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.
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SLIDESHOW: The 2011 Houston Web Awards
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.
"I knew from working for both English and Spanish media outlets that there was a very clear line already "defined" about what it was to be Mexican and what it was to be Mexican-American, or just American, by generations, educations, the whole deal. But that didn't feel like my reality," says Alanis.
"I'd started other projects before, mainly things that I hadn't had a passion for, and over the course of time I would just lose interest in them. I can go days without sleeping because there are so many things that I want to incorporate, create and share with the people that stop by my blog and communicate with me. I enjoy doing what I'm doing," Alanis says.
What Alanis says follows a common thread throughout every conversation we had with Beck, Nielsen, Karnavas. Keep it fun, keep it simple and above all, enjoy what you are doing.
Blurbs by Jeff Balke, Craig Hlavaty, Mandy Oaklander, Brittanie Shey and Katharine Shilcutt
Best Local Activism Site
Despite ultimately losing the battle to keep KTRU's alternative format and Rice campus location, the people behind the movement were organized and their Web site was a well-oiled extension of their effort, which probably should be expected; these are Rice grads after all.
Best Start-Up Blog
This rapidly growing blog/social calendar Web site features near constant updates on a very wide range of Houston-area events. The site ramped up quickly through tight Facebook integration and incessant Twitter and e-mail promotion. It's certainly one to watch.
Best Sports Blog
In a city filled with a lot of media-affiliated sports blogs but not very many independents, Astros fan-run blog Crawfish Boxes stands out. Unlike most fan blogs and Web sites, Crawfish Boxes is professional, frequently updated and highly informative.
Best Sex Bloggers
Mr. and Mrs. Gentlenibbles
Gentle Nibbles is a Houston swinger's Internet oasis. The husband-and-wife pair grew up religious in the Bible Belt, but now they pen hot stories, polls and sex advice for the swinging set. Even if you don't subscribe to swingdom, stop by for a few minutes of addictive browsing. It'll be the sexiest education you've ever given yourself.
Best Flickr Pool
Houston Museum of Natural Science
Any organization can set up a Flickr pool and solicit fans or members for shots to be milked for publicity or ad purposes (heck, even we did it.) But the Houston Museum of Natural Science stands out for creating not just a group but a community, complete with photo challenges, meetups and opportunities to get one's photos critiqued.
Best Use of Video in Entertainment
Keep Houston Rich
The story of Houston's mixed bag of a personality could take words and words to tell, but Keep Houston Rich manages to tell it in short video snippets, complete with a little snark, as the name implies. From Frederica von Stade's final performance at Houston Grand Opera to a time lapse of a Metro Trail being dressed in red plastic wrap, it runs the gamut of all that makes this city rich — culturally, that is.
Best Wi-Fi Spot
1219 Marconi, Houston
Hidden around the corner of Montrose and Dallas in an adorable bungalow and dawrfed by high-rises, this unassuming spot offers coffee and free Wi-Fi in what feels like your best friend's living room. But it's not the locally roasted Java Pura that reined us in. In addition to free Internet access in a subdued environment, the cafe also lends out iPads to customers.
Best Real Estate Blog
It's the only blog brave enough to take on both the Robin Hood Condos and the Ashby High Rise and still survive with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Gus Allen and his team of tipsters and dedicated commentors often has us muttering to ourselves, Who knew real estate could be so fascinating?
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts
Clean white backgrounds and gray and red text highlight nostalgic art and a gorgeous header that looks hand-lettered. The Mitchell Center's Web site is so cool it could have been designed at Bauhaus. Its simplicity isn't skin-deep, though. The site is drop-dead easy to navigate, putting the emphasis on the performers, not on the playbill.
Best Use of Facebook to Promote a Business
Most of our Facebook friends bore us with inane little motivational quotes, pictures from vacations we can't afford and maddening Farmville gaming updates. The MMM Cupcake truck is actually doing the Lord's work by telling Houstonians where the truck is posted up at so you can snag a few of its desserts all over the city. This is one profile you won't want to "hide" on your feed, though your personal trainer probably wishes you would.
If you need the straight dope on what's hot in fashion, either the kind you wear or the kind you live in, peek into the world of one of Houston's best PR pros in the business by following Merritt Beck. Coupled with her blog, Manolos and Martinis, Beck is a veritable fountain of style info all over social media. For women, she can be a beacon in the stormy world of do's and don'ts, and for guys, she helps explain why it sometimes takes an hour to leave the house.
Best Breaking News/Bloodhound Twitterer
You know him from when he helped cover May's tragic botched bank robbery in downtown Houston with just his cellphone and quick fingers, and most recently uncovered fishiness with a certain beer festival's charity status. Kyle Nielsen is one of the city's most trusted and indispensable news bloodhounds, even outdoing those stuffy guys in suits on the big networks, and you don't have to sit through any commercials.
Best Use of Twitter by a Restaurant
Ricky Craig's no-nonsense Twitter account matches his real-life personality to a T. The owner of the popular Hubcap Grill is engaging and funny with his customers and quick to call out those who he doesn't think support the Houston food scene. He's refreshing, honest and fun to follow.
Best Food Blog
Blue Jean Gourmet
Nishta Mehra doesn't write restaurant reviews. She doesn't interview chefs. She doesn't attend media tastings. She writes memoir-style posts that transform recipes from say just a useful guide to making Indian cuisine into a compelling, moving read.
Best Use of Video in Food
I Love Flavor
I Love Flavor is all the bubblegum goodness of pop-culture — funny and bright and always tongue-in-cheek — thanks to host Jenny Kelley and her infectious enthusiasm, whether she's showing you how to make gluten-free mac & cheese or how to celebrate Steak & a Blow Job Day.
Best Restaurant Web Site
Clean, sleek and easy to operate, without any obnoxious music playing in the background or PDF files to download, Hugo's Web site is everything a restaurant Web site should be. Best of all, the location and hours are listed right on the home page, no digging required.
Best Use of Twitter by a Bartender
Justin Burrow's handle says it all: @BeardandBitters. This bearded bartender loves his bitters, but more importantly he loves engaging with his customers on Twitter. Questions about a cocktail? He'll help you out. Just want to keep tabs on your favorite bartender and his foibles? You can do that, too.
Best Use of Twitter by a Food Truck
The Eatsie Boys know that the best way for a food truck to survive is by providing constant updates about their menu, hours and location on Twitter. They do all of that, ably, as well as providing laughs throughout the day and throwing in obscure references to '80s movies along the way.
Best Use of Twitter by a Chef
Carlos Rodriguez takes no prisoners, in real life as the executive chef of the fastidiously run Vic & Anthony's, or on Twitter. His feed is a high-energy, high-intensity, fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to head up the busiest steakhouse in town.
Best Use of Facebook by a Restaurant
Moon Tower Inn
Moon Tower Inn has chosen Facebook instead of Twitter as its preferred platform for communicating with customers, and it does so splendidly. A deeply personalized Facebook page, the men behind Moon Tower leave hilarious photos and videos in addition to important information about specials and upcoming events on their wall.
The best way to stay on top of breaking news — or any news, for that matter — in Houston is with the #hounews hashtag. Clicking on it provides you an instant stream from thousands of Houstonians about traffic jams, wrecks, fires, bank robberies, weather updates and dozens of other topics that make it to Twitter before they make it to the nightly news.
Best Personal Blog
Alanis's Juan of Words is a perfect distillation of the Houston we all know in 2011. It's bilingual, heartfelt, hilarious and nostalgic all at once. Even if you don't read or speak Spanish, it's a fascinating read, plus it can be educational. A few weeks ago he wrote a brilliant piece about men and women sharing basic household duties that will make even the most strident macho man stop and think about marriage in the 21st century.
Best Use of Facebook by a Band or Musician
the last place you look
Most bands just shove automated updates onto their Facebook pages, but not so with the caps-lock-wary the last place you look, one of Houston's most promising rock bands. The four-piece finds time to reach out to fans among all the busy dealings of being an up-and-coming rock band, responding to comments and posting pictures and new tracks. Hopefully, once they hit arenas and stadiums, they will still remember us little people.
Best Locally Built App
MoneyWell for iPhone by No Thirst Software
This Woodlands-built personal finance app digitizes the old-fashioned envelope system for budgeting, allowing you to track every dime you spend while on the go. It also syncs wirelessly with their desktop software, though that's not required.
Best Neighborhood Blog
The Heights Life
In addition to listing weekly neighborhood events, from gallery openings to restaurant deals, The Heights Life has also covered issues more serious to the 'hood's residents, including concerns about the Walmart deal to the potential closure of public swimming pools this summer.
Best Arts Blog
AIGA's Houston bloggers find the beauty in everything: QR codes, animal shelters, Houston's haphazard attempts at architectural preservation. The result is a blog that's as entertaining to read as it is pleasant to look at.
Best Politics Blog
What started as a "whimsical discussion of craft beer" a mere year ago quickly morphed into an all-out information hub for brewers and suds lovers looking for accessible details on Texas House bills 602 and 660, also known as the small brewery bills, thanks to author Cathy Clark's legal knowledge.
Best Rush-Hour Traffic Twitterer
Houston TranStar's series of Twitter profiles for each of the 16 main arteries of Houston traffic is indispensable for anyone driving in our city, where rush hour seems to last twice as long as it does in other cities, and is even more maddening. The most frustrating thing about being stuck in your car is wasting precious, expensive gas; at least TranStar can tell you why you and your vehicle are at a standstill, which at least makes you feel better about waiting. Wait, shouldn't you be paying attention to the road and not looking at Twitter?
Best Use of Facebook to Promote a Personal Brand
Looking to use that special aura of "you" in the correct way without falling flat on your face for a social faux pas? You should probably enlist the services of BrandExtract. Their team uses updates on Facebook and to showcase ways that they can help your business or personal enterprise. We weren't all born with the gift of poise, and there is no such thing as a social media finishing school, but BrandExtract sure comes close.
Best Houston Music Blog
Houston Calling/David Cobb
Now in its eighth year of operation, David Cobb's local music blog Houston Calling is one of the best and most intelligent journals chronicling the music scene in the Bayou City. He can count other Houston rock blogs like Space City Rock and Houston Press's own Rocks Off as fans and followers. Cobb covers artists, mostly local but never shying away from the national biggies, in a tone that's hard to find these days. He manages to get strong and in-depth interviews from musicians in town that get to the heart of their craft, and his subjects have grown to understand that his process isn't just to promote a show for a hungry band, but also to bring readers into their musical minds. His show previews and album reviews don't hinge on gimmicks, just his own musical knowledge, which he never feels the need to beat a site visitor over the head with.
Best Late Night Twitterer
Allison Matsu is quite possibly our best version of a late-night radio therapist, the kind you see only in movies from the '90s, before you could just Google why you were sad, albeit she's not on air but on Twitter. She can be your cheerleader on a dark night, a partner in crime when you need it, but above all she is a (literally) tireless champion of Houston culture and people. No one is safe from her social media hugs and pokes, from just after sundown to minutes before dawn on some nights, depending on the direction her night takes her. She can also stir a fine shit storm when the mood strikes just by asking an unpopular question, and she isn't immune to people blocking her, but they always end up coming back around. In a climate full of people more than happy to self-congratulate and self-promote, Matsu helps spotlight Houston itself and all the people who make it one of the best social media cities in the world.
Best Rapper Twitterer
Slim Thug may be the first rapper on Earth to have Twitter implanted into his brain, or so it seems, considering the prodigious clip at which he sends out tweets almost 24 hours a day. When he's not in the studio working on his follow-up to last year's Tha Thug Show, recording verses on friends' tracks or sleeping, the veteran Houston rapper is tweeting most every inch and ounce of his day. With most oversharers on social media, the ones who will tell you what kind of bowel movement their newborn had, you get sick of them quick. But with Slim, you feel like you're getting privileged information even though he's moving ever closer to 200,000 followers. Stay tuned for the very NSFW Tittie Tuesdays, a weekly holiday of mammary proportions on Twitter, of which the rapper is an avid supporter.
Best Use of Twitter to Promote a Personal Brand
Whether he's transmitting info about his band Runaway Sun, his solo work, the oldies lounge project Bang Bang Boom or his burgeoning new children's music venture, AndyRoo, musician Andrew Karnavas has cultivated his brand better than most anyone else, in the music business or otherwise. His feed is a dizzying list of links to all of his endeavors, but he doesn't let it turn into a nonstop commercial, which is the problem with most self-promoting souls in Houston. He lets you into his world, not letting you forget that at heart he's a twentysomething guy in love with music and his city. Don't be surprised if you are humming AndyRoo's "Brush Your Teeth" along with your kids after one spin of the dentist-approved ode to oral hygiene.
Best Tweet of the Year
"Houston is the greatest city on Earth, if you know what you're doing."
There are tweets about cats, babies, food and sports clogging up your Twitter timeline right now, no doubt. But then there are tweets like Jay Rascoe's back in March that remind you of why you love Houston. The taco enthusiast and budding beer connoisseur hit to the heart of why we love Houston. It's true, Houston really is the greatest city on Earth, if you play your cards right. We have art, food, music, beautiful people, mega amounts of international culture — now if we can just find a way to air-condition the damned thing.
Best Photo of the Year
Phosphorescence by OneEighteen on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/oneeighteen/5577592353
OneEighteen, also known as Louis Vest, is a pilot at the Houston Ship Channel. He uses his camera to document the industrial landscape of Houston's shipping inlet, and in this photo, captures bioluminescent microorganisms responding to the friction of a ship's bow. The photo is a perfect summation of his entire Flickr stream and of Houston as a whole, where beauty can be found in the most concrete of jungles.
Best Video of the Year
On the morning of January 31 around 9:20, when everyone was at work or sleeping off the weekend, local KPRC anchor Owen Conflenti was settling back in for a scheduled news update when, possibly forgetting about the evolving aspect ratio of modern high-definition, he gave a good-natured one-finger salute to someone off camera in the studio. By that afternoon, it was common knowledge around town as TiVo's were scanned for the offending gesture, and by that Thursday the Huffington Post and even the Daily Mail in the U.K were reporting on the incident. For once it was a relief to see Houston in the national spotlight for something harmless. No one was as offended as you would have imagined for a city with a church on most every block, and Conflenti still very much has a job at KPRC, and even went on to cover the Super Bowl in Dallas that next weekend. We give all of our good friends the finger. It's the new hug for the '10s. I'm giving you the finger right now.
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Best Blog Post of the Year
The Bloggess Accidentally Spreads Christmas Cheer thebloggess.com/2010/12/thank-you-from-me-victor-hailey-anderson-cooper-and-james-garfield/
Last Christmas, Jenny "The Bloggess" Lawson offered a limited number of gift cards to people struggling during the holidays. The comment section rapidly became a free-for-all of heartbreaking stories of desperate financial need and acts of profound generosity.