and Katie Weller co-founded the Grand Rapids
group on www.flickr.com.
On the World
Wide Web, the River City comes off as hip,
educated and cutting edge. In other words,
a pretty accurate picture.
Photography by Michael Buck
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
its 50 millionth “blog.” The
online video hosting site www.YouTube.com 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 www.flickr.com,
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.
“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
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.”
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 joshleo.com is not
technically a community vlog, such as Minnesota Stories (www.mnstories.com)
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 joshleo.com, 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
www.G-RAD.org 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
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
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
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 www.grand-rapids.mi.us,
though around city hall, it’s known by a different name: Government
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
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
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
Not so “charming”
Web portals for cities such as Chicago (www.chicago.com) or Detroit (www.detroit.com)
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
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 www.grandrapids.com in December 1995. Over the last decade, the company registered a dozen other
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
registered www.charlottesville.com, 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 www.hanon-mckendry.com because a cyber squatter is sitting on www.hanonmckendry.com (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 hanon-mckendry.com since 1996,” McKendry
“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
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, www.downtowngr.org, is one of several Web portals for Grand Rapids
surviving without the grandrapids.com 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 www.urbanplanet.org.
The Charlotte, N.C.-based Web site hosts forums throughout the
world where registered users dish about architecture and development. The Grand
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
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,
“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
“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
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 www.visitgrandrapids.org, the home page of the Grand Rapids/Kent
County Convention & Visitors
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 www.msn.com,
for example, visitgrandrapids.org ranks in the top five (the city’s official
Web site is No. 1). On www.yahoo.com,
visitgrandrapids.org falls to the bottom half of the top 10, beat out by the
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. Visitgrandrapids.org 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
While programming a recent show on community radio station WYCE
FM), station manager Kevin Murphy redefined the phrase “long-distance
A listener to the station’s live streaming audio site,
www.wyce.org, 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
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
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