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Tools to help manage your social media

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 ), 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.

"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 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.

"Even our basic users like the idea of not spamming friends" with a series of posts, said HootSuite Vice President Ben Watson, "so they schedule a couple of tweets and make it so they've got a presence throughout the day."

There are some key differences between the three services. TweetDeck, which started life as an independent app, was acquired by Twitter last year. It draws feeds from Twitter and Facebook but doesn't work with LinkedIn, a business-oriented network that's geared for professional contacts and job searches.

TweetDeck started as a program that users download to their own computers. It now offers a Web-based version for two browsers, Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome, but doesn't work with Internet Explorer or Firefox. Since the acquisition, some longtime users have complained that Twitter changed the TweetDeck interface and made the iPhone version balky. But a reporter's trial on an Android phone found no obvious problems.

For more flexibility, some users prefer Seesmic, which has Web versions for all the major browsers. It also incorporates feeds from LinkedIn and Salesforce Chatter, a business-oriented service designed to let co-workers chat and collaborate on projects. Seesmic has other handy features: Users can click a button to easily set up "filters" that sort Twitter streams by topic or key word. And as you scroll through the posts in your Twitter feed, Seesmic displays each person's "Klout" score, determined by another company that measures online influence based on followers, re-tweets and other factors.

But Seesmic, which has evolved from its start as a video-sharing service, is changing its business model again. Le Meur, the founder, said recently that the company will discontinue its Web dashboard in coming months, while focusing on a mobile product for Android and another service called Ping. The latter lets users post to multiple accounts, but doesn't allow monitoring different feeds.

Those who want more capabilities may consider HootSuite, which offers a wide range of options for users to configure their dashboards. That can make it daunting at first, but the interface is easy to use once it's set up.

HootSuite also has a variety of "analytics" tools for businesses and marketing professionals who want to track online reputations or the effectiveness of Internet campaigns. While some are free, most are part of the HootSuite premium packages, which start at $5.99 a month.

So far, none of the services take feeds from individual Google accounts, although HootSuite's higher-end version incorporates Google Pages, which are used by businesses. Seesmic's Le Meur said he'd like to add Google , but Google has not yet released the programming tools.

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Social tools

Several free services help users organize feeds and post updates to multiple social networking accounts.

Here are three:

*HootSuite: www.hootsuite.com

Basic version is free (ad supported); pro version is $5.99 (allows archival of tweets); available for mobile and desktop

*Seesmic: www.seesmic.com

In beta version and currently free; available for mobile and desktop

*TweetDeck: www.tweetdeck.com

Free; available for mobile and desktop

- San Jose Mercury News