Longform

Masters of Cyberspace

On a Saturday in early May, Houston's social media universe watched as locals Kyle Nielsen and Cory McIntire scooped every Houston news outlet, relaying the by-the-minute details of a downtown bank robbery gone awry — one that saw the streets around the Metro bus station turn into something out of Michael Mann's caper film Heat.

"I turned on the TV hoping to find something about it, but there was nothing, so I got on my bike and rode over there. I was expecting it to already be over, but instead I found a bunch of cops ducking behind their cars around a parking garage. I was mostly shocked at what a huge operation it was," Nielsen says.

As the mainstream news outfits in town ran basketball highlights and other lazy afternoon network fare, a high drama was unfolding on Twitter. With grainy cellphone pictures and some shaky video, Nielsen and McIntire had proven the power of the "fifth estate" in journalism.

Houston social media can be politely divisive, sweetly contentious, beautifully coagulating and rarely dull. Everyone has a function and everyone has a place, from the self-professed foodies salivating restaurant raves onto their smart phones, the hip-hoppers shooting out mass promotional screeds, and proud parents beaming out pictures of their tykes' smiles and giggles, to the hipsters using Instagram to take pictures of everything in sight. Does everything need to look vintage?

This city is a national leader when it comes to a community using its technology for the greater benefit. Back in April, it snapped into action to raise money for one of its own, bartender and friend Linda Salinas, after she was involved in a serious scooter accident in the Heights.

The Houston Web Awards honor the folks who are playing the social media game in Houston correctly, the ones who are helping steer the ship, one Facebook status update and 140-character tweet at a time.

Since we first tackled the Houston social scene for last year's "Twitterverse," the scene has now expanded to include not just Twitter, but also Facebook, Instagram and even Tumblr, the latter two being more exotic and artistic ways to express yourself through social media. Most every facet of life, each movement and occurrence, in the Bayou City is somehow documented from Foursquare check-ins at Minute Maid Park to oversaturated pictures on Instagram of your Moon Tower hot dog against the city skyline. Be sure to check in on Facebook, too.

Nielsen resurfaced a few weeks later to another round of heavy attention when he drew the ire of the inaugural Houston Beer Festival during the lead-up to the June 11 event at Hermann Square Park. He questioned the festival's organizers regarding their charity status and local and Texas-run craft-beer presence. The head of the festival, Timothy Hudson, retaliated by making Nielsen's Twitter handle (@kylejack) the special promotional code for discounted tickets to the debacle.

Some Houstonians are using social media to promote their personal brands, and one of the best at that is musician Andrew Karnavas, who between Facebook and Twitter can get the word out about the four projects he is working on, including a children's music venture, for which he goes by the name AndyRoo. He says there is no real secret to using the Internet to advance his presence, even while so-called social media gurus roam the city.

"Secret? I don't know. Justin Bieber may know. I try to be complimentary and informative. I like it when people are funny," he says.

"Runaway Sun has packed our local shows largely from social media promotion, and I've even booked some of our out-of-state shows via Twitter. Facebook has been a good way to target out-of-state audiences. AndyRoo is piggybacking on my solo project and Runaway Sun audiences/booking contacts, and at the same time it is exposing it to a new audience. It's much easier as an independent artist to build momentum with social media, especially during down time."

This year's Best Twitterer winner, Merritt Beck, runs Manolos and Martinis, and has her own marketing and design firm. For her, social media, be it Facebook or Twitter, has been a lifeline of connections and opportunities.

"Social media is not as impersonal as everyone thinks. It's funny to say out loud, but I've actually made quite a few good friends and business connections through Twitter, and the ongoing conversations I've had continue to benefit me and my businesses," she says.

"Even the simplest mention or shout-out can open the door for mutual forms of reciprocity that could help build your audience online. Social media is the cheapest, and in my personal opinion, the easiest, way to make a name for yourself, if you are doing it correctly," Beck adds.

Juan Alanis is the creator of Juan of Words, his personal blog covering events around Houston, and pop culture at large. It's a very bilingual site, with Alanis dropping in Spanish language phrases when he can or writing some entries entirely in Spanish. In essence, it's a reflection of the population of Houston itself.