Believe it or not, Detroit’s got it good when it comes to online communities – many of them blogs, or Web logs. FWIW (for what it’s worth), blogs are Web sites with easily updateable, usually chronological stories or “postings” about a topic. But the beauty of blogs is that many allow for a site’s audience to comment on the story, take the story along new tangents, provide links to related material and even take pot-shots at each other like pals sitting over a couple Stroh’s at the bar. The freewheeling discussion can be brutal and inspiring with posters often free to exercise whatever measure of anonymity they choose as they tear into or give props to other posters.
When you look at a vast city like Detroit and environs, it’s only natural that an online community of arts, culture and civic-savvy bloggers and webmasters should thrive here. If we’re not driving in our cars, we’re sitting on our asses in cubicles or hatching plans in basements and home offices in far-flung corners of the city. The growing proliferation of blogs has touched even The Tubes of the Ren Cen with GM maverick VP of design Bob Lutz running (yes, it’s actually him posting and commenting) a wildly popular automotive blog.
Blogs – and their cousins discussion boards and community-minded Web sites – allow spontaneous society to break out, in turns flip, vulgar, thoughtful, kind and just plain world-expanding.
And it’s a good thing, too. Some of us are getting more and more time-crunched, toiling over spreadsheets and slogging our way through an end of the day commute, a ritual that leaves precious little time for bonding. Others of us are edging toward free-agent status as changes in the economy make for a more mobile pool of white collar and creative workers. This, of course, eliminates the water cooler and makes more difficult the Happy Hour. Blogs and online communities aren’t a total surrogate for these gaps, but they do provide some measure of bonding amongst folks who are otherwise strangers. Sometimes that bond even takes the leap into the offline world.
Case in point: One of the hotspots on Detroit’s internet landscape is the pop culture blog Whatevs.org. Mark Graham – or Uncle Grambo to site visitors – created whatevs.org in 2002. It was born, says the Rochester-born Hamtramck resident “out of a potent cocktail of boredom, enthusiasm and raw sexual fury,” he jokes.
“No really, I launched whatevs.org in January of 2002 after teaching myself HTML during a six-month period of unemployment related to the dot-com bust. Back then, it was what one would call a ‘Web site’ ... I hadn't heard of blogs yet. But oh, how things would change!”
Three years later, whatevs.org is an oft-referenced focal point for pop culture hounds near and far – from the New York Post and VH1 to a circle of Detroit-area blogs for whom Grambo is a kind of pioneer, an inspiring patron saint of the Blogosphere. Part of that popularity is due to the unique lexicon of the site. Grambo and the FOWs (the Friends of Whatevs) invent language on the spot. Thus “obviously” becomes “obvs.” Thus the simple term “seriously” becomes “seers,” begets “shmears” begets “she mars” and finally “she mars on your Joe Dumars.”
“It began as a way to keep in touch with a number of my friends, a few of whom had a particularly interesting lexicon,” explains Grambo.
“Early on, I made sure to do a lot to involve my readers – guest bloggers, features that were contributed from both my friends as well as complete strangers – which allowed me to build an interactive relationship with the sites fans. It felt less like the ‘work’ of me as an individual and more like a collective where everyone had a say in how the content looked and felt.”
Oddly enough, though, as Graham has seen the site’s number of visitors rise, the participation of that early offline community of friends lessened and a new community of erstwhile strangers developed who had formed a bond not (only) with Graham, but rather with Uncle Grambo and his passionate, literate musings on the state of high and low culture.
“I suppose that people react to the apparent dichotomy that makes up my writing style (and my personality, truth be told) – frat boy meets English major, although I was never actually in a fraternity in college. I think the common thread that keeps the same people coming back is that I try to write as passionately as possible no matter what the subject matter.”
So even as the site has evolved away from the small clique that imbued the blog with its original flavor, a new vitality has been added to the mix thanks to the cross-linked popularity whatevs has gained on the Web.
“Nowadays, almost all of my comments come from anonymous people who I've never met, which can be alternately thrilling and annoying. Thrilling in that strangers find my site (and my thoughts) compelling enough to break the barrier of lurkage, annoying in that some obnoxious tools totally abuse my leniency in letting everything fly on the backblogs.”
While whatevs.org’s profile has risen, Grambo’s dedication to providing a continuing focus on the metro area in which he works and plays is admirable. And it’s something he works at.
“I was born and raised in the 'burbs, I went to school in Ann Arbor, and now I'm working and living in the city. I'm proud to call Detroit my home,” he says. “And since Detroit has such a shitty reputation nationwide (and trust me, it does), I always do my best to try and promote the city and events that are happening around here.”
“But as a writer and as a reader, I get bored with content that focuses too much on any one given topic. Which is why I try to mix it up and cover a variety of topics on the local, national and international level – much to the dismay of a lot of people who have tried to counsel me on the potential ad revenues that my site could be raking in.”
And even as folks from around the Web flock to whatevs for what Grambo terms Piping Hot Content For Your Sexy Bod (or PHCFYSB for short), the blog has had a very real benefit to the man behind the keyboard, too.
“My world has expanded almost exponentially since I began my blog, in a way that still kind of shocks me to this day,” enthuses Graham.
“Not to sound cheesy, but the internet has allowed me to make friends in industries that have always interested me but have always seemed so untouchable and exotic to a Midwestern kid like me – you know, bigwig media types, writers that I admire, musicians I dig, television execs whose shows I adore. Who knew?”
Blog ‘n’ Roll
Indeed, one of the more recent additions to the tour du Web that is Detroit’s blogosphere is the popular Detroit rock ‘n’ roll music site motorcityrocks.com. Directly inspired by folks like Grambo, MCR launched quietly in February of 2003 as Detroit’s music brand was hitting a peak.
Says MCR honcho Ryan Sult the site was started, with an interest of quickly and easily adding news and gossip trivialities, the site naturally evolved into a blog format. Having day jobs and fairly busy lives, we wanted a way to quickly add content to MotorCityRocks and a blog format works perfectly for that.”
The editors at MCR have made important connections with mags like the recently relaunched mag Creem and the site has become a regular source of information for other publications. NME, Blender, Mixer, New York Press have all picked up stories that originated on MCR. But for his part, Sult is pragmatic about who visits the site and why:
“The only real common bonds of visitors that we're aware of are: A. people with an interest in Detroit music, and/or B. people who are bored to tears sitting in a cubicle somewhere,” he notes. “Our traffic goes down dramatically on weekends and during evenings, so we know that most of our visitors or bored office types. We don't have a lot of statistics about people who choose to participate, unfortunately.”
But with events like last week’s free concert at Alvin’s featuring rockers the Ruiners as well as their high-profile participation in the recent Motor City Music Conference, MCR’s patronage of the scene translates into real-world awareness. In fact, their Motor City Music Conference showcase was one of the best-attended and most vibrant expressions of the current Detroit scene featuring diverse acts like rockers Porchsleeper, country-tinged singer-songwriter Loretta Lucas and the eclectic, acclaimed outfit the Great lakes Myth Society playing to a packed house of fans who likely heard about the show either via MCR or whatevs.org.
It’s hard for Sult and company to measure the exact real-world effect of MCR, but he says “we hope the online community strengthens and broadens the real life community. The population of show-goers in Detroit is much smaller than say, Chicago or Boston though the city arguably has a better pool of successful bands. We hope that MotorCityRocks.com helps promote Detroit beyond the few hundred people that attend shows. And Motorcityrocks has continued to evolve, recently adding podcasting to their bag of tricks to spread word of the Detroit rock brand.
“Looking forward, we like the viral aspect of the blog – the ability to spread MotorCityRocks.com like a plague throughout the Web via syndication, podcasts and RSS [Really Simple Syndication] feeds.”
Real World Ramifications
One startling recent example of blogs connecting community in the “real world” is the example provided by the vigilant community-based blog the Hamtramck Star (hamtramckstar.com). The Star posted last week about a Hamtramck butcher – normally a jovial and welcoming shopkeeper – who upon a recent visit by the bloggers was found to have a dour mood, two black eyes and a crooked nose to match his mood. As it turns out, the butcher claims he received the bruises at the hands of the police. This caused an uproar not only in the comments section, but it also prompted the Hamtramck Star’s editors to send a Freedom of Information Request for the tapes and transcripts surrounding the butcher’s arrest and alleged harassment and abuse.
The story spilled over into fellow Hamtramck blogger Mike Rehfus’ Hamtramck Confidential as well as Ypsi blogger (and Crimewave USA zine co-editor) Mark Maynard’s popular site www.markmaynard.com with each site directing its readers to the available information and sharing information resources, anecdotes and outrage. The issue is not settled as of press time, but check out the blogs above for regular updates.
Across the Board
One of the most vibrant communities on the Detroit Web radar is artist Lowell Boileau’s Detroityes.com forum. Detroityes.com started as a home for Boileau’s Fabulous Ruins of Detroit documentary photography project chronicling our city’s wrecked hulks of urban structure and decaying architectural gems.
The discussion board that focuses on Detroit issues is a must-stop for anyone interested in the city. It’s populated by passionate folk who believe in the city and pushing its ongoing renaissance further. But it’s not just boosterism. Members of the board swap enlightened, informed opinion and engage in weeks-long debates about important developments in Detroit’s culture, economic and civic life. Witness the Detroit Mayoral Election Super Thread – a passionate discussion of the impending election that at press time included more than 5000 posts by interested folks in 199 different threads or subjects!
Covering everything from news of the latest Red Wings roster cuts to the latest wranglings of the Illitch family’s development and real estate holdings and everything in between, the community surrounding Detroityes.com is, in many ways, the eyes and ears of Detroit translated to the Web.
During the recent Pistons championship run, posters typically goaded one another into meeting at local watering holes. On a regular basis, well-meaning Detroit neophytes seek pub crawl suggestions from the Detroityes crew and they’re more than happy to oblige, listing favorite haunts from the CBD to Corktown and everywhere in between. In other words, these folks are out and about.
And judging by circumstantial evidence, it’s where many area news reporters lurk to pluck story ideas – witness the recent real-time coverage on the board of the demolition of the Madison-Lennox. Board members were posting camera phone and digital photos of the demolition in progress even as the news crews slept.
Not to get into semantics or anything, but some of the more ambitious community-building projects like Nick Sousanis’ arts community focused publication The Detroiter are Web sites, not blogs. Still, the site offers the kind of interaction that Web logs put front and center: User-submitted content, commentary and an open editorial approach help keep the proceedings loose even as the criticism and feature writing is tight.
The Detroiter’s mission (and motto) is an admirable one: Uncovering a Great American City One Story At a Time. And according to Sousanis, that’s what it’s all about. Started a couple years ago by Nick and his brother John, it has more recently become Nick’s baby and much of its editorial content fills the same niche it set out to fill: Coverage and criticism of the performing, literary and fine arts in this artistically rich city.
While the Detroiter is less an interactive forum then some of the above-mentioned sites, it still rallies a community around itself and has been a consistent voice for more than two years in an artistic and cultural environment that seems to shed well-meaning publications faster than the Big Three burn through incentive offers.
The landscape for community-building on the Web is wide open. And as the world of blogs grows, so grows the complexity and dynamics of interaction.
Members of Detroit’s traditionally low-tech independent rock music community already compulsively post to the social networking Web site MySpace.com. They can post MP3s of songs, blog about whatever strikes their fancy, post show dates and connect to friends and folks they meet on the road. Of course, there’s already scuttlebutt on the internerd that the recent acquisition of MySpace by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. might have some of the kids running for other Web havens.
Set up a MySpace site and start sending out invites. The number of your virtual friends multiplies exponentially if you give the process a simple push. And that means more opportunity to hook up with people proximate to you in real life – at the bar, at the show, at the ad hoc softball game you threw together with your new pals at a nearby park.
From Bob Lutz to the anonymous backblog commentator, connections are being made at an alarming and inspiring pace. So whether you’re sitting in a cubicle farm, waiting for the next task from account to land in your Inbox or chillaxing at your favorite wifi-enabled coffeehouse decompressing from a 12-hour freelance coding bender, there’s a whole world out there waiting to be populated. Go meet something or someone new today.
There are a ton of Detroit-based blogs that are well worth making part of your daily internet fix. The beautiful thing is that most of ’em link to one another, so once you start down the road to hyperlink town, you’ll not look back for quite a while. Here are just a few:
A rich source of photography and stories surrounding neighborhoods and urban architecture in our fair city. Check out the recent, excellent piece on the Southwest Detroit community of Del Ray and you’ll be hooked on this passionate blog.
Dorkwave/Les Enfants Terribles member and electronic music artist Rob Theakston has a light, eloquent touch on tackling the most delicate and serious of subjects (see his recent coverage of the Sony/BMG payola scandal).
Run by Zac Johnson, bass player of the Ypsi-A2 band Porchsleeper, Datawhat is a compulsive mix of dead-on quick-hit analysis and awesome time-killing, brain-and-funny-bone-tickling cross links.
Girl In The D
A relatively new entry on the scene, this is a classic blog. That is, a Web-posted journal of the cultural, nightlife and personal goings-on of one girl with a digital camera in a city we all love.