OK, so you’re a relative grownup, aren’t trolling the internet looking for chicks or dudes (let me say again how thankful I am that I got through school before Al Gore and Mark Zuckerberg invented the internet), but would like to use the vastness of the web to find, manage and organize data. And maybe have a little fun in the process. Here are the tools I use to do that, from the baby step of a web browser, to the giant leap of a central online data repository. I’m going to do this in two parts, and I think I’ll stay inside the box and start with Part 1.
First Things First, the web browser.
You are almost certainly reading this on a Windows based machine, which means you are probably using Internet Explorer as your web browser. That’s messed up, but it’s easy to fix. You need to download and install Firefox. It’s free, easy and quick. And your efficiency and coolness factor will get a huge boost. Why? Because of the many add-ons that are available for Firefox. Basic installs of Windows Explorer and Firefox are a wash (particularly the newest version of Internet Explorer), but Firefox with the right add-ons is still a superior experience. There are hundreds of people who use other browsers like Opera and Chrome, and there are teens of people who use something called Flock. Unless you drive a Smart car, make all your own clothes and grow all your own food, you don’t need to worry about those.
And of course, those on Macs and iPhones use Apple’s Safari. You can and should get Firefox for a Mac, and we’ll deal with Safari on the iPhone later.
Now, let’s improve the Firefox experience with some of those add-ons.
Here are some of the ones I use.
AdBlock Plus, to remove ads. This one is a little controversial, since lots of people are trying to make money on the internet and unless you actually have something to sell (most of them don’t) the only legal way to make money on the internet is to put ads all over your page and hope someone accidently clicks on one. We need to help these people get real jobs by blocking the ads. Trust me, this is positive social activism. We’re doing them a favor.
BugMeNot, to anonymously log in to free web sites that insist on making you register. Many of us use fake names anyway (I was Antigone Tellyeaux (get it?) at the Houston Chronicle site for years; I was William Frawley during the glorious Napster years). This is also positive social activism by demonstrating that you don’t really need my name and email address to let me read your news stories and accidently click on your ads. BugMeNot does not provide credentials for paid sites, which is good since we’re all law-abiding grownups.
Foxmarks, to synch bookmarks on all your computers. I keep separate bookmarks on my work computer, but synch them across my home computers and laptops. One caveat: Foxmarks is changing into something called Xmarks and will start offering suggested sites to visit. This sounds to me like a social networking hysteria induced attempt to be something I don’t want, so who knows what the future holds. But until they screw it up, Foxmarks rocks.
TinyURL Creator, to make web links smaller, so we can use them on social networks and whatnot, which we will get to below and in Part 2. In the meantime, you need to practice using the words “social networks,” “Facebook” and “Twitter” in every sentence to show everyone how hip you are. “Hey, Junior, if you don’t change your Facebook status to finishing his homework, I am going to come up there, delete all your social network accounts and then talk about it on Twitter.” See, it’s easy once you get the hang of it.
Photobucket Uploader, to easily upload photos to your Photobucket account. Photobucket’s interface is a train wreck, but combined with this add-on it makes grabbing and sharing photos very easy. I don’t use it to share my personal photos- I use Flickr for that, but Photobucket is great for uploading stuff I want to use on my blog or on one of the social networks.
These are just a few of the plug-ins I use. There are thousands more to choose from. You can browse and search for them here. Here are the ones “recommended” by the makers of Firefox (at the moment, I don’t use any of the ones at the top of that list) and here are the most popular ones. The point is that you can tailor Firefox to your needs via the selective installation of add-ons.
Now you need a war chest to buy the cool stuff you find while surfing around on your tricked-out Firefox.
Paypal is the only way to go here, for a couple of reasons. Lots and lots of places take Paypal; it’s owned by eBay, which is a huge company that has lots of legal and business incentives to make it safe; and most importantly, you can use it to keep your credit card information off the big scary internet. I just keep money in my Paypal account to use when I need it. You can use a credit card or your bank account as a back up source of funds, but either way, Paypal can serve as a buffer between you and all those people trying to steal your money on the internet. I don’t really believe all that but it’s amazing how many of my real world friends are still terrified by the internet. I have one friend who will clutch her purse to her chest and tremble if she hears the word internet.
One caveat: If you get an email from Paypal, asking for your password, don’t give it to them. It’s not Paypal. Delete that one and move on to t
one from the brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate of some dead African president who needs a little help moving some money around.
Now we need to find some places to store, organize and access our data.
For my personal photos, I use Flickr, because I like the interface and the iPhone integration via Mobile Fotos. Plus, you can determine who can see each photo you upload- everyone, people you designate as friends or only you. There are other options, like Picasa (owned by Google and integrated with other Google applications), SmugMug and, as noted above, Photobucket. I think Picasa is a decent alternative for very basic photo sharing and SmugMug has a lot of non-geek traction, but most of the others are either feature or interface challenged. In other words, they are too hard or not as good.
For online file storage (or the Cloud as the cool people call it), I prefer Dropbox. You get 2 gigabytes of free storage (that’s a lot if you aren’t a hardcore geek), a good web interface, and the ability to direct link to your files, including music files (here’s why that’s important). The only criticism I have of Dropbox is that it currently lacks an iPhone app. Box.Net and ZumoDrive are other similar, but not quite as good, alternatives.
The most wonderful, Evernote.
For note taking and general data archival, I use and highly recommend Evernote. It has a great desktop application, a decent web interface and a very good iPhone app. You can add, sort, synch and access your saved data from any computer. Evernote is so important and so hard to explain without pictures, let’s take a look at how I organize my data in Evernote.
I have Notebooks (think of them as folders) for various types of information. The one highlighted above is where I list songs I come across on Blip.fm that I may want to later add to my Blip.fm page. I also have folders for Web Code I use regularly (so I can copy and paste it), Software Licenses, Home Improvement projects, etc. With the Evernote plug-in (see above) I can easily add information, web clips, etc. Let’s look at one more example. Here’s a clip from my Mobile Tech Tips Notebook on how to connect to ATT hotspots via my iPhone. Through the Evernote iPhone app, I can access this information whenever and wherever I need it.
Evernote makes it easy to accumulate, manage and access all sorts of information. The premium (e.g., not free) version even allows you to add and synch files and documents. I don’t use Evernote for that yet, but if it ever catches up to Dropbox, it would present a compelling case for one-stop shopping.
That’s enough to get you started. We’ll cover the rest of the stuff you need soon in Part 2.
If you have questions or other ideas for the perfect online toolbox, let me know in the Comments and I’ll address them in Part 2.