It was the day before New Year's Eve, and Ryan Hipp sat down at his computer to pose a question over Twitter that traveled through metro Grand Rapids like a lightning bolt: What does Grand Rapids need?
"My wife and I had just gotten back from a birthday trip to Chicago where we shopped at several really cool specialty stores," says Hipp, 33. "When I got home I remember thinking: I wish Grand Rapids had stores like Chicago." So Hipp posted a question at 9:42 a.m. on December 30 from his personal Twitter account, @racewinner: "What kind of biz does Grand Rapids need that we don't have? #GRneeds . "
The query set off a free-wheeling conversation among hundreds of people that is marked with humor, constructive criticism and polite disagreement -- a conversation that is still taking place today. And for those who have wondered about how they can use Twitter, the #GRneeds tweets may provide an answer: You don't use Twitter, Twitter uses you.
"I did not anticipate the domino effect this would have," says Hipp, a lifelong resident of Grand Rapids and a picture book author-illustrator . "I use hash tags all the time with Twitter, mostly for fun, but by noon that day I was totally surprised by the number of individuals who responded to #GRneeds. Not only my followers, but their followers too! It was amazing to see the number of people who got engaged in this conversation. I think it goes to show how much folks care about Grand Rapids and want it to succeed."
Individuals and organizations alike use Twitter-- ranked by some experts as the third most used internet social network in the world -- for a variety of reasons; updates, feedback, informal market research and fun. A hash tag (a subject preceded by a hash mark (#)) is a tool used on Twitter that help organize, spread and quantify these conversations. It's probably the only way to keep track of the millions of real time conversations that are happening on Twitter.
Lisa Rose Starner, 31, community activist and consultant, quickly jumped on board and participated in the #GRneeds discussion. Although she has "hundreds" of ideas, Starner did not directly champion a specific pet project. Instead she "kept the ball rolling" on topics she is passionate about, especially local agricultural and food issues. When a series of comments began building support for a Trader Joe's to open in Grand Rapids, she cautioned against another corporate food presence; "IMO We just need a regular storefront co-op. "
Starner also used the forum to praise programs that "are doing exactly what Grand Rapids needs" such as the local advocacy group, Our Kitchen Table. She also showed support for the benefits of free enterprise and capitalism; "Sing it Brother" was Starner's comment on a post about Grand Rapids doing more to embrace entrepreneurship and innovation.
As a community activist, Starner appreciates the benefits of discussions like this on Twitter, but she is also realistic on the limitations. "Twitter is a good start to discuss ideas and to share concerns, but real meaningful dialogue is a bit challenging," she says. "To make things happen the discussion needs to continue offline." She is hopeful that the community builds on the #GRneeds conversation and mines the ideas for shared concerns. "It is a wonderful source of raw data for city planners, foundations and businesses"
Roberta King, 50, tweeted her GRneed; "A commuter rail from the Lakeshore area Holland/Muskegon for work and going to the beach". As the vice president of PR and marketing for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, her comment reflects both a professional and personal perspective. " "The Community Foundation is involved in transportation initiatives and light rail has been on the radar screen," says King, who also commutes from a lakeshore residence to Grand Rapids. "I participate in a van pool and we always discuss how a rail system would be a wonderful way to connect to lakeshore communities to Grand Rapids."
King believes a light rail could have multiple benefits: from less highway congestion to tourism to education. "Through the Foundation, we know there are school kids in Grand Rapids who have never seen Lake Michigan," she says.
On the role of Twitter in this type of dialogue King is candid: "Certainly the Twitter community is not representative of this area as a whole but it is representative of an audience that is engaged in the community. It is an audience that volunteers, votes, thinks entrepreneurially and are very networked." Like Starner, King hopes these types of online discussions can serve as a catalyst for big ideas that make a difference.
Another contributor, Joe Force, 36, of Grand Rapids, posted: "#grneeds to embrace and enhance our design community. Mfg will move overseas, but GR should work to become a design hub." As vice president of marketing at Global Forex Trading in Grand Rapids Township, Force says there are a number of talented designers in metro Grand Rapids, and he is concerned that this region will be losing this talent. "I went to a Nosh Night at Wealthy Street Theatre recently and I was astounded by the unbelievable design talent living in our own backyard," Force says. Ideally he would like to see Grand Rapids become a regional design hub.
As far as the role of Twitter in these types of discussions, Force says there is a similar thread being discussed on Urban Planet now, "but that group tends to be less casual and it requires more effort to be engaged. With Twitter and hash tags, you can generate more ideas out of more people." Force hopes that leaders in the community see these types of discussions and then take the best ideas to the next level.
Hipp says the idea for a #GRneeds discussion "rattled around in his head" for awhile. "I visited Detroit over the summer and there was cupcake shop in Greektown with a line out the door," he says. "I remember thinking; I wish Grand Rapids had a store like this. I am a huge advocate for improving the quality of life of Grand Rapids, and feel that independent, locally owned businesses play a tremendous role revitalizing neighborhoods."
Of the wide variety of responses that were generated by the post, Hipp said he was surprised the number of transportation issues. "Light rail, high-speed rail, more taxi services, carpool lanes, all generated tons of comments," he says. Like King, Starner and Force, Hipp hopes that individuals in positions of leadership will notice these ideas. "Maybe they will inspire someone to start a business or an organization to address a specific need that was discussed." At the very least, "it certainly was humbling to see how this conversation inspired others and got them excited about this city and the future."
In addition to the wide-ranging discussion, Hipp also has a personal takeaway from the experience. "I posted this idea under my personal Twitter account @racewinner, with my illustration of a tortoise," he says. "For my business, I use @hipphop with my illustration of a rabbit. It opened my eyes that in the future I might not want to hide my identity behind a turtle."
Hipp is still a bit surprised why the topic resonated so much with the Grand Rapids Twitter community. "I think anyone who is engaged with making Grand Rapids a better place probably has a wish list. Maybe I just asked the question at the right time."
John Rumery is an instructor of entrepreneurship at Grand Valley State University, WYCE music programmer, blogger, raconteur and championship barbecuer living in Grand Rapids.
Ryan Hipp lifelong resident of Grand Rapids and a picture book author-illustrator (3)
Roberta King, vice president of PR and marketing for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (3)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved