You Never Know

Last week, I took my 13 year old son and some friends to a paintball field. We had never been before. As we drove out, we shared about how some of us were a little nervous, but the overall emotion was excited anticipation. Like race horses trembling before the gate opens, we were ready to rock.

The way it works, they put everyone who happens to be there at the same time into a big group until there are about thirty people. Then they split you into teams and a referee establishes what game you are going to play and enforces rules. The games were basic — capture the flag, shoot everyone until there is no one left standing, defend the fort.

I imagine we all had similar inner fantasies on the way out. My son plays a lot of first-person shooter games on Xbox with his friends, and I am into them a bit too. So we were pretty much all imagining ourselves as awesome little soldier-dudes.

The reality slapped me in the face immediately. We got split up into teams and the game began. I snuck through the woods, my sights on this enemy fellow crouching behind a tree. I popped out from behind my tree to shoot. The moment I revealed myself, I got hit. Game over. I was the first casualty.

What’s worse, as I walked back to the staging area where the dead people wait, I realized I had no clue where the shot that did me in had come from. None.

The game finally ended, and we were briefed on the next game. We basically switched sides, with one team uphill and the other downhill. The ref called “go.” We started playing. I snuck forward toward a woodpile. This time I would be cagey, and be a bit more careful of my surroundings.

Again, I got shot quickly. Again, I had no idea where it came from.

Over the course of the day, I improved and I stopped being the first to go. But one element was constant: I never knew where the shot that took me out came from.

This morning, as I was talking to friends about life in general, I realized that my paintball excursion (which I enjoyed immensely and which I plan to repeat) taught me a very important lesson:

You never know what direction challenges will come from.

In most cases out on the paintball field, there was some threat (or target) I was focusing on, and the killer shot came from some other place. I was totally blindsided. Over and over.

Try as we might to prepare, the unexpected will present itself to us, and we will have to deal with it. On the paintball field, it means a walk back to the staging area. In life, it means a chance to respond with grace to something new.

The quality I need to cultivate in myself is not so much strength to withstand an onslaught, or even a more sensitive internal radar. Because there is always a better shot, and the paintball with my name on it will always come from where I am not looking.

No, the quality I need to cultivate is grace in response.

That is what is going to serve me best, as life continues to present surprises.

Reactions To Moving A Community Hub To Facebook

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.

Moving A Local Blog To Facebook-Only

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 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 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 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

Brad Rourke
Founder and Publisher

Noelle McAfee Interviews Ziad Majed

My good friend Noelle McAfee has just published a very important intereview that she conducted with Lebanese intellectual and activist Ziad Majed.

The full interview is here. I urge you in the strongest possible way to read it.

Here is one small piece:

NM: You know, the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe varied according to what kind of history and memory of civil society the various countries had — with Eastern Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia having a great deal, but Romania having very little.  The Romanians executed their leaders, whereas the other revolutions proceeded peaceably. The more history of civil society, the better the revolutions fared, during and afterwards. Are there any lessons here for the Arab world?

ZM: There are lots of lessons from Eastern Europe and from Latin America for the Arab World.

Police states, terror, censorship, corruption, the cult of personality (for rulers) were and are common trends in many of the regimes in question and understanding ways in which they were deconstructed in the different Eastern European cases is very useful for Arab democracy activists in the current phase.

What might be crucial, however, in influencing transitions in the present Arab situation — more than the history of civil society and its level of development — is the degree of social cohesion in the concerned country. Whenever a despotic regime relies on a sectarian or tribal basis, overthrowing it peacefully becomes difficult due to the fact that the clientelist networks and the military/police ones that the regime built are concentrated in this sectarian/tribal basis, and its members consider themselves directly threatened by the regime change. This is the case in many Levant and Gulf countries, while it was less the case in Egypt and Tunisia in Northern Africa. This is the case in many Levant and Gulf countries (and in Libya), while it was less the case in Egypt and Tunisia. In other words, countries with deep vertical divisions might confront more challenges than those with horizontal ones.

What Happens At A Focus Group

My friends and colleagues who follow me on Facebook or Twitter might have noticed lately that I have been traveling all over the country, moderating focus groups. Just in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been to Chicago, New York, Billings MT, Detroit, and more. Before I ever started working with focus groups, I sort of knew what they were, but they were also a bit of a mystery. I thought it might be interesting for those who have never been a part of a focus group to know how they work.

I am by no means a focus group “expert.” Many people know a great deal more than I do and are more skilled at moderating groups. I learned everything I know from two mentors and friends who are acknowledged experts in this field: John Doble, and Rich Harwood. I have been privileged to work with each of them, and have learned so much.

In this article, I am talking about “official” focus groups — a group of about ten people, recruited according to specific criteria, convened in a setting (usually a focus group facility) where they can be recorded, video taped, and observed. In my experience, lots of organizations convene groups of people to talk about something, and they often call them “focus groups.” I will not quibble with the label, but in this article I am referring to the more formal version. At the right is a photo of a typical focus group facility, taken from the observation room. You are looking through the one way glass into the room where people gather. The moderator (me) sits in the seat closest to the mirror, the one with the black back.

What do you learn from a focus group?

You can learn a great deal about why people think the way they do from focus groups. You can not only learn their opinion, but you can press on various aspects of it to see how they react to trade offs or drawbacks. You can see how their views shift as they interact with other ideas, or think more deeply about initial thoughts. Focus groups are excellent for looking deeper into the why’s of public opinion.

Focus groups are not necessarily good for drawing conclusions about the broader population, however. One group is just ten people, and even if you convene a few, that is still not enough for a representative random sample. So, when reporting on what takes place in a focus group it is important to qualify your statements. You can really only talk about what you heard from the people in the groups.

Often, focus groups are used in conjunction with polls. A focus group can help researchers understand the arguments people use when they think about public issues, and then you can test those arguments in a poll to see how broadly those sentiments are shared. For instance, the other day in a focus group I was leading the conversation turned to parents who take their kids out of the local public schools and instead send them to private schools or to neighboring districts. One participant in the group was very angry at this phenomenon, and felt people were giving up on their communities. This became a bone of contention for a significant part of the session. But there is no way, just from e focus group, how many people in general feel this anger. Is it widespread, or is it more isolated? The only way to know that for sure is to test it in a poll.

How It Works

The focus group facility provides three main things: recruiting, a room, and recording.

Recruiting is perhaps the hardest part when you think about bringing people together. It is an important part of why organizations turn to focus group facilities. They have database of people who have agreed to participate in focus groups, and can also call random households to see if people are interested. You typically have the facility go through a “screener” with potential participants, asking demographic questions and any other things you want to make sure about. For instance, in a recent study we wanted to talk to rural people, and so I asked the facility to include people who live 25 miles or more from a major city. You can put together a group of parents of school age children, video gamers, or avid readers. You do this using the screener.

The room is important, too, but not as critical as you might think. you can hold a focus group conversation anywhere, but if you do it in a facility, it is set up for recording and observation. That is the main thing you get out of going to a facility. The focus group room has a one way mirror at one end, behind which observers can sit. There is usually a video camera in the ceiling, and microphones so there is good audio. I always open the session by making sure everyone knows they are being recorded and observed. They usually already know this, but it is important to be on the up and up. Typically, within five minutes people have forgotten about it.

When it comes to recording, I usually ask for a DVD video of the session and an audio file that I send off to be transcribed. I also take good notes as we go. The notes and the transcription are the most important, but sometimes I will be curious about what someone looked like when they were saying something so I will look at video. Most focus group facilities also have something called Focus Vision, which is a web based video system that allows people from all over to watch the focus group from their computers.

Moderator Tips

Here are some tips and tricks I have learned over the years from moderating and observing lots of focus groups:

Over-recruit. If you want nine or ten people in a focus group (which is a good amount), it is best to recruit more people than you need. I typically ask the facility to recruit twelve people, and usually at least eight show. If everyone shows, I send some home. That is not a problem, as everyone gets paid. Focus group participants are typically paid between $85 and $125, depending the market. (They also get dinner, usually a sandwich.) When deciding who to send home, I usually look for outliers. For example, in a recent group I wanted mostly people with some college or high school degrees. Two people were recruited who had graduate degrees. If they had both showed, I would have kept both, but just one showed. So I sent the other home because having just the one graduate degree person seemed to me a recipe to have someone dominate the conversation with their erudition, or for them to be cowed by being in an unfamiliar group. (I could very well have been wrong about what would really happen, but this was my thinking about what was likely or possible.) the focus group facility handles the pay-and-send part, so the moderator does not have to be the one to do that.

Where people sit sometimes matters. It is a funny thing, but people who sit at the far corners of the table are often quite forceful and sometimes obstreperous. People who sit in the near corners, right next to me, often seem interested in approval and tend to get curious about what I am writing and try to look at my papers. (For this reason, I always write my moderator guide by hand, so it is hard for others to read — I have very poor handwriting.)

It is important to keep a “sympathetic poker face.” by this I mean it is critical not to divulge my own feelings about what we are talking about — but at the same time you can’t be totally blank, as this tends to shut people down. People don’t like to talk to a robot. My main job in the conversation is to make sure people feel safe voicing their opinions and judgments, even if those are views that are in the minority. It is terribly hard to speak up in a group setting if you know (or fear) that everyone disagrees with you. My job is to make people feel like they are with someone who understands. That means that I often will hear and encourage someone to discuss something with which I disagree strongly.

Actively leading the conversation is important. There is always a moderator’s guide, which is usually a list of questions that we need to go through along with some possible probes as follow ups. But it’s not enough to stop there. People will often say one thing in one part of a conversation, and then later say something that is contradictory. If I am doing my job, I will point out such things and see if people can square those contradictions, or whether the issue is just a tension that people have to live with. For instance, if someone says, “we need better roads,” and later someone says “we spend too much on infrastructure we don’t need,” I will call people’s attention to that. I will say “Earlier we talked about the need for better roads, but now we are talking about spending less on infrastructure. Who can help me square these two ideas?”

Process notes right away. If I don’t write up my notes into a little one or two page memo-to-self within 24 hours, the work is lost. I always include quotes in those memos. No matter how good my notes are, I just can’t write down every passing thought. Those ideas are often important, and they dissipate after a day or so. Even if I am not going to share it with anyone, I always write up the notes from each focus group. This also makes it easier to write the overall report when all the groups are done — your main source is your memos, and you scan through the transcripts to make sure you didn’t miss anything. Trying to write a report from scratch, just using transcripts, is a nightmare.

The West End At The Uncorked Wine Festival

Friends and colleagues may know I am in a band called The West End.

Over the summer, we were fortunate enough to play an awesome gig at the City of Rockville’s annual “Uncorked Wine Festival.” When we play City gigs, they always provide pro sound (usually through the very awesome RCI Sound). Since we knew there’s be a good sound engineer, we brought along a recorder to grab the performance.

We recorded through two mics set up at the back of the audience. The results were pretty good, I think, and they give a good document of our performance. (The only thing is the keys are not as loud as they usually sound in the mix, and the guitar is a bit louder than usual.)

These are all originals (Brad Rourke or Mike Shawn) except where indicated. Just click on the links to listen:

Summertime Summertime (Gershwin)

Sorry Somehow Sorry Somehow (Grant Hart)

Free To Choose Free To Choose (Rourke)

Persephone Persephone (Shawn)

Halah Halah (Mazzy Star)

Give You My Loving Give You My Lovin’ (Mazzy Star)

One Last Time One Last Time (Rourke)

Hard To Sleep Hard To Sleep (Rourke)

By The Mark By The Mark (Gillian Welch)

Mary, Don’t You Weep Mary, Don’t You Weep (Trad.)

Angel From Montgomery Angel From Montgomery (John Prine)

Snitch Snitch (Rourke)

Long Black Veil Long Black Veil (Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin)

Wishing Well Wishing Well (Rourke)

Social Network Face-Off: Take A Survey

Please take this survey on social network services. It is short and easy.

Over the weekend, I innocently posted the following on Facebook:

Does anyone really use Twitter anymore? Why?

I should have known it would happen, but that question touched off a long comment trail that included lots of friends and colleagues. There was lots of food for thought.

That got me thinking it would be useful to do a blog post about how people are using various social networking services (Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn).

As an early adopter, I think about that question pretty often, and I have noticed my own Twitter usage change over the last twelve months. In fact, just a year ago, I said that Twitter is my main network — now it’s Facebook. (That is what prompted my question.)

So, I am planning a blog post on this subject. I am asking for your help. Please take this brief survey. I promise it has fun questions and is painless. You can do it in ten minutes or so.

Got that? Take the survey at this link.