The New Social Elite

Social media is changing the way things work in Charlotte
Chris Edwards
From left: @JamekaShamae, @CrystalDempsey, @MinimumFailure, @Cara and @jruckman

Most in the group are wearing jeans. A few rest laptops on wobbly fold-up tables. Twelve of them sit in a dimly lit atrium behind Amelie's French Bakery in NoDa. It's a rainy and cold October night, and wet footprints lead back and forth between the tables and the door to the bakery. They chat over coffee, talking about the weather and the news of the day. They begin to introduce themselves. Real names come first, followed by professions. There's a student, a waiter, a writer. And then, a few reveal their names on the social networking site Twitter. Suddenly, the faces at the tables are much less anonymous. Between the student, the waiter, and the writer they have more than 5,000 people who pay attention each time they decide to share 140 characters with the world.

In the fall of 2008 Charlotte changed. A city that had once prided itself on the shiny wealth of big banks had the breath knocked out of it. But while those hit hard from the recession have been scrambling to recover, a group of people in Charlotte have been starting companies, getting jobs, and bringing people together. This group hasn't taken the usual Charlotte routes to the top — the right country club membership or sitting on the right nonprofit board. But they are moving Charlotte forward in ways that the traditional power players don't even understand. They're doing it through social media. They've leveled the playing field by using new technology to give themselves voices. And thousands of people want to hear what they're saying.

“The people I found on Twitter when I returned were the new Charlotte. They were media savvy and artsy and social, but also kind of nerds,” says Jeff Elder

Social media came slowly to Charlotte. Sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, on which people who know each other in real life connect and communicate on the Internet, came first. Twitter, designed to allow communication between people who might not necessarily interact offline, followed. Twitter began to be noticed nationally in March 2007 at the South by Southwest Technology Conference in Austin, Texas. The site offers users the chance to share information, provide links to other sites, and display photos. The only limitation is that each message is limited to 140 characters. On Twitter, users can "follow" each other, meaning that they can see what other users have typed — or "tweeted" in Twitter terms—in their own Twitter feed. In other words, if you want people to read what you're writing, you need to gain followers, and if you're there to read what other people are writing, you need to follow them.

"The great thing about Twitter is that it's a river of information," says Jameka Whitten, the owner of local boutique public relations firm JSW Media Group. "You can jump in and jump out when you want." She points out that most of her news comes from Twitter now—it's the next thing she checks online after her e-mail. On Twitter, news from CNN can come right after a tweet from a friend about her plans for the night and right before a tweet from a celebrity about his latest charity. It's a rush of information that overwhelms many participants.

While Twitter's popularity grew nationally in 2007 and a few people hopped on in Charlotte, it wasn't until early 2008 when local voices really began speaking up. Almost as soon as people in Charlotte began to communicate on Twitter, they wanted to speak off of it. Charlotte Twitter users began to plan meetings, which they called tweet-ups and twestivals, and they quickly became popular as word of them spread via Twitter itself. A community began to form. These were people who didn't just see each other's avatars or read their brief thoughts. They weren't only using the site to publicize their businesses or talk about their days. These people had ideas, and they wanted to share them. They met in person and had real conversations.

In July 2008, Wired magazine's cover story was on a New York blogger named Julia Allison. The story was titled "Internet Famous: Julia Allison and the Secrets of Self-Promotion" and it was one of the magazine's best-selling issues ever. The concept of being Internet famous—that is, being famous among a certain group online strictly for promoting yourself via the Internet—has continued to grow in popularity in the last several years. Allison may have been at the forefront of the idea, but she has been quickly followed by other bloggers and users of social media. There are now various articles instructing wannabe Internet celebrities and even a class at Parsons design school in New York on how to become Internet famous.

In Charlotte, Internet fame is localized, but it's happening. Some local voices have become more prevalent than others and branded themselves in ways that have drawn attention and given them power. They have gone to the events—and even organized them in many cases. These people are similar to reality television stars, where it is simply the day-to-day happenings in their lives that are drawing attention, but their popularity continues to grow.

While there are thousands of people in Charlotte using Twitter for social reasons, it's the professional side of it that seems to have hooked some of the city's most frequent users. Many of the original voices locally were people searching for jobs. Cara Couture is a banker from south Charlotte and says she uses Twitter for social reasons, but even as a social user she has aided others on Twitter looking for work. "When it comes to job searching, people are using whatever they can right now," says Couture.

But, while Twitter has been helpful for finding jobs and clients, it has done more than that. The group in Charlotte has worked to know each other both on- and offline. They have met each other in person and gained access to city leaders through their connections. It has opened doors for new business and change here in a way that wouldn't happen in larger cities. And it has given access to power to people who wouldn't have had it before — people like a local college kid.

“You can reinvent yourself,” says Matthew Vincent. “I didn’t have access to anyone important before I started using Twitter.”

On the rainy October night at Amelie's, Justin Ruckman is leading the group. Ruckman is a twenty-five-year-old college student at UNC-Charlotte. When he's not in class, the Belmont native is working on building Web sites and maintaining CLT Blog, the city blog he co-founded in 2008. It covers all aspects of Charlotte including sporting events, concerts, city planning meetings, local elections, and cultural ideas. It has drawn a large following — with much of it coming from Twitter. Ruckman, who opened his Twitter account in November 2007, organizes monthly Future of Journalism meetings with Crystal Dempsey, a former Charlotte Observer editor. Dempsey now owns From the Hip Communications, a company specializing in communications for small businesses and nonprofits, and works as a manager at Amelie's. For the October meeting Ruckman recruited Jeff Elder, then the Observer social media columnist, to talk about his experiences in the field.

Ruckman, Dempsey, and Elder are three of Twitter's biggest names in Charlotte. They are local celebrities among the social media crowd. People follow their every move, take their advice, and then repeat what they've tweeted. Each of them has taken Twitter far beyond a computer screen.

Jeff Elder joined Twitter in the spring of 2008. A few months later he moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where he spent a year on a fellowship learning about social media sites. "When I left, the power base was still old money—it was the people at the top of the banks," says Elder. "The people I found on Twitter when I returned were the new Charlotte. They were media savvy and artsy and social, but also kind of nerds."

One of those people was Dempsey. With more than 2,000 followers, Dempsey is a point of reference for much of Twitter in Charlotte. Elder and Dempsey had known each other for years before Twitter when they both worked for the Observer. While working there last year, Dempsey began to tweet. She tweeted about jobs and friends and life and Charlotte. And slowly she gained a large following. "Crystal is the queen of Charlotte Twitter, and we all adhere to what she says," jokes Whitten. "She's a good queen though and she rules fairly. She just does a great job at using social media to engage people."

Ruckman and Dempsey saw the opportunities for networking that the Twitter meetings were creating and began organizing more. Ruckman publicized gatherings on his blog and Dempsey, who had begun working at Amelie's, started using the bakery as a central meeting place. Slowly a community formed.

Amelie's French Bakery itself may be the best example of what social media can do for a local business. Maybe it's because Dempsey works there. Or maybe it's because it offers free Wi-Fi twenty-four hours a day. Or maybe it's the eclectic and artsy atmosphere where hipsters in skinny jeans can lounge on couches, sip coffee, and talk about the newest iPhone apps. Or it could just be the decadent salted caramel brownies. Whatever the case, the cozy NoDa bakery has become the epicenter of all things social media in Charlotte.

From the outside, Amelie's looks normal—boring even. It's in a strip mall on the corner of North Davidson Street and Matheson Avenue. It's not even in the more popular part of NoDa, where people can walk from store to store. Walk inside though and you'll get it. The sprawling bakery smells like pastries and coffee. There are couches and tables spread through the three main rooms and people gather around them, most with laptops and coffee, chatting with friends and scrolling through their phones. The bakery is buzzing at seemingly any time of day; get on Twitter and you'll see why. People around Charlotte constantly send out tweets talking about the bakery—its events, its food, its appeal. And so more people keep going.

The atrium behind Amelie's can fit large numbers of people, and over the last year it has done just that. Whether it's an impromptu tweet-up or a planned meeting, those involved in the local social media scene seem to end up congregating more often than not at Amelie's. It has become their boardroom, where events are planned, the future of media in Charlotte is discussed, and valuable networking occurs.

On a sunny Monday afternoon CLT Jelly is meeting there. CLT Jelly is a local group of people who work from their homes. Once a week, they choose a place where they can quietly work together. As they work, they also record a segment interviewing special guests about various topics surrounding social media. The segment is then available for download for free.

Summer Plum is a member of the group. She's a twenty-eight-year-old massage therapist who has lived in Charlotte for three years. She owns her own business and takes these Mondays as a day to take care of the business side of the job. "There's not a lot of talking with massage clients," says Plum, who comes to the group for camaraderie. "No one wants to talk about me."

Plum does a lot of talking about herself on Twitter. She has business and personal accounts. She talks about her business (in addition to massages, she also blends tea) and she talks about her life. More than 600 people follow her on each account. "I wanted to participate in some of the conversations that weren't applicable for my business," says Plum, who frequents social-media-related events and has met many of the local people who use Twitter both socially and for business. "There's a running joke that there are twelve people who make things happen in Charlotte social media. They're pretty easy to pick out once you go to a few social media events."

Go to a few of those events and chances are you'll see Matthew Vincent. While the twenty-six-year-old probably isn't one of those twelve people, he has spent his time on Twitter reaching out to local notables and trying to change the way media works in Charlotte. He readily admits that part of the draw of Twitter is the ability to be mysterious about oneself online. "You can reinvent yourself," says Vincent. "I didn't have access to anyone important before I started using Twitter."

Vincent, who moved to Charlotte from Asheville last year after dropping out of college, spends his days at a Hawthorne's restaurant, taking orders, filling drinks, and dishing out pizza slices. Then he goes home and communicates with editors at the Charlotte Observer and city council members. After living in Charlotte for almost a year, Vincent launched his blog, Minimum Failure. It covers a variety of topics, but it's primarily focused on local media, including other local blogs.

He is the epitome of what Twitter can do and has done in Charlotte. His story takes the historically typical story of someone's rise to power and turns it on its head. He's only been here a short time, he's not wealthy, he doesn't have a powerful professional position, and he started with no connections. But people are listening to him—or at least he's talking to them. In his effort to be engaged in the city, Vincent is going to meetings and frequently communicating with the people who he thinks can change the way media and communication work in Charlotte. CLT Jelly has interviewed him, he's tweeting to members of City Council and to writers at the Observer. This is why social media matters. It allows direct communication between people for whom that might not have been possible before.

It's 7:30 on a bright Thursday morning, and the private dining area at Dilworth Neighborhood Grill is brimming with people wearing everything from suits and ties to jeans and untucked T-shirts. Brandon Uttley is speaking at the monthly Social Media Breakfast hosted by Social Media Club Charlotte and led by Jason Keath.

Keath, who runs Social Fresh, a social media event planning and training company, has more than 30,000 people following him on Twitter. He hosts social media conferences around the country in cities such as Portland and Tampa, and is even hosting a social media cruise to Mexico. The Social Fresh conference in Charlotte in August drew more than 230 people who each paid $315 for the chance to listen to a day of speakers about social media. Uttley is the social media strategist at Wray Ward, a marketing, communications, and advertising agency in Charlotte, and has more than 4,000 people following him.

In Charlotte the idea of being a social media guru has really taken off. Local entrepreneurs saw ways to make money from their knowledge of social media. Lisa Hoffman is a social media specialist for Duke Energy. She has more than 6,000 followers on Twitter. Chris Harrington calls himself a "social media strategist" and has more than 120,000 followers. Corey Creed describes himself as an "Internet marketing strategist, search engine consultant, trainer, and blogger." He has more than 2,000 followers. Now, thanks to Twitter and other social media sites, many people call some form of social media consulting their profession. These are all Charlotte jobs that didn't even exist two years ago. There's a chance they may not exist in another two, but people are following the social media gold rush, and in a city with an unemployment rate higher than the national average, that's progress. "Using Twitter as a business tool seems really natural for Charlotte," says Justin Ruckman, who tweets occasionally about social media. "That the Twitter population here is business oriented is representative of Charlotte."

When Uttley stands up to speak at the breakfast he gives a presentation about how social media is taking the place of press releases. This is a crowd where his jokes like, "It's Google's world—we all play in it," go over remarkably well. Here, it's cool to talk technology, and your Twitter follower number could be used as a social ranking device. This group is interested in Twitter as a tool for business, and they love to talk about its future business implications. They are using social media to talk about the future of social media.

There are many familiar Twitter faces in the crowd, mingling over coffee and talking about BarCamp, a technology and social media conference that happened the weekend before. It's hard to go very long in Charlotte without some sort of social media event happening, and it's evident that many of the people here know each other through these kinds of events.
Elder is in the crowd that morning. Uttley repeatedly references Elder during his talk, and when the floor opens for questions, Elder asks first. He may be one of the few in Charlotte with actual professional training in social media. Last year Elder, who worked as The Insider columnist and a copy editor for the Observer, received a John S. Knight Fellowship for professional journalists. The program allows journalists to study at Stanford for one year in an area of their choice. He chose social media. A year later he has spoken with executives at Facebook and Twitter, toured various headquarters of social-media companies, and studied the concepts behind them.

Now Elder himself is cashing in on the popularity of social media. The longtime Observer employee is moving on to "pursue social media entrepreneurship," according to his Twitter feed. Which, considering the crumbling state of newspapers when compared to the drive behind social media these days, is no surprise. "Going to Facebook [headquarters], I was struck by how different it is than newspapers," Elder said, not long after returning to Charlotte. "It's bursting with young people who are charged up about it."

Of course, while many social media evangelists speak about sites like Twitter as if they are some form of utopia, that's just not the case. A few days after the social media breakfast, Cara Couture is sipping her drink at Dilworth Coffee, wearing a comfortable-looking black T-shirt that reads "Live. Love. Laugh. (Then go tweet about it.)" on the front and "Follow me @cara" on the back. She says that she wore the shirt to BarCamp and was asked why she hadn't brought any to sell — there's no doubt it would have been a hit there. Couture was on Twitter earlier than many Charlotte tweeters. "When I first started, I was interacting with people all over the place," says Couture. "While that's still true, I'm finding more and more of the locals."

Ruckman had a similar experience. "At first Twitter was all about the people I knew online," says Ruckman. "Now it's more people locally—actually now it's mostly local people I communicate with."

Twitter becoming a more local communication tool may be one of the reasons behind some of what Crystal Dempsey calls "the drama" on it. After all, the site isn't only for business. "Sometimes I imagine what it would be like if all of the direct messages on Twitter were public just for half an hour," she says, referring to private messages between two users. They're basically e-mails, but in 140 characters. "There are a lot of things happening on there that you can get hints of but don't see."

Plum actually knows exactly what it would be like if her direct messages were public. "I had an ex-boyfriend who broke into my account and then tweeted out my direct messages," says Plum. "It was really, really bad. He took private communication and made it bad. I was fortunate that most people knew who I was."

But Plum insists that for the most part Twitter remains a neutral ground. "We don't talk shit about each other. It's public and there's no need to make personal drama public," she says. "Of course there are misunderstandings. You only get 140 characters. But there's a lot of respect."

One hundred and forty characters does feel short when you're writing it. It's not one hundred and forty words. Every comma, dash, and space makes a difference. The brevity of Twitter is part of its appeal and what makes it unique, but it does lead to some difficulty with expression. Sarcasm is difficult to detect and occasionally there is visible tension between those on the site.

"People feel safe behind their keyboards and they may say stuff online that they wouldn't say to your face," says Couture. "Everyone was playing nice, but now people are comfortable and cliques are developing. It's a part of life, so it will be a part of Twitter."

One of those cliques that everyone likes to mention is the Ben Marvin crowd. Marvin, a local Twitter user whose tweets tend to come in droves late at night and are often profane, occasionally attends local Twitter-related events. On the site he's often amusing, and he has more than 2,000 followers to prove it. "There's the Ben Marvin group and then there's the rest of us," says Summer Plum. "It's vaguely high school-ish, but I think it's partially just for entertainment value."

It's a warm afternoon and Crystal Dempsey is sitting at one of the outside tables at Kabob Grill, sharing a plate of the house-made hummus. "It's all so new that we're still figuring it out," says Dempsey, spreading the creamy dip on a slice of pita bread. Of course, Dempsey seemed to figure it out quickly. So how does one brand oneself to be a social media leader as she has? "That's the great thing about Twitter—you have control of information and of your image," says Dempsey.

"You can't be a douche bag and think people won't realize it," says Ruckman. "I used to be more worried about my own account being too personal or too obscene, but that comes with the territory. It's pointless to try to put on a facade. You get the chance to craft who you want to be perceived as."

Personal branding is an important part of Twitter—especially when you're in a city like Charlotte, where Twitter has become such a major form of networking. Establishing yourself as a brand is part of leveling the playing field. It gives regular people a power they didn't have in the past. This is just one more way those using social media differ from those with traditionally powerful roles in Charlotte. Bankers and lawyers tend to want to blend in with the crowd—social media users want to stand out from it.

Whether someone is using social media to promote his business or promote himself, making his personality stand out is difficult. "I try to walk the line of being authentic, but also thinking of how I'm being portrayed," says Whitten. "You can't help it." How they portray themselves is important though because regardless of how they're using Twitter, these people have put themselves in the public eye.
Of course, as many of these local Internet celebrities are well aware, being Internet famous doesn't necessarily mean making money. It does, however, offer certain opportunities. It is difficult to quantify the impact of social media on the city, but there is a palpable momentum associated with it. Locally, those with Internet fame have aided local charities by holding events that people pay to attend. They've helped each other get jobs and clients. They've promoted everything from local restaurants to politicians. And they're only getting stronger. Twitter's numbers are increasing and locally the steam behind the social media events doesn't seem to be slowing. If anything, it's only increasing. Like any new technology Twitter will eventually replaced by something newer and shinier, but these people aren't going away. They'll find another way to use social media. "One hundred and forty characters isn't the future of communication," says Ruckman. "It's just what we can agree on using right now."

And right now it's working. There's no doubt that the way things are done in Charlotte changed forever after the recession hit last fall. From local media-driven attempts to career fairs to frequent professional networking events, various sectors have tried to find ways to help Charlotte back on its feet. But traditional methods have not been working in the ways they might have in the past. Social media is working.

The access it has given to people who aren't the traditional power players has served to inspire regular people in many cases to change the city. A sense of pride in Charlotte has developed among this growing community so that what was once virtual has now become very real. "I wanted to really take ownership of my city," says Matthew Vincent, the Hawthorne's waiter who is determined to change Charlotte media. "If I'm going to live here, I'm going to be fully engaged."

Sarah Crosland is associate editor of this magazine. Email: sarah.crosland@charlottemagazine.com