NEW YORK--"They've created quite an industry around this whole thing," one woman in a black cocktail dress and diamond earrings commented as the lights dimmed for the start of the 13th annual Webby Awards on Monday night.
The annual awards ceremony for all things in digital media, held once again at the upscale Cipriani Wall Street restaurant, had packed the gilded space--once home to the New York Stock Exchange--with a mixed bag of folks from marketing, advertising, entrepreneurship, social media, online content, and what-have-you. (A common observation at the cocktail hour beforehand: "I don't know many people here.") It was the final event of Internet Week New York, which is co-organized by the Webby's parent, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. And it was, arguably, the most lavish.
A cheeky take on traditional entertainment awards shows, the Webbys limit acceptance speeches to five words. The opening video montage, projected on several massive video screens throughout the venue, featured goofy Internet memes like "Keyboard Cat." Red carpet interviews featured a handful of "real" celebrities (like "Saturday Night Live" actor and writer Seth Meyers, who hosted the show) along with Internet-minted stars like "Fail Blog" and "I Can Has Cheezburger" blog impresario Ben Huh, who showed up to the ceremony wearing his trademark cheeseburger hat. (Does he ever wash it? "Every once in a while," Huh told me.)
But this year, following complaints that the ceremony was simply too long, as well as to deal with the fact that the smaller Webby Film & Video awards were rolled up into the main Webbys ceremony this year, the organizers pared it down. All speeches were recorded for video to post on YouTube (a Webbys sponsor) and a select number of winners who would give their speeches live at the ceremony were chosen via random selection. More glaringly, the gulf between traditional and digital media grows slimmer with every year--as exemplified by the increasing number of "real" celebrities who are enlisted as Webby presenters and honorees, like this year's surprise guests Martha Stewart and Cameron Diaz. The Internet has come into its own as a part of life rather than a novelty. The question arises: Do we still need the Webbys?
The see-and-be-seen scene
The thing about the Webby Awards ceremony is that it isn't really an awards ceremony: it's a networking event, albeit one with ball gowns, a Seth Meyers standup routine, and Cipriani's trademark bellinis. Winners know well in advance that they've won. There's something a bit self-congratulatory about the whole thing, as the Webby Awards are bankrolled in part by entry fees that companies must submit just to be nominated, and winners have to pay for seats at the awards show. The real point, as with so many tech industry events, is to be seen, and the best way to do that at the Webbys is the five-word acceptance speech.
Get up there and do something ridiculous--as an Animoto executive did when he walked to the podium to accept his award, stripped off his suit to reveal a pair of zebra-print leggings, donned a wig inspired by the styles of '80s hair metal, and shouted, "Wooooo, thank you, New York!"--and you might get noticed by somebody who eventually approaches you at the ceremony's afterparty. Maybe it's a potential client or investor. Or just somebody who's hearing about your company for the first time and will go check it out.
But that changed this year, with the organizers' decision to emphasize the more star-studded awards, bestowed upon Web-savvy celebs like comedian Sarah Silverman and industrial music icon Trent Reznor, as well as Web influentials like Twitter co-founder Biz Stone (accepting the award for "Breakout of the Year") and World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who was given a "lifetime achievement" award. Small-time winners were no longer front and center.
While some Webbys-goers welcomed the new format and how it did away with the lengthy parade of accolades that seemed to just grow longer every year, a few were grumbling that they'd reconsider whether to come back next year if they couldn't be guaranteed those five words at the podium. Listening to Seth Meyers wax philosophical about the Web ("Without the Internet, prostitutes would have to find a Craig without a list") and knowing that their taped acceptance speeches would be on YouTube the next day wasn't enough for at least a handful of winners in the crowd.
This odd dichotomy between community and celebrity might sound familiar.
"So, it's like Twitter," Klickable founder Roger Wu quipped at the noisy Webbys afterparty, held further uptown at the Hiro Ballroom nightclub. On the dance floor below, Webbys-goers were dancing up a storm (a rarity in the tech industry) to a performance by ?uestlove, a member of Jimmy Fallon's house band The Roots. It didn't look like a particularly nerdy affair.
Wu had a point. Once a geek craze, Twitter has turned into the latest vehicle for celebrity self-promotion. Ashton Kutcher's hordes of Twitter followers were what catapulted the microblogging service into the mainstream, but some have said that the community-building work accomplished by Twitter's core pack of early adopters was ignored amid the Hollywood glitz.
And the same could be said about the Webbys. A decade ago, actress Cameron Diaz likely would've snubbed the chance to show up at an Internet awards ceremony, and yet on Monday night she was up there bestowing the "Person of the Year" award to Twitter-happy late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon. The Internet isn't a niche corner of entertainment anymore; it is entertainment--but that's overwhelmingly thanks to the innovators and entrepreneurs behind the scenes, not just the actors and TV hosts who've jumped on board the hottest digital trend. Still, it's going to be the likes of Fallon and Diaz who pull in the headlines.
Digital media's triumph is cause for celebration from all sides. And the Webbys team puts on a well-run, enjoyable show every year. But the increasing presence of celebrity is a sign that maybe this is an industry that's outgrown the need for a quirky awards ceremony. Or maybe it isn't. I'm sure there are plenty of people who'd be happy to debate the point on Twitter.
A correction was made to this article: The acceptance speech involving a strip-down was from Animoto, not Ustream.