May 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 5

Social Media

Series: Social Networking for the Blind or Visually Impaired

Part II: Social Networks and Desktop Computers

Now that you've gained an understanding of what social networks are, how they work, and their value to you as a user of access technology, it's time to get down to business and turn our attention to utilizing and reaping the benefits of these valuable interactive tools. This article focuses on accessing social networks using a desktop computer. Though it's quite fashionable to interact with these networks using a smartphone or a portable tablet, there is still a great deal of value in using your computer and favorite screen reader. In addition, desktop access serves as a fantastic means with which you might familiarize yourself with the various functionalities present within these virtual communities.

This article provides an overview to three leading social networks, identifies browsing components for access, and concludes with some concrete strategies to quickly and efficiently glean desired information and functionality from each.

Three Different Social Networks and Their Respective Market Segments

While there are over 200 social networks which one might access, our attention will be focused on three extremely popular ones: LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Each network offers its participants a wealth of information, functionality, and the ability to interact with others who have similar interests. Each network requires its participants to establish a user profile. Each network is constantly evolving and changing, which means that some of the materials and strategies covered in this article may not be 100 percent accurate weeks or months after its publication. Finally, while each network was born out of a mission to meet the needs of a particular market segment, it's worth noting that due to the interests of the companies, organizations, and individuals as well as information acquired and shared are relevant to both their personal and professional pursuits. Let's take a panoramic view of each network before accessing them.

LinkedIn

It's no secret that the way you find, maintain, and improve your employment situation has evolved from the dated methods of thumbing through the local newspaper and responding to "Help Wanted" ads, and we have services like LinkedIn to thank for this. Founded in 2003, this social network geared towards the aspiring job seeker hosts approximately 200,000,000 members. Each member has a user profile that is accessed via an e-mail account and a password. This profile provides work history information, andit also allows former colleagues andclassmates you connect with to view your current professional aspirations. Therefore, it's very important when you establish your LinkedIn profile that you are as thorough as possible when providing details about your current and past employment. LinkedIn will only work to your advantage to the degree that you provide substance to your profile (this is also true of the two additional social network services discussed below). LinkedIn provides a means to upload a profile photo by which sighted LinkedIn users might identify you when browsing LinkedIn's profiles. LinkedIn also gives you the ability to upload a resume and associate it with your profile so that, when others view your profile, they may also access your resume within their webbrowser.

Both profile photos and resumes are often overlooked aspects of many LinkedIn user profiles of the visually impaired, but they're often the most important items sought by employers and colleagues. The process of uploading both photos and Word-based resumes is rather straightforward. From the upload field, simply select the "Browse" button using your favorite screen reading command, then select the location on your hard drive where the given file is stored. Activate the "Open" button to place the file location and title in the edit field before selecting the "Upload" option. LinkedIn is polite yet firm about reminding you what percentage of your profile is complete and encourages you each time you sign in to complete the remaining portions of your profile for a more optimal use of the LinkedIn service.

An Overview of Your LinkedIn Service

You can post updates on your LinkedIn profile. Updates might be a topic of interest, a project you are working on, a link to an interesting article, etc. You will be able to view notifications, which might be a response to something you've posted. You may also read, reply, and manage messages using LinkedIn's comprehensive web-mail service. If you're not comfortable with webmail and prefer to stick to a POP or exchange-based mail client, LinkedIn will also send e-mails to the e-mail address associated with your profile, and you may reply to these messages from your mail client. These e-mails may be requests by others to connect to you on LinkedIn, a weekly summary of your connections? LinkedIn activities, or even a personal message from a LinkedIn user or group moderator.

Some helpful suggestions that will enable you to grow your professional network:

  • The more thorough you are when selecting your industries of interest, the more invaluable this service will be to you.
  • Refer to the list of recommended news articles that relate to your areas of interest.
  • LinkedIn also gives you a synopsis of the latest connections that your current LinkedIn connections have made and offers you the opportunity to continue to grow your professional network. It also shows you how many times your profile has been viewed over the past seven days as well as how many times you may have shown up in a LinkedIn search. You may upgrade to a paid premium service to optimize this aspect of your LinkedIn experience. Currently, you may upgrade to LinkedIn Premium for $39.95 per year.
  • LinkedIn gives you a snapshot of your current list of LinkedIn connections and offers suggestions of people you might know and may wish to connect to. It does an eerily exceptional job finding individuals relative to your interests, educational background, and work experience. When you connect with an individual, an e-mail is sent to them inviting them to connect to your network. They may accept or ignore your request. The same is true when others invite you to connect.
  • LinkedIn lists current job openings which it believes may be a good fit for you based on the information in your user profile.
  • The more groups you join, the more information you'll receive, and the more likely you'llbe to grow a healthy and useful professional network.

It costs money to run these networks, so in order for LinkedIn and other similar social network services to remain free of charge to basic users, we all need to endure prominent ads throughout the sites.

In this day and age where educational and rehabilitation services are driven by dollars earmarked toward competitive employment, LinkedIn can be a technology service provider's best friend as both a means of honing important technology skills that consumers will be able to carry into the job market as well as a means of preparing consumers to face a highly competitive job market controlled by a predominately sighted workforce.

Facebook

With over one billion users, Facebook is undoubtedly the most popular of all social networks. Founded in 2004, what was once a network that allowed college students to connect with one another, Facebook has truly morphed into a global phenomenon that affects how we obtain and share information. You can't visit a website that delivers content without encountering an option that enables you to "Like" the website so that you might receive pertinent information about it on your Facebook Timeline. Many sites also provide options to share specific articles to your Facebook Timeline for other Facebook friends to view.

Building a Facebook profile differs dramatically from that of LinkedIn. When you sign up for a Facebook account, you may use an existing e-mail address and establish a password, but when you build your profile, more attention is given to your marital status, your age, hometown, current residence, interests, and family members who may also be on Facebook. You may list educational and work experiences as well, but the emphasis is definitely slanted to a more social experience.

An Overview of Facebook

On your Facebook page, you will find a section that allows you to view any friend requests or invites to different Facebook groups or events that are being hosted via Facebook. Facebook allows for the creation and managment of either virtual or real-time events, where friends and friends of friends may receive, accept, and decline invites to, and receive pertinent information about, specific groups and events.

The Homes section allows you to view your News Feed, which is a compilation of items and activity from your Facebook friends and "Liked" webpages in one place for you to access. You also may read and respond to messages andview upcoming events. You may also manage photos that you've stored on Facebook and make additional edits to your user profile, such as a vocational switch or change in marital status.

You may view groups to which you belong and also view your list of Facebook apps or plug-ins that enable Facebook to interact more seamlessly with other social networks. Be careful when activating and using these third party apps for they often pull information from your Facebook profile and share it with the third party.

You may set up a Facebook page to showcase your interests, a company, etc. and invite your friends or other Facebook users to "Like" your page.

Last but not least, Facebook advertisements keep the service running for all of us to enjoy!

Because Facebook permeates so many different facets of our lives, it's a bit more complex to navigate. We'll cover some strategies for getting the most out of our Facebook experience in the final section of this article.

Twitter

Founded in 2006,Twitter introduced us to the concept of microblogging, providing bits of information in short chunks of text no longer than 140 characters. Twitter users may convey what they are thinking, news, links to pertinent information, videos, and photos by simply composing a "tweet" and posting it. Twitter differs significantly from the social networks previously discussed because one can follow or be followed by other members of the Twitter service relatively easily.

While Twitter is geared for users of mobile devices, it does offer desktop computer functionality. Because it's set up to interact with mobile services, it's a bit easier to navigate on a mobile device than LinkedIn or Facebook. Once you establish your Twitter profile, you may do the following:

  • Compose a new tweet.
  • Search for or follow members Twitter suggests to you.
  • View tweets made by members who you are following.
  • Re-tweet tweets from others.
  • Bookmark a list of favorite tweets.
  • View a list of trends or topics that are being tweeted about.

There are two essential symbols that Twitter users must use to optimize their tweeting experience. Firstly, placein the at (@) symbol directly before someone's Twitter user name allows you to mention them in a tweet. It's a great way to fuel social banter and lively discussions. Secondly,placing the number or pound sign (#) in front of a phrase is an easy method for tagging your tweets for easier searching and categorizing by other users or trending algorithms. A phrase composed this way is called a hashtag.

For example, as a long suffering fan of the Chicago Cubs, I may wish to use #Cubs, #baseball, and #slump when tweeting about my team. If a fellow fan searches for these tags, my tweets will show up along with any others tagged the same way. On your Home page, Twitter can provide a list of trending topics tailored to your location and followers, which can help you find users who are interested in the same things you are.

Overall, Twitter is more than just a service that allows you to tell the world where you are dining or what you are eating for lunch. It's a fantastic way to succinctly convey content to a large audience and is often preferred over the comparatively complex, detailed chunks of information provided by Facebook.

Ingredients for Accessing LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter

Now that you have a basic understanding of these three networks, let's discuss the fundamental ingredients for accessing them. At the heart of all desktop social networking access is the selection of a solid browser. Internet Explorer 10, Mozilla Firefox 20, and Apple's Safari 6.03 are all exceptional options that present information in slightly different ways. Much of this information is dependent upon the manner by which your desired screen reader interacts with these browsers. JAWS for Windows 14 as well as Window-Eyes 8.1 are fantastic compliments to either Internet Explorer or Firefox while VoiceOver 4 provides palatable alternatives to Safari on a Macintosh.

For instance, Windows-based screen readers and webbrowsers take advantage of hotkeys that invoke dialog boxes for accessing elements on a webpage to navigate to different regions of the screen. Once you have become comfortable with the layout of a social network by exploring the different elements available on the main pages, you may use specific hotkeys to navigate among these various elements without bringing up these dialog boxes and, thus, eliminate a step when interacting with these services.

VoiceOver provides rotor commands for accessing elementssuch as headings, links, and form fields within a social network service when using the Safari browser. Users may utilize keyboard equivalents for navigating by their preferred elements or use Apple's multi-gesture trackpad to quickly select these rotor settings.

At the end of the day, before you can expect to be an effective social networker, you must have already mastered web browsing functionality within your screen reader of choice. Secondly, you must ensure that the browser you are using is up to date. Thirdly (and probably most overlooked), you need a machine powerful enough to run an intensive browsing session concurrently with a memory-intensive screen reader.

Practical Strategies for Accessing LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter

After you've selected your preferred screen reader and browser and have updated both on a machine with enough processing power, you'll want a few practical strategies for access. All of these networks organize information via web elements. The first question you must ask yourself after logging onto a service is: What do I want to do? If you wish to share information, you'll learn very quickly that in order to share anything, you must activate a "Share" button. Use your means to locate this button and navigate to the edit field adjacent to it. In this edit field, you may type text or paste the contents of a link. Once this text is entered or pasted into the edit field, activate the "Share" button, and the information will be posted.

If you wish to comment on or "Like" a particular post that a connection or friend has made, locate either of these posts, read the contents, and use the above strategy for locating the appropriate button. If you wish to comment, locate the edit field adjacent to the comment button and repeat the process described above.

All three networks divide their services into easily navigable headings. Navigating via headings is very efficient when trying to locate information on a busy website.

Both Facebook and Twitter have mobile alternatives to their full-blown websites. These mobile websiteshave beendesigned for Windows and Symbian mobile phones and render these services in a more text-based, less cluttered fashion. Users of desktop computers may open their browsers and substitute "m" in place of "www" to visit these alternative sites. Most of the functionality of these networks ispresent within the mobile sites, and this may provide a less intimidating means of getting use to both Twitter and Facebook. The LinkedIn mobile website is not usable for screen readers on desktop computers.

The advantage as well as disadvantage to the full Facebook and Twitter sites is that they refresh information in real-time, which gives you the most up-to-date status of your friends and followers, but it also may create some confusion when you are trying to access specific portions of information. Also, posting photos and videos housed on your computer's hard driveis much more difficult to do via the mobile sites. Facebook does provide an e-mail address to which you may send photos as attachments which will automatically be posted to your Timeline.

You may be reading a news story that appears on your Timeline or was shared with you, and you wish to share the information with others. If there is not a "Share" button present through your social network service or if you are independently surfing the web and don't wish to locate a "Share" button somewhere amongst all the clutter on a particular page, simply navigate to the address bar, copy the URL of the article, and paste it in the edit field of the social network service you are using. You may also post commentary about the article before pasting the link, and let the social network do the rest when you select the "Share" button.

Unfortunately, virtual chatting on Facebook is not very accessible to screen reader users at this time. Facebook does provide a lackluster mobile chat experience using its messaging option on its mobile site, but it's more or less like sending e-mails back and forth.

Lastly, you may kill two birds with one stone by linking your Facebook account with Twitter and/or your Twitter account with Facebook. This enables you to post a tweet that will be shared on your Facebook Timeline or post a status on Facebook that will be shared as a tweet. This decreases the time spent accessing multiple services while sharing information with friends and followers of Facebook and Twitter. In the next and final article in this series, we'll take a tour of how these services perform on today's accessible mobile devices.

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