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A Good Story Well Told Is a Powerful Thing: Cities and Social Media Edition

BY Nick Judd | Monday, June 20 2011

Late last month, some folks in Grand Rapids, Mich. — a city of less than 1 million people — used a well-made viral video to completely change the way the world views their city.

Theirs was just one of many opportunities worldwide to use the proven tools of new media — a good story well told, with honesty, humor, and a little creativity — to wrest control of the popular image around their town. As Mashable's Andy Meek also notes, whether it's correcting the record or creating a new and aspirational vision for the way a city should be, the tools are there — and probably worth using.

In January, Newseek declared Grand Rapids one of America's dying cities. That didn't sit well with local "artist-provocateur" Rob Bliss, part of a new media marketing agency in town. With the city's participation, he created a ten-minute, citywide lip-sync of Don McLean's "American Pie" that sent thousands of Grand Rapids, Mich., residents zig-zagging across the city.

The video now has over three million views on YouTube. Newsweek's Facebook page only has 178,000 fans. The so-called "dying city" — of less than 1 million people — bigfooted Newsweek's version of the facts by backing the new-media smarts of one of their own, 22-year-old Bliss.

As the story unfolded late last month, Gawker's Matt Cherette noted that Newsweek rapidly backpedaled on their story. On its Facebook page, Newsweek published:

First off, we LOVE your YouTube LipDub. We're big fans, and are inspired by your love of the city you call home.

But so you know what was up with the list you're responding to, we want you to know it was done by a website called mainstreet.com--not by Newsweek (it was unfortunately picked up on the Newsweek web site as part of a content sharing deal)--and it uses a methodology that our current editorial team doesn't endorse and wouldn't have employed. It certainly doesn't reflect our view of Grand Rapids.

In a profile of Bliss, Free Press' Mark W. Smith points out that he may have overstated the number of people involved in shooting the film and that some of his past stunts — like a 2008 "zombie walk" through the city — were not as well received by city officials.

But a host of Grand Rapids businesses sponsored, and the city cooperated with Bliss on, the video. The crowd may have been 3,000 people instead of 5,000, but it was large enough to gain an audience over three times the size of the city's population. By trusting a local with the right kind of smarts, Grand Rapids clearly won control of the way people talk about their city — around the world, not just in the pages of Newsweek.

This just one of many examples of people self-organizing around their city to change popular ideas about the kind of place they live in. In Vancouver, residents angry about the way rioters upturned their city the night of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals have taken to YouTube to prove there were more people willing to clean their city up than were on the streets the night before, tearing it down:

The latest in a series of Tumblr blogs launched in the wake of the riots, This Is Our Vancouver, launched today, aggregates feel-good photos, video and text about Vancouver from Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Previous blogs and Facebook pages were used to organize cleanup and identify rioters.

Last year, as residents of Nashville used Twitter to help organize the cleanup after a devastating flood in their city and to the message out about what was happening in their neighborhoods, CNN's Anderson Cooper apologized — in a tweet, naturally — for taking days to arrive to cover the scene.

(Via Gawker, Mashable)