Using RSS and widgets to syndicate content to your Ning network
Ning.com makes it easy to create your own social network. You choose which features your network uses, including blogs, chat, groups, events, photos, videos and music. Features you don't need won't clutter up your screen, and you can extend the functionality with third-party content and applications. It's your group, so you decide who joins and what the rules are.
Ning is free, so the only limitation is your imagination. You could create a group to keep in touch with the extended family, sharing photos, videos and chatting between get-togethers. Perhaps your local classical music society would like to keep up the discussion between lecture meetings, or would like a place for members to share their thoughts on the programme? Maybe your college alumni association would benefit from having a place where old friends can mingle online, and build up their confidence to attend a real-life reunion? Ning enables you to bring all the benefits of social networking to any group of people with a shared interest.
Even if you don't already have a group of people waiting for a place to congregate online, Ning enables you to create a social network and helps you to recruit members. Your social network can be found through search engines (including Google), and Ning will recommend your network to members of its other networks who might be interested in yours.
Chapter 9 of Social Networking for the Older and Wiser covers Ning in depth. The site is easy to use, especially if you've used other social networking sites such as Facebook, Friends Reunited and Twitter which are covered earlier in the book. I wanted to share one of the more advanced features with you, too. There wasn't room for it in the book, and it's much more complex than most of the other content in the book, so it didn't fit comfortably. But I'll post it here and hope that you find it useful!
Syndicating Content from Other Sites
As well as notes, there are two types of content that only an organiser can add to a network's main page. These are powerful tools that enable you to bring in live content from another website, such as BBC headlines, and have it appear on your network's homepage. With power comes complexity, though, so this is the most difficult part of using Ning. Feel free to skip this and come back to it later, if you prefer.
Adding RSS feeds to your network
The first type of content is RSS, which is often said to stand for really simple syndication. Have you ever found yourself repeatedly visiting the same website to see if it's been updated yet? Well, RSS is designed to solve that problem for you. An RSS feed is a standard way for websites to publish their updates, so that other websites or programs can keep an eye on them for you. Instead of having to visit five different news sites, for example, you could use the free Google Reader (www.google.com/reader). You tell it the websites you want to watch, and it monitors their RSS feeds. When you go to Google Reader, you'll see all the latest updates from all your websites, unclouded by all the old stuff you've already seen.
What this means for Ning is that you can publish updates from other websites on your Ning network. Ning can take the information in the RSS feed and use it to update your homepage, so that it displays the latest content from another website. Content available using RSS includes:
- BBC News headlines (news.bbc.co.uk)
- The Telegraph's coverage of cricket, football, rugby, the royal family, celebrity news, economics, or politics, with many other dedicated feeds available (www.telegraph.co.uk/rssfeeds/)
- Top news stories across the web in the categories of world, UK, business, science and technology, entertainment, sports, and health that have been found by Google News (news.google.com)
- Your latest tweets or tweets by another Twitter user (www.twitter.com)
- The most popular websites tagged with a particular keyword on Delicious (such as delicious.com/popular/photography for the keyword photography)
- Weather forecasts for your town (www.wunderground.com)
- Headlines and content from many popular blogs
There are many other places you can find RSS feeds too, including most news sites. To find an RSS feed, first go to the website you want to import content from. The RSS feed will be linked somewhere on the website, sometimes using text but more often using a variation of the logo shown here:
It's is usually orange, but it can be any colour. You might have already noticed this logo in the top right corner of this website, where I've put it so people can easily find the RSS feed for my blog. When you click an RSS logo (try it on the example image above, if you like!), if you're using Internet Explorer you see a page that looks like the following screengrab, showing the feed content:
If you're using a different web browser, it might look different to this. You can tell you're looking at the RSS feed because it has no formatting, headlines or background colours. If it looks the same as the website you just clicked from, you haven't found the RSS feed yet, so you need to keep exploring.
Once you've found the RSS feed, you need to copy its website address. Click the address bar, highlight the address and copy it by holding down the control key and pressing the C key.
Now go back to Ning and find the RSS box on your network's homepage. Click Edit in the top right of it and the edit form will open, which looks like this:
Click the URL box and use Ctrl+V to paste your RSS feed into the form. You can also change the box's Title from RSS to something more meaningful (such as 'latest BBC news' or 'Twitter updates'). If your RSS box is in the sidebar, keep the default setting to display titles only. If the box is in the wide middle column, you could display the detail view, which might include the entire text of the news stories. If this clogs up the screen too much, trim back the number of items shown.
If you're showing a Twitter feed, only display the titles, otherwise there will be a strange echo (echo) caused by Twitter putting each tweet into the RSS feed as both a title and detail.
When you click Save, your RSS feed is incorporated into the website. Whenever someone views the network homepage, it is updated with the latest news or other content. The titles are links, so members can click to go to the original source to find out more.
Embedding other third-party content in your website
The text box on Ning is deceptively named: it can hold text, but it can also do so much more. You can embed games, pictures, videos - virtually anything it's possible to put on the web.
Into the text box, you put a tiny snippet of webpage, written in the language of web designers, HTML. The good news is all you have to do is cut and paste. You don't have to understand it, you just have to know where to find it and where to move it to. It's like being a courier for NASA.
Many websites encourage you to syndicate their content by publishing code to embed their content in your network. This code is sometimes called a widget and sometimes called embed code. It'll usually be about a paragraph long with lots of pointy brackets.
Try customising your network with goodies from the following:
- Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com), which provides a colourful badge showing the weather forecast for your town. Find your forecast and then click the link for free weather stickers for your homepage. Click on the sticker you'd like to use.
- Widgetbox (www.widgetbox.com), which provides a host of widgets including stock tickers, clocks, countdowns, language translators, music keyboards, crosswords, and arcade games. Click the Get Widget button beside something you like.
- Miniclip, which offers Flash arcade and puzzle games. Find the section for free website games (www.miniclip.com/games/en/webmaster-games.php) and click Get code underneath the icon of the game you want.
- Ebay, the popular online car boot sale (togo.ebay.com). Follow the instructions to create a widget that shows live results for your chosen products.
- Google Gadgets (www.google.com/ig/directory?synd=open), a repository of popular widgets including currency converters, word of the day, horoscopes and games. Click Add to webpage to customise and then click Get the code.
You need to highlight the HTML code provided by the website and copy it. When you return to Ning, click to Edit your text box and then paste the code you copied into the large space provided. When you click the Save button, you should see the content you've imported incorporated in your homepage.
For best results, put your text box in the middle column unless the syndicated content is narrow enough to fit in the sidebar.
Remember you can have multiple text and RSS boxes if you want to import content from several different sources.
About my book Social Networking for the Older and Wiser
This article is bonus content for my book Social Networking for the Older and Wiser. Visit the homepage for Social Networking for the Older and Wiser for all bonus content, the table of contents and free chapters. For the latest news, join the Facebook fan page.