If there is one thing we have learned about covering social media in Houston, it's that nothing stays the same. People come and go, customs change and quirkiness prevails. Looking back on the last three or so years of coverage of the Bayou City social media cocoon, we saw names that have faded away, but most of them have stuck to it for better or worse. The best thing to do is ride the wave and hope we at least get some good restaurant recommendations out of the deal.
The winners of this year's second Houston Web Awards make each day on social media better and brighter as we shadow their days through their pictures, updates and 140-character one-liners. They are discovering things about our city for us all to enjoy, just by keeping their eyes and ears open. These are our fellow Houstonians (plus one burly Detroit transplant) who keep us all coming back for more each day, even though we should really get back to work.when you think of a pro football player, what comes to mind is the exact opposite of Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin. He goes to indie-rock shows on the regular, drives only one car (a Prius) and uses Twitter to find street artists to paint murals on his living-room wall. He has a shock of tall, thick brown hair that has become his calling card. If he weren't built like, well, an NFL linebacker, people would ask him what band he's in.
It just so happens that his "band" plays regular gigs most Sundays — and sometimes Monday nights — in the fall and can number nearly 60 members. The Detroit native joined Twitter during his rookie year in the NFL back in 2009, straight out of the University of Cincinnati. Three years ago, which might as well be a decade in social media time, athletes weren't using Twitter as they are now, and if they were, they were doing it badly. There have been hiccups: complaining, oversharing, drunken rambling along the way, even some suspensions.
It took time for most pro athletes to get the hang of it, but the younger guys of Generation Y who grew up with social media as a constant in their lives took to it more easily. In his early twenties, Barwin was ripe to become a local Twitter sensation, now looking at more than 25,000 followers. But it wasn't so easy in the beginning.
"You're shy, stressed out, not really confident in putting yourself out there," says Barwin. The pressures of being a rookie in the NFL are legion, among them learning a whole new language and team culture the moment a player signs on the dotted line after college. Barwin shied away from Facebook ("ex-girlfriends"); its news feed full of food, babies and Internet memes was too much. Twitter helped him focus his interests and discover things about Houston.
"I get to show people what I am like away from football," Barwin says, smiling. It also gives him a chance to crowdsource ideas, like helping birth "Bulls on Parade."
Last season, during the Texans' improbable run of success after they lost two quarterbacks and defensive end Mario Williams to injuries, Barwin took to Twitter to ask followers what his cunning and ruthless defensive line should be nicknamed. The ideas came flooding in, but one stood out, from fan Louie Guerra, and his "Bulls on Parade" entry soon became a Twitter hashtag, a battle cry at games, and came preloaded with a great (albeit political) Rage Against the Machine song to boot. The rest is Houston sports history. But what about that hair, Connor?
"I love my hair," he says, laughing. It started last season when a CBS crew decided that Barwin and his enviable do resembled Seinfeld's Cosmo Kramer, putting up a picture of the two side by side to bring the point home. Ever since, hair has been an obsession with the team. "It's turned into a gimmick or whatever, ever since the Kramer thing happened, so I will keep it as long as I can."
Barwin recently made waves in the sports community by celebrating President Barack Obama's support of same-sex marriage in early May. That day on his Twitter feed, Barwin made it clear that he was happy with Obama's words and stood with the Commander in Chief on marriage equality. He was elated.
This was an astonishing thing for an NFL player to intimate to the public, with the league's notoriously macho, hetero culture. Barwin tweeted: "Those of us with gay relatives and friends understand how meaningful and positive this is." The fact that his stance got so much press proves that the NFL may have a ways to go, but Barwin's happy to be a pioneer.
His words were met with a positive reaction from his social media family, though a few followers disagreed, some of them quoting Biblical scriptures to make their points. And he actually ended up gaining more followers along the way, some of whom weren't even football fans, and all it took was three or four tweets of progressive thinking.
He would later tell GLBT sports blog Outsports about his older brother, Joe, who came out to his friends and family when Barwin was in junior high. For Barwin this wasn't just a trendy cause to get behind; it was about human rights in general, the right for families to exist as they saw fit. "I definitely think that people are going to look back and be amazed that so many people had a problem with it," he says.
Barwin lives in a high-rise apartment in downtown Houston amid skyscrapers and Discovery Green, and from his patio you can spy parts of Minute Maid Park, BBVA Compass Stadium and Warehouse Live, one of his favorite live venues in town. His favorite bars are steps away, too. His favorite restaurants — Underbelly and Uchi — are just a short drive away, and he and some other Texans are regulars at Under the Volcano's Monday steak nights.
"Houston is cool enough to where there is no judging, and I don't have to hide," he says. But honestly, when he's at a concert it's hard for him to blend in. He sometimes feels bad when he really wants to get close to the stage at a show. It makes taking concert pics easier, though.
His place is blocks from the METRORail, but he mostly gets to and from work in the Prius, and he can sometimes be seen biking around town. We bring up the fact that a Prius seems small for such a big guy, and he reminds us that a Prius isn't all that compact and that he can fit a few teammates in it all at once.
On one wall of the apartment there's a huge floor-to-ceiling mural that he commissioned from street artist Daniel "Weah" Anguilu. The story of how it came to be on Barwin's wall is a testament to the plugged-in (and almost frightening) nature of social media in Houston.
"I had always seen his pieces when I lived in the Museum District, and one day I decided to find out who it was. I tweeted a picture of one of them and asked if anyone knew whose work it was, and within minutes I had his name and phone number." The next day Anguilu was at Barwin's place looking at a blank canvas, and a week and six hours later, it was a reality on his wall, and Barwin was live-tweeting the whole thing.
"I wanted a place to be myself," says Christian Palmer. As @pogsandjello, the Houston resident reels out hilarious non sequiturs to an audience of just around 600 followers, making her feed a hidden gem. When she says she tweets the way she talks, she's not lying. She's rarely mean or cynical, maintaining a sense of whimsy without resorting to negativity. Years into this Twitter experiment, her journey into the social media site is still hazy.
Palmer, a journalist and photographer by trade, never imagined that Twitter would become as big a part of her life as it is now, either. Most people who join Twitter and stake out their own distinct plots of virtual real estate say it has changed their lives for the better. She doesn't even remember what her exact motivation to join the site was, but she's glad she did.
"I have made more friends being on Twitter during these past three years than I did during the entire 20 years preceding. I met my best friend and also the love of my life." Her openness and acceptance of most everyone have allowed her to build an audience. When we tell Palmer that she operates one of the funniest feeds in town, she gets bashful, which is refreshingly endearing, and she makes it look effortless.
The best thing about being funny on Twitter is that it allows normal people to riff on their own lives and experiences. Sometimes the seemingly most normal have the most outlandish things to say. It's always the quiet ones. Sloppy grammar is a pet peeve of Palmer's, and coming from a writing and editing background makes navigating Twitter at times twice as maddening. Even when she's had a few drinks, she strives to remain word perfect and understandable.
She doesn't like the word "woot" (but then again, who does?), and she is frequently confused by emoticons, mostly because they're used incorrectly. Why all the winking? When it comes to her favorite users in town, she gravitates toward those railing against the world. "I prefer anger, but I get an enormous kick out of whimsy. I see myself as more whimsical. Does toilet humor count as whimsy?" she asks.
Imelda Bettinger has taken the art of online photo-sharing to a whole new level in the Houston area, joining forces with other mobile shutterbugs on Instagram. They are documenting the everyday beauty and countering the banality in their everyday lives. With just a cell phone, a few preloaded photo filters and some imagination, you can churn out something endearing, haunting or humorous.
Bettinger, a wife and mother of three in Pearland, embraced Instagram, the massively popular photo-sharing social media application, just two days after its launch in October 2010. At first the app was only for iPhone users, but this past April it became available for Android phones, too. A few days later it was bought by Facebook for $1 billion.
For years, Bettinger had been taking pictures around the city, adding them to Houston-centric Flickr pools and cultivating her own presence. As social media went through growing pains, the site took a backseat. Instagram provided a new community for budding hobbyist photogs to exercise their skills. Flickr's sense of community had dropped off and Instagram quickly took its place.
The Instagram app has pop-culture roots in those plastic Hong Kong-made Holga cameras that were so popular in the mid-2000s. The flimsy nature of the camera's working parts helped create eerie and dreamy prints. Instagram's final product isn't too terribly different from the Holga's. You won't spend a load of cash on expensive film, and you can instantly share your masterpiece to Twitter, Facebook and every other platform imaginable.
There is a stock, clichéd feel to most Instagram photos that turns some off of the app. Like, does everything need to look vintage? Users can employ an array of filters and lighting to create just the right mood and tone for their shots.
"I'm one of those that do prefer Instagram to Twitter because I'm such a visual person. It ties my love of photography into a device I have in my hand almost constantly," Bettinger says. She has met many users who've made Instagram their sole social media outlet. This is a polar shift from just a few years back, when everyone was taking to Twitter to spit out 140 words of drivel.
"I've often heard that Facebook is for people you know, Twitter is for people you want to know. Well, Instagram lets people take you where you want to go," says Joey Garcia, another Houston Instagram heavy. He's been using Instagram to document the things he sees on the job in an oilfield near Brazos Bend State Park, and he and Bettinger helped institute a few local "InstaMeets," a dedicated Instagram feed for Houston. He's even had some of his work exhibited at photo shows.
Bettinger says she has heard of some users taking nearly 40 steps to edit a shot before even posting it to their timeline for the world to see. The pictures can be beautiful, but that sort of negates the "instant" part of the app. For Garcia, though, that's what makes Instagram work.
"It's one thing to share love for the same thing, but you'll never know how your friends see the same stuff you enjoy until they share it on Instagram. I always enjoy seeing different views of Houston through the eyes of someone else, and that's how others feel," he says. But even early adopters like Bettinger are tiring of Instagram and looking for new things to play with, and most professional photogs have shied from it.
Bettinger wants to go back to where it all began, sans iPhone. "I would like to continue to grow my non-iPhone photography more. Maybe I need to be using Instagram less?" she wonders.
THE REST OF
Compiled by Jeff Balke, Craig Hlavaty, Brittanie Shey and Katharine Shilcutt
Best Bartender Tweeter
Perhaps the most hard-working female bartender in town, Alba Huerta is president of the Houston chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild and the founder of Houston LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails), an organization devoted to cultivating classic cocktail programs around town as well as hosting fund-raisers for various charities. Huerta uses her Twitter page as a place to showcase the various events her organizations host, share information about great bars both here and around the country, and encourage her fellow bartenders — both male and female.
Best Beverage/Beer Blog
Leslie Sprague is probably the city's best known beer blogger, both for her writing on Lushtastic as well as for her work with Open the Taps, a nonprofit dedicated to changing outdated beer laws in Texas. Equal parts news, politics and general beer coverage, Lushtastic is the place to head in Houston to keep abreast of all things beer.
Best Use of Online Activism
The Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs is the brainchild of Anvil owner Bobby Heugel, who decided to use his considerable social media presence to fight the City of Houston's push to require more (cost-prohibitive, possibly deal-breaking) parking spaces at small, Inner Loop bars and restaurants. OKRA encourages its followers and fans to talk to the City about smart urban growth instead of Inner Loop sprawl, bringing huge groups of supporters to City Council meetings along the way.
Best Chef Tweeter
Following Mexican celebrity chef Aquiles Chavez as he moved to Houston to open a new restaurant, La Fisheria, has been nothing short of fascinating. Even with 166,000 followers, though, Chavez keeps his account personal, interesting and fun — and even shares plenty of Instagram photos of his activities throughout the day.
Best Food Blog
Combining words and video, the Urban Swank girls — Shanna Jones and Felice Sloan — chronicle the city's best and hottest restaurants, bars and chefs with easygoing, laid-back voices that let the real character of the subjects emerge. Besides just restaurant reviews and interviews, though, Urban Swank also covers everything from recipes to happy hours.
Best Food Truck Tweeter
"Friday we celebrate one year of ugly," says Joshua Martinez, owner of The Modular, on the food truck's recent one-year anniversary. Typically funny and self-deprecating but always helpful, The Modular directs food-truck fans to other mobile eateries besides their own when they're not out, lists its daily specials and schedule on the regular, and has even offered fans freebies for braving inclement weather.
Best Funniest Twitter Account
"I just saw a blood stain that looked like a tiny handlebar mustache. I also saw a hipster recently. Hipsters bleed mustaches. #conclusions." Christian Palmer's stream-of-consciousness ramblings can include anything from sexy photos of hamburgers, severed fingers, cheese puns or gumbo — but whatever her random topic of the hour, her sublimely bizarre updates (many in all caps) never fail to elicit at least a chuckle, if not an all-out guffaw.
Best Restaurant Facebook
Plonk doesn't advertise; it doesn't have to. There isn't even a sign outside the Garden Oaks restaurant. All the info you'll ever need about Plonk and its generous wine-tasting events or weekend cookouts is posted on its constantly updated Facebook page. It's like your friend with all the insider info that you don't have to buy drinks for.
Best Restaurant Web Site
There is no more simple or streamlined restaurant Web site in town. There's no flash here, no music, no needless animations or endless pages of photos. Just the menu, updated daily, and the basic information you'll need (hours, maps, etc.) about one of Houston's most intriguing and exciting restaurants.
Best Wi-Fi Spot
Georgia's Market Downtown
At this grocery store/eatery right off the light-rail line downtown, you can grab a seat in one of four areas and surf while you eat, sip coffee or drink a beer: in the sunny downstairs dining room, the aerie above it, the underground cellar/craft beer bar or the window-lined book nook above the dried goods in the grocery store, which is full of overstuffed chairs and great views of the downtown streets below.
Best Viral Video
Houston Police Officer Cocks and Chambers His Shotgun at Angry Crowd
Back in January, the civil liberties advocacy group Houston Free Thinkers threw a fund-raiser concert in Third Ward for local charities and businesses, as they have been doing for a while now. There was a noise complaint from neighbors, and soon the Houston Police Department was on the scene in full force to investigate. What began as a routine visit from cops was being recorded by partygoers, and a cell-phone camera captured a member of the HPD menacingly cocking his shotgun at the angry crowd. The incident quickly went viral and became an outrage on YouTube and among local activists. As if tensions weren't already at a breaking point between the law and us regular folk.
Best Local Sports Star Twitter
By now you all know the story of Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin and how he embraced the city of Houston with all his might. The towering ballplayer has quickly become a must-follow for locals and a certified member of the Bayou City Twitterati, and you don't even have to be a fan of his sport to find him endearing. Whether he's at a concert or a restaurant or gandering some street art, he offers an outsider's inside glimpse into the best and brightest spots in Houston. To follow him is to watch someone fall in love with our city one tweet at a time.
Best Fake Twitter Account
Fake John McClain
The scary thing about this fake Twitter account devoted to Houston Chronicle sports writer and sports-talk-radio mainstay John McClain is that the fake one doesn't deviate horribly from the real one. He looks like your uncle who's always the first to fall asleep in front of the television after Thanksgiving dinner, and this fake feed drives that image home. All the confusing claims and outrageous predictions you can handle.
Best Music Blog
The music blog of the University of Houston's student-run online radio station comes with oodles of playlists, videos, news and other things to keep you busy. Though it just launched in March — the blog, not the station — we can already tell it could shape up to be one of your first Internet destinations when you wake up and crawl to your laptop. There's a mixture of indie, hip-hop and local to keep you enthralled. Chances are they're at every cool show in town, too.
Rap hero, man about town, food-truck connoisseur and Houstonian, Bun B is the best embodiment of what people love about our city and what keeps people coming back. Bun is constantly talking to fans, offering scene commentary, championing up-and-coming artists and tweeting pictures from his travels around the country. He's got a great Instagram feed, too, but hell, he can't win everything this year.
Tweet of the Year
Most people don't know this, but you can quietly be a Republican or a Democrat.
As we march into the final run of this presidential election year and things heat up between the Republicans and the Democrats on social media, Houston's own Jenny Johnson would like to remind us all in the most politely and uncharacteristically non-profane way that sometimes it's all right to shut the hell up. Seriously, no one cares who you are voting for, Mr. IT Guy. Now make with the cat pictures.
Best Musician Twitter
Tianna Hall juggles an active singing career — you can catch her regularly at Sambuca downtown — with having a young child and generally being awesome. The jazz singer, wife and new mother makes everything she does sound either glamorous as hell or hilariously cute. It's also a good insight into the life of a working vocalist in Houston, and not just a rapper or a rocker, though we're sure that Tianna can rock if she wants to.
Best Musician Facebook
Few things make us wish we had pursued the dream of being a working musician more than the Facebook feed of Nick Gaitan of local swamp-rock and Tex-Mex group The Umbrella Man. The band's leader and award-winning bassist doesn't just show off where he's going or where he's been; he also keeps us educated. If you follow the UM page and his personal one, you'll get a rich musical history delivered hot and fresh to your feed. And he has cool friends.
Best Arts Blog
Great God Pan Is Dead
No gallery opening is too small for Robert Boyd, so long as it is within about 100 miles of Houston. Boyd, whose art blog The Great God Pan Is Dead has been around and discussing local (and national) art since 2006, manages to break down the creative works he views into layman's terms and can find value in even the most tired artistic tropes and clichés. Toss in his background in the comic books industry and you have someone who never takes art too seriously but who is capable of taking a critical look at even the most lowbrow works.
Houston Museum of Natural Science
If Pinterest is dominated by women and companies seeking to market toward them, then the Houston Museum of Natural Science's account is a breath of fresh air. The museum does post occasional self-promotion, but with boards like National Puppy Day, Under the Sea and Bugs, Beautiful Bugs, the account offers something for everyone on the young social networking site, from the girly-girl to the biggest science nerd.
Best Use of Online Fund-raising
Even before the microcinema moved out of the old church on Aurora Street, they'd long outgrown their office space just north of The Menil Collection. Screenings and happy hours at the Montrose-area house were cram-packed. When a new location was finally decided — an artists' studio at 2442 Bartlett Street that would have enough room for kids' education programs, screenings, Aurora's video library and offices — all that was left was to furnish the place. So Aurora began a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $5,000, to be used to purchase office furniture at Ikea. As of early June, 83 contributors had donated a total of $6,102. Aurora's first event in its new home will be the annual Extremely Shorts Film Festival at the end of June.
Tumblr is probably the most attention-deficit form of blogging, but that doesn't mean a Tumblr site can't be well curated. Blogger Fox Marie posts up to 50 times a day, a barrage of images of her handmade Native American-inspired jewelry (which is for sale), life as a barista in the Montrose, mermaid art, hypersexualized photography and occult imagery, and, of course, the obligatory GPOY or two. She's like the artistic, mystic younger sister your mom never had.
Houston Arboretum and Nature Center
It may not be slick and snazzy. It may not use Helvetica and have gobs of white space. But this Web site for Houston's favorite green space works exactly the way a Web site should — all the information you need quickly is available on the home page, including contact info, calendar listings, news and events, and menus to the rest of the site. Because you don't need to spend any more time than necessary surfing a Web site when you could be outside instead.
Agree with their perspective or not, the Occupy movement was one of the biggest stories of the last year, and though Houston's own group got a somewhat late start, they managed to maintain interest and threads of communication with hoi polloi, mainly through Twitter, long after New York's Zuccotti Park had been cleared. Use of the hashtag peaked around November 8, when police arrested protesters for erecting a tent-link tarp at Tranquillity Park, and again a few weeks later, when a rogue non-Occupier fired shots into the crowd and was subsequently shot by police. Though use of the tag has waned, it still gets at least one Tweet a day.
Best Use of Crowdsourcing
St. Arnold's Divine Reserve hashtag hunts
Christmas comes but once a year, but since 2005, Houston's oldest microbrewery has released 11 versions of its single-batch, limited-edition brew. And on Divine Reserve release day, if you have any hope of securing a six-pack or a case, you'd better be following Houston-area beer nerds on Twitter. Why take the day off work to wait in line at the Downtown Spec's? Just set up a Twitter search for #DR12 or #divine12 (which sources tell us should be quite soon) for tips on out-of-the-way grocery stores with cases and local bars that plan to tap kegs.
Best Use of Facebook by a Business
If you're sick of hearing about that awesome in-store with free beer featuring tomorrow's hottest band that all your friends went to but you didn't, well, why aren't you following Cactus Music on Facebook? Houston's beloved record store and sometime art gallery posts new releases, videos of performances and giveaways, and helps promote local bands that are also on Facebook. Like them, and you'll never be out of the audio loop again.
Photo of the Year
What I Saw When I Sneaked Inside the Astrodome by Swamplot Tipster
It had been five years since the last major event inside the Astrodome, so when an anonymous photographer and Swamplot reader saw an open gate to the neglected mid-century masterpiece during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, he or she took a chance. The resulting photos revealed moldy and torn Astroturf and a litter-strewn building that looked more like a storage facility than the Eighth Wonder of the World. The covert pics also set off a media frenzy, leading first to KHOU's sanctioned peek at the stadium and, ultimately, a 20-strong public tour for local reporters and talking heads.
Best Blog Post
Texans Chick: A Modest Texans Proposal
Any story on the Internet that allows comments, particularly of the more controversial sort, tends to devolve into complete madness, which is why whenever we find a story that chooses decorum over insanity, it's important to take notice. Stephanie "Texans Chick" Stradley has had to endure more than her fair share of comment fights over the years — including some with members of the media — but this post on the offseason for the Houston Texans is almost, dare we say it, polite. Bravo.
Best Instagram Feed
Too often, Instagram is a storehouse of photos of food, children, weird signs and weak attempts at pseudo-artistic photography, particularly of the self-portrait variety. Imelda Bettinger, a fine photographer in her own right, always seems to mix it up, and, more important, her images are consistently great.
Best IRL (in Real Life) Gathering
An extension of KPFT's long-running tech show, Technology Bytes, regular Geek Gatherings have always been something of a sight to behold. Nowhere else can you find a mix of people that includes both the relatively normal and the "I spend most of my time in my mom's basement drinking orange Fanta" nerds. As a show co-host once said, "It's both the social and antisocial media."
Best Local App
Houston Emergency Radio
Many locally developed apps are done for commercial purposes and are offshoots of brick-and-mortar businesses, but Houston Emergency Radio is neither. A slick and easy to use conglomeration of police- and fire-band radio throughout southeast Texas, not only is this handy in an actual emergency, but it can be seriously entertaining, particularly in the wee hours of the weekend.
Best Sports Fan/News Twitter
Co-host of 790 KBME's Big Show, Zierlein is everything you want in a tweeter. He's funny, responsive and doesn't waste his entire feed on links to his own stories or podcasts. His live, in-depth commentary during games is fascinating, and because he is the foremost authority on the NFL draft in the city, his feed is a must-follow February through April. And follow his Southern gentleman alter ego, @SECGuy, for laughs.
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Best Politics Blog
Marc Campos's Daily Commentary
There are plenty of good political blogs that cover the issues of the day, but nothing puts you inside the machinations of Houston politics like this literally daily blog from longtime political consultant Marc Campos. His insights into the grind of local and state politics are as fascinating as they are entertaining.