Brad Rourke's Blog

Entries categorized as ‘blogs’

This Space Is Mine

December 21, 2012 · Leave a Comment

The recent Instagram terms of service controversy has got me thinking.

Instagram Explained – via xkcd

It seems that, inexorably, we have been drawn to social media in deeper and deeper ways over the past three years or so. 2010 was the year Facebook took off and it is now the center of gravity for mainstream social media. Twitter is the second (and, for many, the true center of gravity). Other sharing services — LinkedIn, Instagram, Foursquare, Path, Google+,  and more — are not just for tech people but are part of the mainstream.

Our lives, for many of us, have an embedded component of online sharing that simply did not exist a few years ago.

Organizing Your Institution To Engage Through Social Media

Organizing Your Institution To Engage Through Social Media

All along, when leaders of organizations asked me for advice about how they should handle their interactions with social media, I have given the same advice: Establish a blog and have that be your home base. Share from there. Don’t post directly to Facebook, Twitter, etc., but instead make sure you post an article on your blog and share that. This gives you ultimate control of all content.

Good advice, and I think it is still valid.

However, like many people, I know that I have slipped more and more from that ideal as living completely within the Facebook and (to a lesser extent) Twitter ecosystems becomes easier and easier. I now post lengthy commentaries as “notes” in Facebook whereas I might earlier have written them up as posts at my blog. I post photos directly to Instagram instead of on my Picture Of The Day blog.

Instagram recently reminded the social media world of one small truth: they own their own networks. (For those who don’t know, Instagram established new terms of service that included advertising potentially using user photos; the backlash caused them to back down.) As a heavy user of social services, this does not bother me — I know it and am fine with it. However, in reviewing my own behavior, I note that I have ignored its ramifications more and more. Lots of my content is now not under my control.

So, as the year ends and a new one begins, this is an opportune time to take my own advice and post more to my blog, and then share from there. That way, if the long-feared “now you have to pay for Facebook!” event comes to pass — or, more likely, it becomes irrelevant like MySpace in some years as something new supplants it — I will be prepared.

Categories: blogs

Nine Rules For Discussing Tough Issues Online

December 18, 2012 · 6 Comments

Apropos of yesterday’s lament about uncivil behavior online, here are some rules I try to follow when discussing contentious issues on social media and in blog comment threads:

  1. Say nothing online I would not say in person
  2. Be very mild with language because it can be misconstrued and taken the wrong way
  3. Remember my conversation is public
  4. Never call someone by name if I am criticizing a view they hold (“Some people have argued that _____” not “Bill said ___”)
  5. Include statements that allow for disagreements (“I recognize others may disagree . . . “)
  6. Be mild in my proclamations (“I tend to think cats deserve cuddling” not “You should cuddle cats”)
  7. Protect others when they are attacked (on threads I am hosting, and sometimes elsewhere)
  8. If I change my mind, admit it and thank others for widening my views
  9. If I offend, apologize sincerely (without turning the blame back on them by saying I’m sorry they misunderstood me — a non-apology)

What would you add?

Categories: blogs · ethics

Anger In Online Interactions

December 17, 2012 · 3 Comments

The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School have set people across the nation on edge. People are shocked, grieving, angry, confused, frightened, and more. People are reaching out to one another. In person (on the street, in coffee houses) and on social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog comment threads) people are conversing.

As a proponent of dialogue throughout my career, in some ways this is heartening. We don’t engage in serious conversation about public issues nearly enough. Still, it is dispiriting to think it takes a national tragedy of such magnitude to get us talking.

scream and shout

Scream and Shout, by Flickr user mdanys

More troubling, though, is to observe how difficult it seems to be for people to be civil to one another. I see thread after thread (especially on Facebook) devolve into name calling. This is not new, of course. It comes with the territory online — people are not really themselves online. Or, rather: they are themselves without the filters we usually have to enable us to operate in polite company. I will say something online that I would not say to your face.

This is a challenge those of us who try to hold open spaces for people to talk about difficult issues often face. Over the past few days, I found myself reliving my time as publisher of the local news site, Rockville Central — which my friend Cynthia Cotte Griffiths and I ran in order to provide a space for dialogue. One of the reasons that we shut it down after a number of successful years was the sheer nervous energy we had to expend maintaining the norms and decorum. On Facebook, I have experienced the same anxiety as I watch personal friends who don’t know one another go at it on threads I established. Then, sometimes, when I ask them to be civil, they attack me in turn.

I like to believe that, as a society, we have not yet adapted to social media as a medium of conversation. We behave in very crude ways to one another because we haven’t collectively figured out what the rules are.

However, I often fear I am wrong — that, in fact, we have figured out what the rules are and, in general, they are anything goes.

Photo credit: Flickr user mdanys.

Categories: blogs · ethics

Farewell, Rockville Central

October 14, 2011 · 2 Comments

As many of my friends and colleagues know, in June 2007 I founded a local blog called Rockville Central. Within a week or two [correction: the first day] my friend and colleague, Cindy Cotte Griffiths, joined me and we co-managed the blog from that point forward.

Over time, it grew to be the second most-read local blog in Maryland and was on the forefront of a number of innovations. In March we made national news by moving entirely to a Facebook publishing platform.

Even with all the success, keeping Rockville Central going was a non-trivial undertaking and after more than four years today Cindy and I announced our decision to cease publishing. Rather than let the community whither, we diecided to make a clean break. So, today is the last day of publication for Rockville Central.

Here is the note we released this morning, in full:

It is with mixed feelings that we are announcing that, after more than four years and four months of continuous existence, as of today Rockville Central will cease publishing.

Cindy Cotte Griffiths and Brad Rourke of Rockville Central

We began Rockville Central in June 2007 and are proud that we have continually been on the forefront of local online community-building. We look around at the new online spaces devoted to aspects of Rockville and we are proud of the role we have played. Whether it is the coverage of Rockville’s elections that began with the 2007 election and continued through a groundbreaking candidate forum we produced, the many, many contributor opinions and notices of special events, or our recent shift to all-Facebook publishing – we look back on our work with pride.

We view our move to Facebook as having been successful. We have appreciated the members of our community posting photos, questions and links on Rockville Central and seeing other people respond. We’ve also been pleased to have first-hand news accounts from the people with their cell phones. Our active users have increased by over 500%. We’ve gone from about 24,000 hits a month on the website to 100,000 post views a month on Facebook. A single post on Facebook typically gets over 2,000 views.

Even with all this interaction, comments have remained civil. People have participated with thoughtful and full opinions about the issues. We’ve been able to provide a place for public discussions about Rockville based on the many news sources in our region. All these outcomes are gratifying.

However, the simple fact is that it takes a great deal of energy and time to support the online community in the way we feel it deserves. We do not make money off of Rockville Central, and never intended to. It is a labor of love and devotion to Our Fair City. We don’t feel we can devote the kind of energy it deserves and so, rather than let it whither, we decided to make a clean end.

Thank you so very much to all of our readers — both early adopters and new friends. If you are interested in following Cindy and Brad to see what else they are up to, please do so. You will see us all around Rockville and we will continue to be involved in the civic life of our City.

Farewell, friends. We’ll see you around.

~Brad Rourke and Cindy Cotte Griffiths

I definitely plan on continuing to be active in local civic affairs, and some new ideas are percolating in my head, so no condolences are necessary. This is a good move and it frees up energy and time for the next chapter.

Thank you to all who have supported Rockville Central over the years.

Categories: blogs · rockville central

Featured On Page One Of Washington Post’s Sunday Business Section

June 29, 2011 · Leave a Comment

I was away on vacation and so was not there to bask in the glory, but I was given a heads-up by the reporter and knew it was coming: On Sunday, June 26, me and my colleague Cindy Cotte Griffiths were featured on the front page of the Washington Post’s business section. The story, by Ian Shapira, was about our decision to move our successful local blog, Rockville Central, to a Facebook-only platform.

As of March 1, we have been publishing entirely on our Facebook page (which is open and so viewable by anyone, even those without a Facebook account). No new content is published to our web site. The results have been largely successful and our traffic and levels of interaction have both gone up.

The lede:

When the Rockville Central blog wanted to increase its readership, the owners looked to Facebook — now topping 750 million members — and thought: Let’s move everything there.

In March, Brad Rourke and Cindy Cotte Griffiths stopped publishing new content on their Web site and began posting to Facebook. Just like that, rockvillecentral.com was cast aside. The blog’s new site is theirs and Facebook’s: www.facebook.com/RockvilleCentral. Even in this era of Internet experimentation, the move was unusual.

With news organizations nationwide slashing staffs, this all-volunteer blog covering a city of 61,000 poses an intriguing possibility for the future of journalism: Is using social networking media such as Facebook a better way to reach a wide audience and still make money?

Go here to read the whole thing.

Categories: blogs · rockville central

Reactions To Moving A Community Hub To Facebook

February 25, 2011 · 4 Comments

I just sent out my periodic email to folks (you can sign up at the right) and in it I gave a quick recap of the reaction to our decision this week to move Rockville Central to Facebook.

I thought you might be interested to read the note, as it collects much of the response and provides a bit more rationale.

Dear Colleagues and Friends–

For my periodic email update I wanted to share some interesting news with you.

As many of you know, a few years ago I founded a “hyperlocal news site” called Rockville Central. Since its founding in June 2007, along with my colleague Cindy Cotte Griffiths, we have built it to be one of the top five local blogs in Maryland, and it is sometimes looked to as a model for such efforts.

The key thing to know about Rockville Central is that its chief objective is civic engagement, not journalism or page views. We established it in order to provide new pathways into public life for people and, even though it has succeeded in a conventional sense, it has succeeded even more in a civic sense. People see it as a “space” that is theirs to inhabit, and deliberate over important issues facing the community.

We recently decided to make a significant shift in how we approach Rockville Central, and this has (surprisingly to us) generated a fair amount of national news.

Put simply, we are shifting from a “blog” model to a Facebook model for Rockville Central. We will no longer be posting items on our standalone website, but instead will be posting them on our Facebook page. We made that announcement on Wednesday morning.

We decided to make this move due to a variety of factors, including the fact that we know that more than two thirds of our readership are Facebook users, a number of local news outlets have sprung up in town so there is no shortage of local journalism (in part driven by our example), and because Facebook is a better mechanism for social interactions than a blog-and-comment model is.

That last point is critical. Our goal with Rockville Central is to foster interaction, not to attract eyeballs — so felt it important to go where people are and engage with them on their terms, not try to drag them over to our website.

This move has stimulated surprising national news coverage, as we appear to be among the first significant local news sites to move to Facebook-only.

Harvard University’s Nieman Lab was the first to cover the move, which we announced Wednesday. Future           Journalism Project picked it up, too shortly afterwards. AOL’s Patch covered it a bit later (that one has a good interview with me). Mediabistro picked it up. The influential tech site The Next Web also mentioned the move in a piece this morning.

And, late last night, the Huffington Post ran an item.

Also, as I understand it, our move was debated on Wednesday night at an event focused on the future of online news held at the New York Times.

And, in the Twitter universe, there was response ranging from “Wow. News. Facebook-only. That’s a step.” to “Very interesting idea” to “I get it. But I don’t like it.

Among Rockville Central readers themselves, I would characterize response as trending positive. Many loyal readers are willing to see where this move leads (we hope it will lead to deeper connection and more interaction). Others simply hate Facebook and think this is the worst idea ever, and are telling us they won’t be reading anymore (a reaction we expected and were prepared for).

For people in the democratic participation space, as many of my friends and colleagues are, I think what is interesting to look at is how we are trying to decouple the idea of being an “institution” or “organization” from being a community hub. We are saying that you don’t need to build something standalone to fulfill the role of community hub, you just need to open up a space with certain sensibilities and norms.

This is not a move that many organizations can make. We have no profit motive, nor do we have an imperative to continue surviving in the way most organizations do. So we are free to make a move like this without worrying about whether we will attract enough readers to keep going. However, we hope others will watch and maybe pick up some of the excellent community tools that are embedded already in Facebook and used every day.

Categories: blogs · rockville central

Moving A Local Blog To Facebook-Only

February 23, 2011 · 1 Comment

This morning we announced that our highly successful local news blog, Rockville Central, would be shifting focus. We will no longer be updating Rockville Central’s website, but instead will shift 100% to Facebook.

We think this is a pioneering — and gutsy — move. What allows us to make this move is that Rockville Central exists to engage people, not to make money or drive traffic. So, we are able to make decisions without having to worry about whether we will be able to find a revenue or traffic model.

This move is gaining some attention in the “hyperlocal journalism blogosphere.” That was not our intention, but it is sort of cool. Other hyperlocal experiments are watching to see what comes of this. To our knowledge, Rockville Central is the first local news hub to make such a move.

Here is the article as we ran it on Rockville Central this morning:

We are excited to let you know of a new development here at Rockville Central.

Since we began in June 2007 (here’s our first post), we have always stressed the community aspect. We aim to be an open, fair, and civil space in which to share views about what’s going on in Rockville. That means this site has always been about you, the participant. That focus has spurred very gratifying growth and we have remained in the top five local blogs in Maryland for a number of years.

However, traffic and readership has never been the most important measure of success for us. We are far, far more interested in knowing things like:

  • How many people entered public life who had not participated before?
  • How deep and robust were comment exchanges on key articles?
  • How many people were sending article contributions and adding their voices?
  • What other community web sites were getting started?

These measures, too, have been very gratifying as all of them have come true. Especially that last point. As new friends like Patch have gotten started and the Gazette and even the City of Rockville itself have implemented features we pioneered, and as current friends like Rockville Living have continued to grow, we are excited that the online community in and around Rockville is on its way to being vibrant and alive. The community is well served by this ecosystem of news, opinion and information.

Now, it is time for us to move to the next chapter in the life of Rockville Central.

Some time ago, we initiated Rockville Central’s Facebook page, and this has grown to become its own robust space for comments and participation. What’s more, in examining our traffic logs, it is the most important source (after Google) of traffic to the rockvillecentral.com site.

We believe that this suggests that Facebook is where people, by and large, have decided to go for their first-stop online community activities. Which begs the question: Why have a separate site, and try to drag people away from Facebook? Why not go where they are?

For entities and organizations that are trying to turn a profit, or have other institutional or organizational reasons to have a separate identity, it can make sense to have a separate web space. But Rockville Central is different and, as we thought hard about it, we realized we could find no compelling reason thatRockville Central needs to exist as a separate rockvillecentral.com site.

And so, as of March 1, all new Rockville Central content will be found solely on our Rockville CentralFacebook page. We hope you will join us there. Everything you have come to know and love about our articles will also exist in Facebook. You can comment, share, and interact — all with more ease and in one place. We’ll no longer have conversations in two different locations.

One thing that will change is that we will do less duplicative reporting. For a city its size, Rockville is well-covered, journalistically. We don’t need to duplicate the efforts of our friends. (How many recaps of the Mayor and Council meetings can you read, really?) We will focus instead on trying to build community and providing content and services that are different and not currently offered by others.

We don’t know necessarily what that will look like, but we are excited to see it emerge!

This is a bold step for us, and, to our knowledge, there are no other Facebook-only hyperlocal community hubs such as ours. It is our next step in trying to blaze a trail.

The existing rockvillecentral.com will continue to exist, and all current content will remain. Old links will still work. But, after February 28, there will be no new posts on that site, and all commenting will be closed. We invite you, instead, to post on our Facebook page.

Thank you for your loyal readership all these years, and we hope you will continue along with us as we embark on this next phase of our life.

We’ll see you over on Facebook.

Your friends,

Cindy Cotte Griffiths
Editor

Brad Rourke
Founder and Publisher

Categories: blogs · rockville central

I Have A Secret Enemy

November 14, 2010 · 1 Comment

Like anyone with a blog, I have to deal with spam comments on a daily basis. I have a filter (Akismet) that takes care of a lot of it, and the few that slip through are no big deal. I just mark them as spam and move on.

But lately, I’ve been getting a new kind of unwelcome comment. Seems I have a secret enemy, who has begun posting offensive comments, using offensive fake names and emails.

I don’t want to actually print what the person has been writing, but it is sort of amusing. Very adolescent, complete with racial slurs and homophobic sentiments. So I took a screenshot. Click the image below if you want to see what they’ve been writing. (It’s profane, I warn you.)

I was naturally curious about who this might be, because it seems more personal than the normal sort of silly scratchings. I wracked my brain, trying to think about whom I might have done wrong enough to warrant this kind of grudge. Nothing came to mind.

The identity of the person remains a mystery.

And so, I imagine this game will continue. Comments will be left. I will delete them and chuckle.

I am oddly looking forward to the next installment.

Categories: blogs

How To Move Your WordPress Blog To A New Webhost

July 25, 2010 · 6 Comments

'Magic Bus behind the U-Haul' by Flickr user blmurch

After many months of poor service, frequent timeouts, and half-loaded pages, I moved the local blog I founded, Rockville Central, to a new host. I guess my first clue that I would really need to do something about this mess happened in a new client interview, when I was touting the site. My prospect pulled it up to check it out. He chuckled. “You’re site’s down,” he said.

But I didn’t act right then. No, I hesitated to move the site because I had been led to believe it is not an easy thing to move a WordPress blog. This blog is over three years old, with thousands of posts and uploaded images. But, my partner Cindy Cotte Griffiths and I have recently decided to grow Rockville Central and for that we needed a better platform. So, goodbye GoDaddy, hello Dreamhost.

I looked at a number of tutorials, and they all seemed to say slightly different things, and left out a thing or two. I thought I would write down what I did, what worked for me. This process is more methodical than some of the “five easy steps” tutorials I have seen, because I went in stages just in case things blew up. I decided I like the slow and steady approach for this task. So, here’s how:

  1. First, upgrade your existing installation of WordPress so it is the latest version. You can do this from within WordPress, on the admin panel.
  2. Copy your existing site to your computer. The best way to do this is to use an FTP program and just download the entire site. Yes, the whole thing. It may take a long time. Okay, now you have a backup in case everything goes wrong.
  3. Create a new folder on your computer for the new WordPress blog. It does not matter what you call it, but this will ensure that in subsequent steps you are only working on the new files, not messing with the old blog’s files. You want those pristine so you can go back if necessary.
  4. Copy the entire contents of the “wp-content” folder to the new folder you just created. Make sure you use the same tree structure as in the original.
  5. On your old blog, export all but the current month’s worth of content. This is done with the tools/export function. If you have a very large blog (like ours), try doing it year by year. You’ll do the current month of content at the very end, just before you make your new blog live. That way, if there are comments, etc., that come in while you are working you will not lose them in the switchover. When you press the “export” button, you may get taken to a page that looks sort of like a feed page. That’s becuase your browser is trying to render the export file as if it is a web page. If you get this (I did, using Chrome), “view source” for the page so you can make sure you see headers at the top that say it is a WordPress export file. If they are there, copy that source into a text editor like Notepad, and save the file with the extension “.wxr”.
  6. Sign up for hosting somewhere, and install WordPress. When you install the new WordPress, double check that it is the same version as your upgraded old blog. You’ll need to visit the admin page of the new blog once in order to force the install to configure the database. You might have problems doing that, because when you try to go to the new blog, you may have to type in your old address (if you set up your hosting properly) and this will take you to the old blog. Workaround: create a mirrored address for the new blog with a different url. Here’s how you create a mirrored domain in Dreamhost. Dreamhost has a special temporary holding host that you can use for this. (How this works: I signed up for hosting at Dreamhost, telling them I planned to host rockvillecentral.com there. Then I created a mirror of rockvillecentral.com that I called rockvillecentral.dreamhosters.com. To work on my new WordPress blog before I made it live to the world, I used the address: http://rockvillecentral.dreamhosters.com/wp-admin.)
  7. Upload the wp-content folder from your computer to your new new blog. This folder contains your old blog’s theme, plugins, and all uploaded photos. If you have a big blog, this can take a long time. I kept getting timeouts, so I went month-by-month with the photo uploads. (WordPress saves them by month, so that was easy — I just went a folder at a time). Okay, now you are just about ready to make your new blog just like your old blog.
  8. Open up the admin page of each (old and new) blog, in separate windows. Now comes the slightly tedious part. You want to configure your new blog so it looks like your old one, just without the content. So here is what you will have to do:
    1. Activate the proper theme (which you uploaded when you uploaded wp-content). If the theme is not there, you made a mistake in your upload.
    2. Create categories that are identical to the categories in your old blog. And (important) make sure the slug for each is the same as the old slug. Otherwise, when you import the old content at the end, you may end up with duplicate categories that you then need to clean up.
    3. When you go to the plugin page, you should see all the plugins from your old blog, only deactivated. Activate the ones you want to use. (I found that there were some on my old blog I wanted to abandon.) You’ll want to switch back and forth between your old blog’s admin panel and the new one as you make these configurations, to check you are making the proper settings.
    4. Configure your sidebar widgets. Again, going back and forth between old admin page and new admin page should make this easy.
    5. Finally, check the new blog’s look and feel. It should look just like your old one, only with one “Hello World” post.
  9. Import the old content. Okay, now you will make your blog really look right. Using the import tool, import the database .wxr file(s) you created when you exported your old blog.  Now, test, test, test. Make sure it looks like you want. You will undoubtedly have missed something, so look closely. Give yourself a day to check back and look with fresh eyes. If everything is good, you can now move to the final steps. You should do these all at once if possible, so you have minimal downtime and no one comments while your blog is in transition:
  10. Export your current month posts from your old blog. Save the resulting .wxr file to your desktop.
  11. Import your current month posts into your new blog. Just like Step 9 above.
  12. Switch your DNS records on your domain registrar. You need to tell the world that your blog is now at a new place. To do this, you need to go into the control panel where you manage your domain and give it your new host’s dns server addresses. This is the step that makes your new blog “live.”
  13. Live like this for a while. This was a big move, so live with it for a while to make sure it’s working like you expect. If there are problems, try to fix them. If you can’t, you can always go back to the original blog. But, if things are working basically correctly, do the final step:
  14. Delete the old files from the old webhost. Because you have updated the DNS entries, you won’t be ablt to do this with your usual FTP program. You will probably have to do so from within your webhost’s administration functions. This will differ from host to host.  Once you’ve deleted the files, go ahead and cancel the hosting account and it should all disappear.

Well, there you have it! Those are the steps that worked for me. It took me three days to do the prep, but I went very slowly, step by step. I did not want any down time. So I gave myself a week to do steps 1-9 Then, on Saturday morning, I did 10-12 quickly. I’m now in the middle of “living with it” to make sure all is well, and it seems like the switchover went without a hitch. In the next few days I will do step 14 (delete old) and will be alllllll done.

If you try this, let me know how it works in the comments. I will try to answer questions if I know the answers. I know it looks like a lot of rigmarole, but it was really pretty easy if I just went slowly. You can do it too!

Categories: blogs