12,000 and counting like 'Newport Beach'

"I Love Newport Beach" was intended as an experiment.

The Facebook page so named, which was unveiled in September 2011, was meant to be Newport Beach resident Tony Shaw's social media training.

"I wanted to practice on something that nobody would see so I wouldn't embarrass myself in front of people I know," remarked the owner of Seaside Realty and Financial Services, who ultimately wanted to increase his business' online presence.

But his plan for a dry run went awry with the site's unexpected popularity.

Starting out, Shaw enlisted the help of three friends, who took photographs of the area and gave him permission to post their work online. He began with one or two pictures a day. Quickly realizing that more images translated not only to heavier traffic but a burgeoning fan base, he began posting more snapshots — having fun the whole while.

Someone would give the page a virtual thumbs up, and he would reach out to offer thanks. And so it continued.

At last count, "I Love Newport Beach" had 12,044 "likes" — akin to a badge of honor on Facebook.

"I remember when I had 600 fans on there and thought I was doing good," the 60-year-old said.

Shaw, who is constantly on the lookout for images of his hometown, currently works with a list of about 200 artists. It's a symbiotic relationship, he believes, because the contributors are given credit and they gain attention.

The artwork posted on Facebook matches the scene in Newport Beach right down to the weather and time of day. If the sky is overcast, Shaw posts cloudy vistas, and if it's bright outside, the images show sunlight glinting off vehicles, structures, the pier and the Pacific Ocean.

The jovial Shaw, who has called the area home for 45 years, hastened to clarify that the page's popularity did not skyrocket. Sure, there were days when it got 300 followers in a matter of hours, but for the most part, it's been a gradual growth.

"I told my wife, 'Hey, honey, I guess I have a hobby,'" Shaw said, laughing.

Andrew Scott Tull, a 26-year-old Huntington Beach native, met Shaw at the peninsula while photographing surfers — his favorite theme along with landscapes and oceans. He liked "I Love Newport Beach" as soon as heard about it and is not surprised by the response it's received.

"I would say it's added exposure," Tull said about the advantage of such a page, adding that, like other photographers, he posts images on his personal Facebook account and allows Shaw to take his pick.

"It allows people to see the beauty of Newport Beach from anywhere in the world."

Tom Szulga, 48, whose children studied at Newport Heights Elementary School in the mid-1990s along with Shaw's, agreed.

"The 'I Love Newport Beach' page is a great addition to the local area," he remarked. "It does an excellent job of marketing Newport Beach ... through the eyes of the people that live here with their personal photos that are on the site."

According to Szulga, Shaw is a family man who always serves the meatballs at his company's Boat Parade party and shies away from advertising his key role with "I Love Newport Beach."

"Currently, his site has over 12,000 followers from around the world with 'zero' for an advertising budget, while the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce has under 1,200 followers on Facebook," said Szulga, whose favorite aspects of his hometown include the fresh air and Balboa Bars. "Just imagine what his number of followers would be if he had a budget for this site from the city."

Shaw's second love is Newport Beach trivia. Part of the city's allure, he believes, is the number of famous (and certainly infamous) people who've put down roots there: Shirley Temple, John Wayne, Mamie Van Doren, Buddy Ebsen and Dick Dale, to name a few. Accordingly, he posts celebrities' pictures on Facebook to commemorate their birthdays while also offering tidbits about events that shaped the area, such as the burning down of the Rendezvous Ballroom and Mariner's Mile.

"When I moved here and got my license, I remember getting stuck behind tourists who were pointing at things and talking about them," he recounted. "I thought to myself, 'What's wrong with these people? Why are they driving so slow?' And then it struck me that this place is amazing. They get it for a few minutes, and I get it all year-round."

Making — and sticking to — the decision to view his surroundings as if through a newcomer's eyes, Shaw remains enamored of the diverse beauty in Newport Beach. The city has everything, he said, from sandy to rocky coasts, flat and hilly areas and the bay. Unlike residents who don't want their hometown to resemble a resort or tourist area, he belongs to the camp that is thrilled to share it with people.

So, did Shaw ever launch a Facebook page for his business? Yes, he did, but it's not doing as well. Seaside Realty and Financial Services is still at 47 likes.

When asked about the goal of "I Love Newport Beach," he replied: "I don't have one — I never really had one. It wasn't for me. It was for fun. It just went in a direction that I hadn't planned."

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