NEW YORK--"But I'm not famous!" one woman protested as she walked past the bouncer of the massive Chelsea nightclub Marquee on Tuesday night, only to be asked by ubiquitous party photographer Nick McGlynn if she might pose for a photograph on the step-and-repeat--the entertainment-industry term for that red-carpet setup with a backdrop featuring the logos of party sponsors.
"You don't have to be famous!" the ebullient McGlynn, a former Gawker Media video staffer who now runs a photography business called Random Night Out, responded. "Everyone's famous!"
Yes, everyone's famous. This was the Webutante Ball, one of the much-touted highlights of Internet Week New York and one of the events widely expected to be the booziest and glitziest. A prom-themed "celebration of the New York tech scene" taking root at one of the city's most notorious "megaclubs," the Webutante Ball is also one of the parties where half the attendees liked to feign indifference about going in the first place. Being famous on the Internet, wanting to be famous on the Internet, or wanting to be in the company of those who are famous on the Internet isn't necessarily something to be proud of.
It was also a somewhat controversial event in the Internet Week lineup among locals who hoped that the city's annual digital-culture festival would shine a bright light on real Gotham-bred tech innovation, and that something as silly as the Webutante Ball could only detract from that. It fell on the same night, after all, as an installment of the monthly New York Tech Meetup, a longstanding event featuring new business pitches for homegrown tech start-ups; as well as the fifth-anniversary party for Blip.tv, a video company that's managed to stay afloat, thanks to an appeal to indie video and film types, when most of its competitors have been left in the dust by YouTube.
One of the factors that often is brought up in the will-it-ever-end debate over whether New York's tech industry will ever rival Silicon Valley's is that too many of the people who are known in New York for being part of "the Internet" are not actually innovating themselves, but are seizing the technologies developed out west--blog platforms, social networks, mobile video--and using them for, at best, content creation, and more likely just self-promotion. The Webutante Ball, consequently, could only be a distraction or an embarrassment.
Last year, the inaugural Webutante Ball was thrown as a sort of schlocky, tongue-in-cheek affair at the Empire Hotel bar, with hipsters clad in ironic prom outfits swilling champagne and posing for the "photobooth" setup (a necessity at blogger parties here) in tiaras and feather boas. This year, with a "prom committee" of local media luminaries and gadflies (one of whom, Arthur Kade, was described in Webutante Ball promotional materials as "nominee for Gawker's Douchebag of the Decade"), enough sponsors to ensure that the $30 ticket cost would all go to charity, and a PR firm hosting a contest to give away a free limo ride to the event, many people were expecting it'd be, to use the term tossed around most frequently, "a s***show."
Actually, it felt like your average New York nightclub soiree: loud, crowded, but ultimately a positive-spirited and decently fun affair. Considering the "Jersey Shore"-like clientele that typically floods Marquee, the Webutante Ball came across as classy, even. There isn't necessarily a new legitimacy to being a "Webutante"; it was just that the whole thing felt more like a normal party full of relatively average, dressed-up young people. It grew crowded early, and many attendees (myself included) didn't stay long enough for the post-10 p.m. unveiling of the prom-like Webutante King and Queen (most of the nominees were legitimate celebrities not in attendance) and "Fameball Hall of Fame"--an honor for those "famous for being famous," most of whom, like Kade and the notoriously self-promoting tattooed ex-convict Kari Ferrell (really) were present.
The only thing that seemed out-of-the-ordinary, really, was the volume of cameras. There were video cameras on the prowl, and no one was quite sure why; there was, of course, a photobooth; and there were photographers and reporters from all sorts of local publications like Guest of a Guest, the Village Voice, and the Daily Beast poking their noses into the crowd.
But the people in attendance at the Webutante Ball--mostly under 35, mostly New Yorkers--come from a generation where heavy Facebook tagging is expected the morning after a party, where having a personal blog isn't weird at all, and where being "famous on the Internet" is less of an embarrassment if only because there are so many other decently likable people who can claim the same. You might have a hit on YouTube and still be pretty normal. That's reassuring. Most people in the digital space seem to have realized that legitimate, lasting recognition requires real effort and meaningful contributions to the space. A party can be touted as a this-has-got-to-be-obnoxious celebration of Internet fame and ultimately come across as a pretty normal night out.
Well, until a certain point. Some of McGlynn's later photographs from Tuesday night show Kade and Ferrell romping around suggestively on the dance floor in prom king and queen attire. Until that point, the notorious self-promoter and con-artist who's taken to posing nude for hipster blogs had been pretty easy to ignore. Marquee is a big place, after all. So's the Internet. And, thankfully, those gestures of mindless self-importance have become more and more difficult to spot.