You'll soon discover that some of your friends never tweet, while some tweet way too much. You can stop following anyone who overdoes it by clicking the Remove key beside his or her name.

By mixing feeds from your favorite posters and publications, you start to get a real-time take on subjects that interest you. And on the right side of your home page, you'll see a list of Trending Topics—a look at what the Twitter world is most concerned with at this very minute. Click an entry, and you'll see tweets from all over the world on that subject. Twitter can be your constantly refreshed op-ed page.

Step 5: Make It Useful. Another way to find members who share your interests is by exploiting one of Twitter's search features. If you type the "hash" or "pound" sign (#) at the beginning of a word, your tweet will show up when someone searches for that word. If you love tennis, for example, and you're watching a Roger Federer match at Wimbledon, include "#wimbledon" or "#federer" in your tweets, and you'll soon find yourself deeply engaged with other tennis fans from around the world. You can follow them, and they can follow you.

Step 6: Get Some Help. Twitter's interface is simple and sleek, but it hides some of the site's coolest features, like the ability to post photos and to repost your tweets to your Facebook page. To uncover Twitter's gems, try a free helper program, such as TweetDeck for PCs and Macs, Tweetie for iPhones, or TwitterBerry for BlackBerries. Each program acts as a sort of Twitter dashboard, giving you control over Twitter's shadow features.

Ning

If Facebook and Twitter are too vast and impersonal for you, why not build your own social network for friends, colleagues, leisure groups, or family? That's the compelling concept behind an up-and-comer on the social-networking scene, Ning.

Ning lets you craft your own site (with an address such as "yourname.ning.com"), complete with many Facebook-like features. For example, members can customize profile pages and share posts and photos. You can open membership to anyone or restrict it to people you invite and/or approve.

Ning involves fewer of the hurdles Facebook requires to add friends, join groups, or link to other sites, and less of its "chatter," such as exhortations to add friends and invitations to games and other programs.

After signing up, you can either dive right in and create your own social network or spend some time perusing the publicly listed networks (Nashville Fashion Group, for example, WomenWithADHD, or the Social Ventures Group).

When you set up your own network, you can select its look and feel from among 50 design templates and decide which kinds of information your members will be able or required to share. You'll also set up your own security scheme, making photos, videos, groups, chats, and events public, private, or semi-private. And if you want help managing your group, you can delegate some control to other members.

With the help of Ning, you can create a customized site where your friends, family, or organization can collaborate in as many ways as you'd like—keeping up with goings-on, discussing issues, and sharing photos, videos, and calendars.

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