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Terry Johnson and Katie Weller co-founded the Grand Rapids group on

Site Seeing

On the World Wide Web, the River City comes off as hip, educated and cutting edge. In other words, a pretty accurate picture.

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Michael Buck

Eclectic music, transparent government and a good hotdog. That’s a glimpse of Grand Rapids found on the Internet.

In the 1990s, reality TV provided a vehicle for brash personalities to act out their 15 minutes of fame. In the new millennium, cyberspace offers a platform for real people to share real perspectives: news and photos and video clips and commentary about their hometowns. This democratization of media means the viewpoints in circulation on this or any city are not limited to official representatives and professional commentators. The people have the power — and they’re using it.

In May of last year, the Web site tracked its 50 millionth “blog.” The online video hosting site recently claimed it plays more than 100 million videos a day. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 48 million Americans have contributed content to the Internet.

Folks all over the world can experience Grand Rapids via local content contributors — through the lenses of their cameras and the filters of their points of view.

Let’s meet a few of them.

A city snapshot
In May 2005, local graphic designer Terry Johnson and fellow Flickr aficionado Katie Weller (below) co-founded the Grand Rapids group on, an international photo-sharing Web site. Total photos tagged “Grand Rapids” exceed 9,000, and according to Johnson, the photos are a good representation of what the city is really like.


Josh Leo explores Grand Rapids on his video blog
“Grand Rapids is Grand Rapids because of its diverse group of residents,” he said. “This city means many things to many people.” And since Flickr gives many people the chance to share their impressions of the city with the world (membership is free through Yahoo), the results can take dialogue about the city in many directions. “That is what Katie and I hoped for, I guess,” Johnson said. “We are both bloggers and we just wanted to show how we saw ‘Grand Rapids.’ … There is no fluff in this group, no promotional side. It’s all about real people taking real photos — no rules.”

Well, as Johnson later confessed, there is one rule (besides the site’s community guidelines). Posts by members of the Grand Rapids group are limited to 11 per day per user. Johnson said imposing a limit has helped raise the quality of the photos, encouraging users to edit themselves rather than simply uploading an entire memory card.

“I really think this group is about how you see it — blurry, fuzzy, jaded or in focus,” Johnson added. “It’s all about your photo and your vision of the city.”

Televised evolution
This is the evolution of a video blogger.

Josh Leo grew up in Chicago watching the TV show “Wild Chicago,” which was produced by PBS affiliate WTTW. He appreciated the show’s explorations of the offbeat and unusual personalities inhabiting Chicago-land.

After high school, Leo moved to Grand Rapids to attend Calvin College. He became a text blogger in 2003 during a month-long summer trip to Alaska. He began posting weekly video blogs, or “vlogs,” in March 2005 to stay in touch with a friend in Germany.

In May 2006, he graduated from Calvin with a degree in communications. In November, he graduated to the upper echelon of video blogging when his site,, won People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice Awards for Best Personal Diary Vlog at the 2006 Vloggies (the Oscars for vlogs) in San Francisco.

The videos Leo posts boast professional-quality editing, personable narration and a broad range of topics. The influence of “Wild Chicago” comes through in posts about the quirky things he’s discovered in his adopted hometown. Recent videos include a visit to the Fish Ladder, an exposé on local TV news coverage of violence on the city’s southeast side, and Josh’s search for the best hot dog in GR. While is not technically a community vlog, such as Minnesota Stories ( for example, the posts, shaded with local color, number among the site’s most frequently viewed videos. As a result, Leo launched a new site late last year called It will host videos specifically of local interest to this side of the state. He’ll maintain, as well.

Leo’s goal with the new site is “to become a good authority on stuff going on in West Michigan.” He’s already become something of an authority on the new art of vlogging. Both the New York Times and Wired Magazine have featured Leo in tech trends stories.

A rad site is about as virtual a space as one can imagine. Launched in the summer of 2005 by a group of local 20-somethings, the site hosts a number of blogs and forums on various aspects of life in the city.

The G-RAD blogging community also manages to create real-world connections for users — in ways as homespun as potluck dinners and as pre-PC as do-it-yourself event promotions. For example, the Free-RAD blog catalogues free cultural events and other ways to live cheaply in GR. Grand Rapids artist and music promoter Jeff Vandenberg’s Friction Records blog charts the progress of bands on the city’s pre-eminent underground music label, including upcoming releases and concerts. Even the more traditional personal journal-type blogs contain all manner of helpful information, including a recent primer on the more exotic offerings of the Meijer produce section.

In an e-mail exchange between Grand Rapids Magazine and G-RAD’s founders, the group referred to its site as “the online extension of an ever-expanding real-life community in Grand Rapids.”

If not for the overriding positive tone of the networking opportunities and cultural events the site has helped spawn — including LAMB (Little Art Mag and Blog) and Plant! (a project promoting urban gardens) — the phrase “counter-culture” might come to mind to describe such a community. However, the main thing the group looks to counter is apathy, which explains why a virtual space on its own was never the goal.

The e-mail from G-RAD continues: “The seeds of G-RAD were sown long before many of us even knew what hypertext was all about, so we would like to think a lot of its community infrastructure and spirit could and would exist without the Web. And actually — now that we think about it — it would probably look a lot like the DAAC (Division Avenue Arts Cooperative), a venue and art gallery downtown that many of us have been involved with from the beginning.

“A lot of what G-RAD is has formed as a direct response to our experience with the DAAC. But in the end, yeah, G-RAD is obviously a Web site and has definitely benefited from being the right thing for us at the right time.”

All about the city
The URL for the official city of Grand Rapids Web site is, though around city hall, it’s known by a different name: Government 2.0.

Ten years into its development, what began as a couple of simple, governmentally centered pages has grown into an 800-page clearinghouse of customer-focused information about the city and its services. The site has increased efficiency in measurable ways.

“Until recently, we didn’t post assessed values of homes on the Web, and we’d have a stream of people coming through every day asking those types of questions,” former assistant city manager Greg Sundstrom said. “Now all of that is available for them to look at online.”

Also available online are agendas and minutes for City Commission meetings, a description of every city ordinance, and much more. Sundstrom currently serves as the city’s chief services officer. He’s been involved with the city’s Web site from the beginning, and sees the site’s growth as part of the city’s commitment to transparent government.

“Every time we have new information, we don’t debate whether or not it should go on the Web. It goes on the Web,” he said.

The city’s IT staff has won national awards for the Web site but is not resting on past accomplishments. A rewritten city of Grand Rapids site will launch in early 2007.

“I want it to be less bureaucratic and even more user-friendly,” Sundstrom said. “I want it to say, ‘Barking dog? Here’s the answer,’ and then the user can just click without needing to know which department to search.”

Not so “charming”
Web portals for cities such as Chicago ( or Detroit ( offer a ton of information, from real estate prices for those looking to relocate to travel tips for those looking to visit. These portals are great marketing tools.

However, in Grand Rapids (as well as several other U.S. cities), marketing a place through its most obvious URL isn’t always easy.

A Dallas-based company called BroderickCom registered in December 1995. Over the last decade, the company registered a dozen other city-name URLs, as well, all of which redirect Web browsers to its home page, an online seller of sterling silver charms.

Hawes Spencer publishes The Hook, a weekly newspaper in Charlottesville, Va. The paper strives to be a portal for the Charlottesville area, but when BroderickCom registered, that goal got a bit tougher to achieve.

“I type in X-city-dot-com whenever I’m visiting an American city and looking for a portal into that city, whether I’m looking for a place to stay, eat or recreate,” Spencer said. “And so, typing in a city-name-dot-com and then finding a bunch of cheap little silver charms is an annoying experience. It really sort of violates the spirit of the Internet.”

Bill McKendry, chief creative officer at Hanon McKendry, a Grand Rapids-based communications firm, also has been so violated. His company’s URL is because a cyber squatter is sitting on (without a hyphen).

“I suppose if we chased it down and wanted to make a big deal out of it, we could, but we’ve been since 1996,” McKendry said.

“I can remember when the whole dot-com thing first started off. It seemed like people were going crazy to bid for a specific name. They really thought that would drive traffic — and it doesn’t hurt … but now it’s more important to own a keyword or optimize your site so it comes up high on search engines.”

The Web site Hanon McKendry developed for the Grand Rapids Downtown Alliance,, is one of several Web portals for Grand Rapids info currently surviving without the URL.

Around the planet
Some licensed real estate agents golf in their spare time. Jeff Hill moderates the growing list of 1,500 discussion threads currently active in the Grand Rapids section of

The Charlotte, N.C.-based Web site hosts forums throughout the world where registered users dish about architecture and development. The Grand Rapids forum consistently ranks among the site’s most active.

“Some people equate interest in development with overall economic activity, but that’s not exactly true,” Hill explained. “Midsize cities on UrbanPlanet are really popular because people feel they can have a little more influence. If you look at New York or Boston on the site, those forums are really slow.”

Hill and the forum’s two other local moderators filter out blatant commercial real estate pitches, but the site’s massive amount of development information, insight and opinion do make the site a useful marketing tool, he said.

“I think people who are thinking about relocating or moving, or even people who are thinking about visiting different urban areas, appreciate something that’s a little less polished and a little more real,” Hill said. “UrbanPlanet is not just gloss. There’s a lot of serious issues discussed — and criticism doled out.”

The forum’s warts-and-all view of the city certainly isn’t all warts.

“We get people coming to the site who live in Indianapolis or New York; they don’t know anything about GR, but they see the pictures people have posted and they read about what’s going on here, and they’re really impressed.”

GR re-visited
Google “Grand Rapids.” Go ahead. Done?

OK, now click through to the first site in the organic listings. Those are the Web sites listed along the left side of the page (as opposed to the “sponsored links,” which appear on the right side of
the page and help pay the bills).

Is it, the home page of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau?

Of course. You could have skipped ahead to this line in the story before even clicking the link.
According to Janet Korn, vice president of marketing for the bureau, it’s both a conscious and a constant effort to optimize search engine placement for her organization’s site.

“Although you can’t completely control search engine placement, there are a variety of things you can do to make it happen,” Korn said. “We try to employ several tactics, and it changes with different search engines; it’s not simple like A + B + C.”

Indeed. On, for example, ranks in the top five (the city’s official Web site is No. 1). On, falls to the bottom half of the top 10, beat out by the bureau’s other URL,

Add the word “visit” to your search, however, and the bureau rises to the top on all three popular search engines.

“We don’t necessarily do search engine optimization just to respond to the words ‘Grand Rapids,’” Korn explained. “It’s to respond to the things people are looking for — things like performing arts in the area. The most visited area of our Web site is the events area, because when people are thinking about visiting or when they know they’re going to visit, they’re looking for things to do.”

And once they’ve found things to do, Korn says the site will help visitors get to the events. is set to roll out an interactive map where regional points of interest will be interrelated with a mapping program that will offer users a geographic/spatial perspective to help them organize their stay.

World radio
While programming a recent show on community radio station WYCE (88.1-
FM), station manager Kevin Murphy redefined the phrase “long-distance dedication.”

A listener to the station’s live streaming audio site,, e-mailed Murphy a request — from Thailand.

“I suppose it could have been some guy sitting in his underwear in Kentwood for all I know,” Murphy deadpanned, “but he said he was anchored off the coast of Thailand.”

It’s actually not that unusual. The Web has brought WYCE a following that’s as international as the world-beat artists it spins. The station has been streaming for more than five years, and international listeners find WYCE in a number of ways.

“Some of them are expatriates — people who used to live in Grand Rapids,” Murphy said. “But I think most of them are people who come across us in a roundabout fashion. Say, they have a favorite artist, and on that artist’s Web site or in the liner notes on one of that artist’s CDs, they’ll thank radio stations, and we may be one of them. We also get Google references from artist searches — there are lots of these aggregators. Plus there are countless lists of streaming music services on the Web; we’ve ended up on hundreds of those.”

Murphy said that it is “kind of cool to think that there’s somebody in Rio listening to your radio show.” And he believes WYCE is a pretty good calling card for international listeners’ only experience of Grand Rapids.

“ I would hope that we offer a pretty representative taste of what the city’s about,” he said. “If they want to extrapolate from the musical selections, that may show them we’re cool and diverse.”GR
Grand Rapids Business Journal reporter Dan Schoonmaker contributed to this story.

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