A Newbie's Guide to Flock

Confused or bewildered by Flock? Don't be scared, we've got you covered with the latest in our Newbie's Guides.

What is Flock and why should you use it?

Flock is essentially Firefox with a handful of highly focused extensions built in to let you connect with social services like Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and others. We think Flock 1.0, which is now in public beta, offers a fantastic browsing experience that brings you the best of Firefox with a few tweaks that prove to be exceptionally helpful. For Web newbies out there, Flock's offering provides an easy way to manage and monitor profiles, media uploads, and communications with all your social networks while continuing to browse other sites like you would in any old browser.

Here are four steps to get you up and running with Flock's biggest features:

1. Setting up permissions and accounts

Once installed, Flock will want to make itself your primary browser. We'd recommend holding off on making it the default until you decide whether or not you like it more than whatever you're currently using. Just remember the default browser is the one that URLs open up from when clicked on from other applications on your computer.

Flock is based on the same underlying code as Firefox, and basic features work the same, so if you're a Firefox user you'll feel right at home.

Most of Flock's special features revolve around its nine special menu buttons and the sidebar that sits below them.

To experience what Flock offers beyond Firefox, the first thing you'll want to do is connect it to your social networking accounts. To do this, you'll have to introduce yourself to the sidebar menu, which is where you'll find nine icons that serve as ground control for most of Flock's special features. Click on the one shaped like a key, which takes you to the accounts and services control panel. Here you'll find links split up into four sections for people, media sharing, blogging, and social bookmarking. Clicking each of the links will take you to the site or service, and if you've got login credentials, entering them will automatically save your account settings.

Continue reading to learn about ways to track friends, exploring and saving social media, and easy ways to share and blog Web content you come across using some of Flock's built-in tools.

Keep tabs on your friends with Flock's people toolbar. You can even use it for quick shortcuts to their social networking pages.

2. Tracking friends

The most useful feature you're likely to end up using, and what really makes Flock fun, is the people button. This is the one with a head shape on it, and clicking it will pull up all your personal contacts from Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter. Assuming you're a member of any of these, and have logged in, you'll find the latest activity from all of your friends in chronological, or alphabetical order.

To make use of all your connected friends, simply clicking on their icon will go straight to their profile on each service. There's also a built-in friends search that will let you search through all your friends right at the bottom of the sidebar. If you've got the same person on multiple networks, it will pull up their profile for each service as long as you've got the "all" tab selected.

If you feel like messaging one of your friends through the side bar, you can take advantage of the "actions" function. It's the link in the lower right hand corner of their name. Clicking it drops down each service's set of actions, which are quick shortcuts for communications functions. For example, if you're clicking on a Facebook friend on the side bar, you'll get actions to send them a message, poke them, or write on their wall. Likewise, if it's a friend on Twitter, you'll see the option to nudge them, or send them a private message. You can see an example of this in action on the picture to the right.

3. Exploring and saving social media + RSS feeds

Now that you're familiar with the people bar, it's time to take advantage of it to make sharing stuff you find online a little easier. The first tool for that is the Media Minibar. It's a simple toolbar that you can toggle with the photo button that's just to the right of the people button in Flock's menu controls. The Minibar shows photo and video thumbnails from any services you've got connected, and lets you browse entire photo albums without visiting a site. The service connects with "media streams" from Flickr, Photobucket, and Facebook for photos, along with YouTube and AOL's Truveo video search service for video clips. If you're visiting a site with a media stream, the little camera button in the address bar will light up.

If you end up seeing something you like while browsing (be it a link, chunk of text, photo or video), and want to share it with a friend, you can just click on it, and drag it over to a friend's name. If you don't feel like sharing something straight away, or want to send a whole bunch of items at once, we recommend using the Web clipboard (the little icon shaped like a clipboard in the Flock toolbar).

The Media Minibar lets you browse through media streams from your friends. You can also search from several photo and video services.

There are two ways to add content to your clipboard. The first, and easier, is to drag and drop, but if you're surfing without the sidebar open, you can just right-click anything you wanted to share and pick the "send to Web clipboard" option from the contextual menu. For power users who are looking for a research tool, the Web clipboard does a surprisingly good job. You can actually organize all the clips you've taken into folders and subfolders. The only hard part is getting them off and onto another service in one fell swoop, which you can do using the blog tool, which we'll get into farther on down.

Flock has a RSS feed reader built in that basically takes the standard one in Firefox and makes it a little easier to manage. There are a few ways to add RSS feeds, either by hitting the RSS button while browsing a site and clicking the "subscribe" option on the top of the page, or importing a list of your feeds from another service. Flock used the OMPL format, which is the way a lot of feed readers let you import or export RSS data in a nice little wrapped up file full of your feeds.

To do this from Google Reader, one of the most popular RSS readers around:

1. Click "settings" option while signed into Google Reader
2. Click on the "import/export" tab
3. Choose "export your subscriptions as an OPML file."
4. Save the file to your desktop
5. Change the extension on the file from ".XML" to ".OPML"
5. In Flock, while in the RSS reader (the little RSS icon in the toolbar) click the "feed preference" button
6. Click the "import feeds" button, then find your file and upload it.

The feeds will show up one at a time in whatever order you had them categorized in Google Reader, and you're good to go.

If you feel like sticking with Google Reader, or any other service, you can setup Flock to act as a quick shortcut for adding a site to your list of read sites. To do this, go back to the RSS reader's "settings" menu and choose "subscribe to the feed using," then choose from the available services. You can also set it to make use of any software-based RSS reading software by clicking the "choose application" option. From then on if you run into a site whose feed you want to subscribe to, just click the little RSS icon in the address bar when it's orange, pick the feed you want, and it'll be added automatically.

Flock's photo editor lets you upload shots to Flickr, Facebook, and Piczo complete with tags and privacy controls.

4. Sharing and Blogging

If you're a media creator, and have your own photos Flock's got a built-in photo uploader that will take photos from your computer's hard drive, and post them to Facebook, Flickr, and Piczo. To fire it up, just hit the up arrow, which you'll find on the very right side of Flock's custom menu controls, and you'll be greeted to a screen where you can drag and drop your photos.

There are two options to pay attention to here. The first is batch, and the second is individual photo editing. Any options you change in batch will be reflected on the entire set, so if you set the privacy level to something like friends-only, the same will go for each and every photo. Each service has different rules and settings for tags and groupings, so pay attention.

If you're a blogger, Flock has a built-in blogging tool. It works with several popular services including Wordpress, Blogger, LiveJournaland Typepad. You can also set it up to work with a hosted blog, which Flock will do its best with when you give it the URL and login credentials. You can drag pictures over from the media bar, or your clipboard, and go to town with links and text formatting. Just like the Web clipboard contextual menu, there's one for blogging as well, and right clicking a photo, link, or clump of text will bring up the "blog this" option.

To set up your blog for posting, just click on quill icon that's to the left of the photo uploader icon. Then click on "tools" then "configure blog accounts". Either pick out a supported service, or choose the "I host my blog" option, followed by the URL and your user login. When posting, don't worry about choosing which blog you want to publish to, as the option will show up when you hit the publish button.

Beyond Noob

Adding extensions.

Flock has its own listing of tested extensions that work just like they do in Firefox. Because Flock is a mashup of sorts, you're bound to come across the occasional extension that just won't work. For that, you're better off sticking to Firefox, but for everything else you'll find it in Flock's maintained directory of tested extensions. What makes Flock's directory worth looking at is its categorization, which focuses on social networks, widgets, and blogging tools.

Tweaking the search box

If you come across a site with its own custom search tool, the search icon in your address bar will turn orange. Clicking it adds it to your list of search engines available in your search box. Alternately, you can find a full list of sites the browser is cross referencing here.

Other resources:
Flock's quick start guide
Flock's Wikipedia Entry
The Definitive Flock Beta 1 Review by Paul Stamatiou
Flock's user hacks forum

Tags:
Software
About the author

Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.

 

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