Skype your way to learning

Music lessonAs a musician, I used to think that there were some things that could never be taught online. For example, learning to play a musical instrument seemed to call for a face-to-face interaction without question.

But I was surprised to learn that there are many teachers conducting class and individual lessons over Skype. Some of these teachers have students who are miles away, and others use Skype to occasionally supplement face-to-face lessons. You can imagine that if music can be taught this way, many other subjects can be as well. A wealth of how-to videos can be found on YouTube.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Skype (, it is is a peer-to-peer service that enables you to make and receive video and voice calls with your computer via the Internet (known as Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP). Skype also works nicely on tablets and smartphones. And in addition to video calls, Skype can handle phone calls, text messages, file attachments and more.

Because connecting to another Skype user is free, Skype has become popular for international calls. Skype makes money by charging for connections to and from landline and cellular phones.

How does it work?

1. Download Skype or a Skype mobile App.

2. Create an account sign in, and add contacts.

3. To call Skype contacts, click the person’s name and choose video or call. To call a phone, click Call phones and enter the number.

Tips for successful Skyping

  • Begin with the basics. A higher-grade webcam, headset and microphone can help filter out background noise and improve audio or video quality. And a high-speed WIRED Internet connection will make the experience more pleasant. On wireless connections, audio conversations will cut out more frequently and the video will not be as responsive.
  • Make sure that both sites are using the same and the most up-to-date versions of the Skype software.
  • Keep other system demands as low as possible when Skyping. Even so, some issues cannot be controlled (bandwidth, firewalls, excessive number of connected users.) If your connection is poor, try reconnecting one or more times to get a better connection.
  • To improve video quality, make sure both sites are well-lighted. Video is best viewed on small screens; it becomes grainy when displayed on a projection screen
  • Unscrupulous Skype users sometimes contact strangers and pose as a friend or family member to get personal information, such as bank account numbers. Be skeptical of any contact that you were not expecting through Skype. Be especially wary of following any web links sent to you through Skype.

That’s the quick and dirty version. Try it out and let me know what you think!

Image:  Gerard ter Borch  (Dutch) The Music Lesson.


Typography and Web 2.0

Google fonts

A weird thing happened in 2009 when IKEA decided to change from Futura to Verdana. People noticed! And they weren’t at all happy about it.

Even if doesn’t register in a concrete “Wow, look at that cool font” kind of way, the ethos of a font family is present in thousands of intrinsic little ways: the curve of a letter, the thickness of a line, the feeling that it invokes. College Humor took that idea to a new and silly level in its personified “Font” videos: check out Font Fight.

If you still think that a font is a font is a font, allow me to explain a little more about IKEA’s situation.

IKEA had a very good business reason to switch from Futura to Verdana: their website was already using it, and they wanted their print materials to match. Verdana is a fine font for the web: it’s available on almost any computer, and it looks clean and modern. It’s even a sans-serif font, just as Futura is. But the big difference was that Futura was not a web-friendly font (ironically, that isn’t the case now.)

So let’s take a look and see what the controversy was about. Below is an image of the two fonts, courtesy of Shocking differences, yes? 🙂

IKEA font

In a National Post excerpt of his book Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield explained more about the true source of the controversy:

Like the bookcase, Verdana was also in almost every home, and becoming something you barely noticed. But that, for dissenters, was the point: Verdana was everywhere, and now it was in one more place. It was becoming a non-font that we don’t even register [emphasis added]. Which is precisely why it was so effective, and exactly why it was chosen (Garfield, 2011).

Typography really does set a mood–it almost affects the way we speak the written words. Remember when LeBron James left Cleveland to seek his fame elsewhere? Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ majority owner, wrote a scathing open letter about James’ ‘shameful display of selfishness and betrayal’ (Gilbert, 2010). Very harsh words indeed.

The kicker? The letter was written in Comic Sans, one of the most reviled and ridiculed fonts on the planet.

It’s worth a short digression to read the letter in its original Comic Sans glory. Try reading it aloud without laughing. Was this font chosen in a show of disdain or in a tone-deaf move by an angry Clevelander? Or was Comic Sans one of five fonts that could be chosen in a basic web editor? You be the judge.

So this brings me to templates. Templates forsake individual control in favor of stability and consistency. As Kristin Arola explains in The Design of Web 2.0: the Rise of the Template, the Fall of Design, this separation of content and form means that the rhetorical choice behind a particular font, for example, is now taken away from us.  Much like the IKEA “fontroversy”, we are now presented with “non-fonts that we don’t even register”:

In the late 1990s, creating a web page through either hand coding or a WYSIWYG program necessarily included choices of how and if to incorporate graphics, colors, fonts, sounds, and hyperlinks. Today, our students still choose photographs, words, sounds, and hyperlinks (clearly all rhetorical choices), but they choose colors, fonts, and shapes less and less. Instead, the platform, or more specifically the design template, is chosen for them (Arola, p. 6).

Like most social media sites, my WordPress template works well for me because the creators took out some of the guesswork. There is no need for me to use HTML or CSS to structure the page; the template takes care of that for me. My site will look pretty much the same on Firefox, Chrome, or Safari. It’s a good thing, right? Maybe not.

Perhaps we all need to guard ourselves and our friends from the misuse of  Comic Sans (except on April Fools Day), but the very nature of Web 2.0 means that we must understand exactly what we lose: the ability to rhetorically create the space and ethos of a communication.

Come to think of it, that little bit of ethos might be worth fighting for.


Arola, Kristin L. (2010) The design of Web 2.0: the rise of the template, the fall of design. Computers and Composition 27 (2010) 4–14.

Garfield, Simpson (2011). IKEA’s epic Swedish fontroversy. National Post
Gilbert, Dan (2010). Open letter to fans from Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert | THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS.

The humanity of social networking technologies: phatic communication


The other day I was chatting with the parents of some incoming first-year students, and the topic turned to the ways technology has changed since we were in college. One dad bemoaned the increasing preference for texting over telephone conversations (not to mention face-to-face conversations.)

He went on to point out the dehumanizing effects of social media–a viewpoint that many experts agree with. In fact, heavy Facebook use has been linked with higher rates of depression and general dissatisfaction with life in college students. Yikes!

In their article On phatic technologies for creating and maintaining human relationships, Victoria Wang et al define  a phatic technology as one that “serves to establish, develop and maintain human relationships.” An outcome of this relationship is the formation of a social community (44). If that dad and I had more time (and if I weren’t trying so hard to be agreeable), I might have pointed out some of the ways that texting, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social tools have actually given us additional chances to maintain community and the human touch, especially from a distance.

Because I work in technology, I know all too well that social media has its pitfalls. And I have seen enough cat videos to last for three lifetimes. Yet social media has also enabled me to keep in touch with family on both coasts, receive urgent news instantly, and to experience a sense of community with colleagues, friends, and relatives who may never meet each other in person. (I won’t pretend to speak for traditional-aged college students, who may experience both the need to connect and the need to strike out on their own.)

Writing in Awareness Systems: Advances in Theory, Methodology and Design, Frank Vetere et al found that online phatic interactions fell into four categories:

  1. maintaining an existing relationship
  2. initiating a conversation
  3. developing a new relationship
  4. being polite and observing social norms (183).

It is this fourth category, the idea of being polite, that critics seem to focus on the most. Can it be that people understand the rules of “Twittiquette,” but they have in the meantime lost their ability to function in polite society? For example, in a humorous video treatment, YouTube user evmoneytv pokes fun at our apparent struggles with understanding how to wait in line (“How to stand in line”). We clearly need help relearning our manners.

In fact, as Frank Vetere and his co-authors point out, phatic systems are designed precisely to convey significance and meaning by taking the shortest path possible — cutting the line, if you will (178). The real differentiator for modern phatic technologies is not rejection of good manners, but an emphasis on speed. We can complete social transactions almost instantaneously, compared to some of our older methods (like letter-writing). We shorten our messages or leave out some of the details in order to keep up the pace. For some of us, the speed adds a sense of anxiety as we try to stay connected to our communities. And when we’re anxious, we can forget our manners.

Certainly we feel wistful about the joy of reading a beautifully-written letter or the thrill of hearing the voice of a loved one, but let’s not assume that new technologies completely eliminate the human touch. Remember what your mama taught you, and follow the Golden Rule–we’ll figure the rest of it out as we go along.


evmoneytv (2010).  How to stand in line.

Gibbs, M. (2009). The first 10 rules of Twittiquette.

Markopoulos, P., De Ruyter, B., Mackay, W., eds (2009). Awareness Systems : Advances in Theory, Methodology and Design. (2013). Is Facebook Ruining Our Social Skills? [Infographic] .

V. Wang, J. V. Tucker, T. E. Rihll (2011). On phatic technologies for creating and maintaining human relationships, Technology in Society, Volume 33, Issues 1–2. (

Is a tweet the new elevator pitch?

""I just finished reading an interesting Wall Street Journal article that explains how recruiters are using Twitter to get an idea of a job-seeker’s social tenor. In case you (like me) aren’t working as hard on your Twitter profile as you are on your LinkedIn profile, it might be time to consider this:



Vala Afshar, Enterasys’ chief marketing officer, says he’s convinced Twitter recruiting is the way to go.

“I am fairly certain I am going to abandon the résumé process,” he says. “The Web is your CV and social networks are your references.”

Although Twitter is not a major recruiting tool–yet–it’s worth noting that any social network you use can become part of your job search, whether or not you intended it. Keep it professional, and choose your words wisely.

The New Résumé: It’s 140 Characters
Photo Credit: ~Ilse via Compfight cc

Dust off your LinkedIn profile

LinkedIn is the “go-to” social channel for professionals. Whether you are seeking a job or you are happily employed, you should be on LinkedIn. You can do a lot with the free version, and even more with the paid version. (This post covers the free version only.)

If you’re still on the fence, consider this:

  • Right now, LinkedIn is one of the few social media channels that turns a profit. If you have your doubts about Facebook or Google+, you can rest easy when it comes to LinkedIn. It has established itself as a driving force in social media and a foundation of modern HR operations.
  • LinkedIn allows you to connect your other social channels, such as Facebook, Twitter and WordPress. Connections are the driver behind social media: the more you make, the better you position yourself in the new frontier of the digital workplace.
  • LinkedIn purchased SlideShare a few months ago. SlideShare allows you to share all sorts of presentations–the kind you might already have created in PowerPoint, Open Office, or Keynote. It’s the “go-to” social channel for presentations.

So it’s time to get your profile up to speed. If you’ve already created a LinkedIn account, log in, click Profile, and then Edit Profile.

Check your LinkedIn settings. Before you begin the transformation of your LinkedIn world, check settings to be sure you like what you see. After each adjustment, be sure to click Save Changes.

  • Look for the Activity Feed module (mine was on the right side of the page, about halfway down.) This works much like Facebook activity feeds. It’s likely you’ll see lots of (mildly interesting) things that you have been doing on LinkedIn.
  • Click Edit and choose who can see your feed. Options range from Everyone to Only  you. Set this to Everyone. That’s the best way to connect with others (and to publicize your Slideshare activity, which we’ll cover in just a bit.)
  • Here’s why it’s OK to let everyone see your feed–there’s a way to turn off the most incriminating activities. Look for the Privacy Controls section. Click Turn on/off your activity broadcasts.This option presents a simple checkbox: “Let people know when you change your profile, make recommendations, or follow companies.” Deselect this box if you are actively searching for a job and don’t want to broadcast that fact to your co-workers or boss.
  • There are many more settings you can adjust. Keep going, or simply move on to the next task: your profile.
Update your LinkedIn profile. Assuming you don’t scrupulously maintain your profile (who among us does?), take time to freshen it up. Recent updates to the interface allow you to rearrange sections, add areas of expertise, and more.
  • Is your photo crisp and professional? If not, pick out a better one and upload it.
  • Like all social media, LinkedIn search works best with good, specific keywords. For any area you CAN edit, be sure you are using industry words that an employer or colleague would search.
  • Take time to view and adjust your public profile. Years ago I made the mistake of neglecting my profile, and I believe that it cost me a chance at a very appealing job. Learn from my mistakes…
Add apps to your LinkedIn profile. Under Groups, Companies & Applications, look for Applications and click Add Applications. You’ll see an impressive list of apps. Choose one or two (hey, there’s SlideShare!) and follow the directions. You’ll be asked to connect to other accounts and to choose whether or not the app’s activity shows up on your profile.


What are your favorite LinkedIn tips? Add them to the comments below.

UPDATE: LinkedIn Applications are being replaced with a new feature that lets you add media links to images, presentations, videos, and documents. This is only available if you have the new LinkedIn profile and previously had LinkedIn Applications installed on your LinkedIn account. More details from LinkedIn.

Why business majors should pay attention in history class

File this one under “the power of social media” or — even better– a lesson in the importance of liberal education. Someone at The Gap made the decision to offer a t-shirt with the slogan “Manifest Destiny” as part of the GQ collection. So what’s the problem?

While the slogan sounds innocuous enough to some, the problem arises when we review American history. As social media commentary noted, the genocide of native peoples was a shameful part of Manifest Destiny–surely not the message that The Gap intended to promote by creating this shirt.

The lesson here is that it’s not enough to master courses in marketing and advertising–we also need the cultural and historical background that allows us to make informed decisions about what we sell and how we sell it. A liberal education should provide this context, and hopefully help businesses avoid this kind of bad PR.

Gap Pulls ‘Manifest Destiny’ T-Shirt From Shelves After Social Media Outcry – ABC News.

Crowdsourcing the Dictionary

We all know that social media isRoad sign with bird images reshuffling the lexicon in ways that we have never seen before. As a technical writer, I enjoyed this post from Alex Brown at Collins Dictionary:

How Social Media Is Changing the English Language and Why It Matters to Marketers

Alex begins by talking about language, but then there is a shift to customer engagement.Who knew the two were connected?

To me, the lesson is summed up in Alex’s last paragraph:

We expect social media to remain a driving force in the transformation of language and the expansion of our lexicon, dramatically reducing the amount of time it takes for new terms to achieve widespread adoption in the culture. But just as important, we expect social media to be a critical tool in crowdsourcing information back to our organization and other businesses that place a high value on customer engagement.