The explosion of social media has left many people struggling to keep pace with a torrent of online feeds and updates, from the latest celebrity tweets and friends' Facebook posts to co-workers' blurbs and professional bulletins on LinkedIn.
But if it seems like there's another trendy social network launched every year to keep up with ( hello Google (GOOG)+), don't despair. Several online tools can help you stay on top of feeds from multiple accounts, post your own messages simultaneously on different sites and, if you want, learn more about particular topics or the people you follow online.
And here's a little secret the pros know: With these services, you can compose those pithy witticisms when inspiration strikes in the middle of the night -- and schedule them to post automatically at a later time, when more of your friends and colleagues are likely to be online.
"I think we're all trying to cope with the best way to manage the fire hose, without getting drowned," said social media consultant J.D. Lasica, referring to the deluge of digital updates that threatens to consume our waking hours.
Three of the most popular tools for managing social media are free. While similar in concept, each may appeal to different users.
TweetDeck is perhaps the best-known and simplest to use. Seesmic and HootSuite offer more capabilities, including paid versions with extra features for professional users.
HootSuite in particular has many functions geared toward marketing professionals, although a spokesman said it has a broad base of casual users, too. Seesmic, meanwhile, plans to discontinue some services in coming months as it focuses on fewer products, according to CEO Loic Le Meur.
For now, all three are available both as Web-based services and as apps for iPhones and Android devices. There are also desktop versions that can be downloaded onto a PC or Mac, but the Web versions can be accessed from any computer without downloading extra software.
Essentially, each service provides a dashboard that pulls the feeds from all your social media accounts together into columns that you can view on one screen or, on a smartphone, a series of screens that you can access with a touch or swipe of your finger.
That makes it relatively easy to track all those accounts without opening a different app for each one. You can also set up columns for specific purposes. For example, you can put all the tweets from your close friends in one, or create a search that lets you monitor updates on a particular topic in another.
In addition, these services let you write an update, attach a link or photo, and post it simultaneously to the accounts you choose. By clicking on the appropriate icons, you can share the item with all your followers, or target only certain accounts. And all three services let you schedule your posts, so you can compose them when it's convenient and distribute them at other times of the day.
That may sound a bit obsessive for people who just want to chat or share an interesting link with friends. But social media pros like Lasica say it's a good idea for people who need to manage their time: Set aside half an hour for scanning feeds and composing updates, then focus on other tasks during the rest of the day.
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